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MATÉ FOR LIFE

An incredibly passionate, deeply researched case for why the world needs a yerba mate emoji

Thu-Huong Ha
By Thu-Huong Ha

Reporter

By the end of next year, you’re likely to have at least one more drink in your emoji keyboard.

Mate, also called mate tea or yerba mate, and often spelled maté in English, is a caffeinated drink made from infusing the shrub yerba mate. Mate is consumed in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Brazil, as well as Syria and Lebanon, and last year the world imported 67,905 tons of mate leaves, with Argentina the largest exporter.

In May, the drink was accepted as a draft emoji candidate by the group that approves new emoji, a subcommittee of the unicode consortium. It’s a shoe-in for final approval in September.

It’s no small feat to get an emoji added to the 2,823 emojis in the unicode standard set (as of June). The subcommittee keeps a list of nearly 1,000 emoji requests it’s received, and last year 157 were added. So what made the mate campaign successful?

A team of Argentinian and other South American mate enthusiasts—journalists, designers, and “internet enthusiasts”—are behind the campaign. They sent a 40-page proposal (PDF) that broke down the world’s mate drinkers and showed some of the drink’s famous fans: Pope Francis, Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Che, as well as Barack Obama and a character on the US TV show Parks and Recreation.

The team had to show that the emoji was not, among other things, overly specific, and could not already be represented by other visually similar emoji, like another beverage. And they proposed a design:

Martín Zalucki and Emiliano Panelli Terranova

The proposal makes a case for the linguistic potential of the emoji by describing the drink’s cultural significance. Wrote the authors:

Mate is having a deep talk with a friend. Mate is talking about the future with parents. Mate is people from different backgrounds sitting down to share. Mate unites, even during times of great segregation. Mate is a bridge. A bridge between ages, and socioeconomic classes, and beliefs, and stories. No beverage means as much.

“Mate, everybody drinks, with no problem of religion,” says Florencia Coelho, new media research manager of Argentina’s La Nacion, who’s on the proposal team. “No problem if you’re on a diet, no problem if you’re vegetarian.”

Indeed, the world is catching on to mate. Its market continues to grow globally, and it has been touted as a superfood and marketed as a healthy energy drink by companies such as Guayaki.

Mate isn’t just a drink in a gourd-shaped container, the proposal argues; it’s an activity, a mood, a state of mind. “Mate is often a synonym of hanging out with friends, chilling out, going to a park with the intention of drinking the beverage, or even sharing among co-workers while at work,” the proposal says, then goes on to give examples of how the term is used: “Tomá mate” can mean, “Relax!” And, the writers explain, it also can suggest distraction. “For example, if a soccer goalkeeper fails to catch an easy goal, a popular saying would be: ‘He was drinking MATE.'”

There have been previous mate-related proposals before, says Jennifer 8. Lee, vice-chair of the emoji subcommittee and co-founder of Emojination, a grassroots organization that works toward inclusion in emoji approval. This one was the strongest, she said. “The process basically rewards passion and confidence.”

The mate emoji still needs a final round of approval, which will happen in September, but it’s extremely likely to pass. Lee says, “There is a 99.5% chance it will make it onto your phones by end of 2019.”

Other current candidates: falafel, garlic, and the yo-yo.