[Editor’s note: Today I am excited to share a guest post with you, written by Francisco Aguirre, Wristband #96. Francisco was inspired by the previous guest post written by Sonia Thompson. The story he shares below shines a light on an area of the world, and the people who inhabit it, that too often get overlooked. My thanks to Francisco for contributing this post. It is well worth your time to read.]
I was born in Mexico City, and since my early days I felt attracted to travel abroad. But one of the moments that gave true meaning to my life came when I visited indigenous coffee-growing communities in Veracruz, one of the 12 coffee-producing states in Mexico.
In this post, I would like to share this story of personal growth, pride, and humility.
Caminando hasta San Jorge
When I first visited a real coffee field, I arrived to Cordova, a medium-sized city in Veracruz, and still had to take another bus to a far away little town where Ricardo, an indigenous coffee producer, would be waiting for me.
Then we walked — bags in hand — for about three hours, crossing the coffee fields.
It was August, and warm and humid weather was “welcoming” me, or so I thought until I started sweating profusely.
I was very lucky that along with coffee, we were crossing fields filled with bananas and oranges as well, so it was delicious to stop every now and then and pick some fresh fruit as we continued the trip to our final destination, a little village called San Jorge.
During the walk I couldn’t stop for very long, as mosquitos also came to “welcome” me, and it looked like if they were really hungry!
With time I learned that high quality coffee grows in highlands 1,200 meters above sea level and higher. But I was in a place where arabica coffee (Coffea arabica), bananas, and oranges were living together, and that meant this was a low altitude region, thus the coffee there had low acidity — a very important characteristic that directly impacts its price.
It was not just the geography that was difficult.
Indigenous coffee producers have very little chance to sell their coffee to people other than local middle men, thus having almost no chance to escape low prices for their grains, year after year.
And so it was that I arrived to this village, seeing everything, smelling the wood burning in the kitchens, taking frequent showers in the river, and trying to avoid all sort of blood-sucking insects with very little success.
Little Nieves’ birthday
After a few days I asked the people in the community which family was in the most need, because an important part of my baggage were clothes I had collected in Mexico City, with the intention of donating here.
I had the opportunity to meet Estela and her five daughters thanks to Ricardo, who kindly agreed to guide me to their house in the nearby mountains.
After a really long walk with more sweat, mosquitos, bananas, and oranges, we arrived at a small house made out of wood pieces that allowed the air to pass freely almost everywhere.
Before even saying hello, we encountered a little girl, sad and crying alone in front of the house, carefully holding her left arm. When we approached, I could see why.
The little girl had fallen somewhere in the rocks and injured her arm very badly. It was terribly swollen, and she could barely move.
At first I was shocked when I saw Nieves in this painful situation, but I also remembered I was carrying some aspirin pills just in case, and I took one to give her.
I was nervous thinking the pill was too big for her to swallow it just like an adult, so I broke it into little pieces and asked Roberto to translate for her and her mother in Nahuatl, their native language, that this pill may not taste okay, but it could help her with the pain.
Maybe the pill didn’t taste that bad, or maybe at that point it didn’t matter, but Nieves took it without hesitation and waited, hoping for the pain to go away.
Using basic first aid techniques, some wood pieces and clothes, I managed to immobilize her arm and gave her a cookie, trying to help in every way I could.
Luckily the pill had its intended effect quickly. She started to feel better, smile, and walk step by step, still careful not to move her arm.
Then the mother asked us to stay, because that very day was little Nieves’ birthday — the “Virgen de las Nieves” day — and they had chicken for dinner, a true luxury.
Even though I was hungry, I wanted to say no to such kindness, so that they, not me, could eat the chicken. But in Mexico, as in other counties, when someone invites you to eat, it is very important to accept it, because otherwise the host will feel rejected.
Then I received hand-made tortillas, a plate filled with chicken broth, and one tiny chicken leg floating in the middle of it. That was the special dish for the day.
After eating we said goodbye and little Nieves approached and said “Gracias” with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. That was a special moment for me because she didn’t speak Spanish beyond basic words, so that “Thank you” was incredibly meaningful and gave me a clear experience of what humility tastes like in the coffee fields.
Night stories with Mrs. Claudia and Mr. Gerardo
At night I stayed in Mrs. Claudia’s house, because she had an empty bed I could use. The bed was empty because her oldest son was an immigrant who had left the house several months ago.
It was a very special feeling to be at night in a house where the only pale light came from a old petroleum lamp. The atmosphere was filled with the scent of natural lemon tea she prepared every night, while Mr. Gerardo, her husband, loved to make up funny stories for my amusement.
Between night stories and tea, I also heard the worries of two parents for their son and the hardships he may have encountered along his journey. They told me how coffee prices were so low that it was almost impossible to live only from that.
I learned how they also cut down trees to sell the wood to have some additional income during the year. It was during that time that I began thinking how could I help them beyond clothes and pain relief pills.
Days went by quickly, and the time for me to come back to Mexico City arrived.
That day, Mrs. Claudia said goodbye with some mysterious words. She told me that maybe the next time I visited them, she may not be there. Being sad about leaving, I didn’t quite understand what she meant. I just replied that we would certainly see each other again.
After one year I returned to that community and heard that she was sick and had passed away a few months after my visit, without seeing her son again. The only thing I could do was visit her grave and say hi for the last time.
Death truly makes us humble and puts everything else on an entirely new perspective.
Life in Mexico City after visiting the coffee fields
When I came back from that first visit, I felt confused but also motivated to look for ways to help those who taught me so much and shared their smiles, pains and worries with me.
The first steps were in the Fair Trade and Organic movements, which at that time were heavily focusing on coffee. So I learned about sustainability, international trade and cooperatives.
I also visited Canadian Fair Trade buyers to offer their coffee, where I’m specially thankful (still today) to James Solkin from the iconic Café Santropol. If you ever go to Montreal, do try their sandwichs and coffee blends; my favourite was the “Montréalaise” 😉
Meanwhile in Mexico I helped small coffee growers to contact possible clients both in Mexico City and elsewhere. After years of work, I can say these movements do make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of families around the world, besides being a way to gain pride and meaning in what small producers do.
There’s certainly pride in selling higher quality coffee directly to consumers of several countries when, just one generation before, that was completely unimaginable.
Remembering how Mrs. Claudia and Mr. Gerardo had referred to their difficulty in communicating with their oldest son, several years ago I started offering professional psychological counseling to locals and expatriates. When I went back to the communities, I had the opportunity to give psychological counseling to families at risk, so they could see how their emotions and behavior directly affect, for better or worse, all family members, especially the younger ones.
In some cases, untold feelings and social pressure (among many other variables) make it seem easier for young adults to leave their house looking for a dream, leaving their families in increasing anxiety and stress.
I take pride in being able to offer psychotherapy to individuals, couples and groups, so that new generations can grow in a better emotional environment, which I was motivated to do because of the humility I felt during my experiences with Mrs. Claudio, Mr. Gerardo, Little Nieves, and so many others along the way.
Header image credit: iivangm via Flickr