The ubiquitous five-gallon bucket, an essential piece of equipment. The ubiquitous five-gallon bucket, an essential piece of equipment at work and at home.

The 5-gallon bucket: cornerstone of growth

There's no end to the uses of an invention that transformed the culture

Most of the modern civilizations across the globe have technology and industry as a cornerstone of their economic prosperity and growth.

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Railroads, communications networks, natural resources and transportation infrastructure are some of the more obvious factors which bring nations to the forefront of world standing and allow their citizens a higher quality of life.

But the growth of modern Mexico has been augmented by an item so ubiquitous it is found in every household and business through the country. This object was not even invented until the 1960s, but it instantly became a component so critical that it transformed the culture. I am referring, of course, to the omnipresent five-gallon plastic bucket.

These sturdy pails first appeared containing paint or restaurant-grade foodstuffs, and were quickly repurposed into essential construction equipment. All Mexican construction projects from the 60s to the present require a dozen or more of these buckets, called cubetas.

They can be filled with sand, cement, rubble, concrete or water, and hoisted on to a shoulder to be carried across ground not suitable for wheelbarrows. And given the overall disarray of any Mexican construction project, it might be no surprise that buckets universally supplanted wheelbarrows for many operations.

Small building projects will most often have an anchored beam with a rope and pulley at the tip, protruding from a second or third-story roof. The bucket is utilized for lifting new materials up while lowering rubble and trash down.

Even where high-rises are being built with cranes, five-gallon buckets are still deployed throughout the project. All of this makes it quite clear to me that these indispensable pails have, quite literally, built modern Mexico.

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However, these mute denizens of modern construction are not limited to commercial usage. They are utilized by the entire populace for a multitude of purposes. When it comes to ingenuity in the use of cubetas nobody surpasses the enterprising Mexican.

I often see people shore-fishing with hand lines, and a bucket stands ready for the day’s catch. Tradespeople headed to or from work sit astride their rusty bicycles with a bucket of tools lashed to the cycle. After they arrive, the tools are removed and the bucket is then used for transporting materials or escombro (rubble). On the way home, the beans and tortillas which are purchased have a convenient travel vessel.

One time a friend showed me a bucket with a walk-the-plank type mousetrap which he told me was exceptionally effective. The rural buses, commonly known as chicken buses, often have a nested stack of buckets available for extra seating when all the conventional seats are taken.

Around the house, using an inverted bucket for a makeshift stepstool has the added benefit of improving your sense of balance. Porches and yards across Mexico are strewn with bucket-style planters bristling with everything from roses to chiles.

I have even seen buckets wrapped with cloth or contact paper. These create an impressive poor man’s Talavera planter.

Several years ago, while spending the day in a small village, I watched an old ranchero ride his burro up to one of the local beer depósitos with a five-gallon bucket hanging off the pommel of his saddle. He removed a dozen empty bottles from the bucket and received a dozen new ones, and then added some ice to create a Mexican beer cooler.

The practical uses of the five-gallon bucket are endless and in Mexic, it is as indispensable as cerveza and sandals.

So if you want to bring out your inner Mexican do an internet search for the many uses of this iconic implement and add some bucket projects to your bucket list before you kick the bucket — or completely bucket it up.

Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at [email protected].

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  • Güerito

    They’re most often used to block a cochera – “se ponchan llantas gratis” etc. I have one full of bricks for just that purpose.

    And most larger buses will have one filled with water to clean things up if needed.

  • cooncats

    Absolutely right. We can’t function in this house without them.

    I haven’t kicked the bucket yet but I have fallen off of one on my butt several times. They aren’t the best step stools but since they are everywhere they are the most convenient and available ones.

    That last paragraph is priceless! Thanks Bodie for another great effort.

  • Jose Yates

    I have had the same bucket for over 20 years that I use for fishing. All my gear fits in it, cast net, rod holder, tackle box, towel, sun bock all fits in with room left for my coffee thermos. I never thought about it until reading this story. My fish bucket outlast two wives and moved to 5 different houses. I love my five gallon bucket.

  • Clever story idea. These things are so common you don’t even think about them. They’re just there, part of life. I have three.

  • Suzanne Giovannoni

    Heck. I live in the U.S 1/2 the year and have 5 in my garden shed. However, I don’t have one in my Mexican home the rest of the year.

  • daniel pugh

    Have also seen them used to extend a ladders height. A use not for the faint of heart.

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