Of Celebrations and Struggles in Chiapas

The central plaza of San Cristobal was exploding with life when I arrived late Sunday evening.  Exhausted from a long day of travel, I was ready for a...

The central plaza of San Cristobal was exploding with life when I arrived late Sunday evening.  Exhausted from a long day of travel, I was ready for a hot shower, good food, and sleep.  But I couldn’t resist wandering for a few hours around the main streets before turning in.  I’d heard that Chiapas had suffered a tremendous decline in tourism these past few years, but you’d never know it to stroll down the pedestrian walkway, Real de Guadelupe.

Musicians, dancers, fire throwers, and jugglers lined the streets: entertainment on virtually every corner.  Artists selling silver jewelry, filled with amber, turquoise, and jade hovered near the musicians; they offered their crafts to the tourists who stopped to listen and snap photos.  The restaurants, cafes and bars that lined the streets each featured their own live music as well, so at any one moment African drumming on the street was competing with trios from Veracruz, Cuban style troubadours, melancholic sax players, Mexican rock, and even 1970s disco music.  Pulsating with life, it was a bit over the top.

All Saints Day was approaching and colored paper cut-outs of skeletons and Catrinas lined the streets and storefronts.  Altars were set up in restaurant and store entryways with flowers, candles, and skeletons dressed up in comical finery.  Street performers acted out scenes of Mexican revolutionary history and current resistance movements.  A man played the flute while his partner directed a skeleton marionette to dance to his music.  In between the restaurants and bars, small, independent coffee roasters offered up cappuccinos, all from local co-operatives, organic and Fair Trade.  The sounds of coffee roasters clashed with the musicians.  The smells of freshly roasted coffee and incense hung in the air.

It was an exciting way to start off my week, but tourism wasn’t why I was here. It’s been five years since I’ve visited the Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region (CIRSA) co-op and I’ve sorely missed spending time with them. For five years, I’d managed to visit them annually.  Equal Exchange works with roughly 28 coffee co-ops throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia and I have been to many of them.  But of all these groups, the coffee producers of CIRSA are among my favorite.  I wanted to know how they have been faring and I wanted to write down the story of their co-op; to pass it on to others.

At Equal Exchange, we believe it’s important to share the faces & stories behind our coffee. Sometimes that means introducing the consumer to a specific producer, telling that person’s tale.  Sometimes it means tracing the trail, from bean to cup, or bean to bar, in the case of chocolate.  All of these narratives need to be told.  Sadly, for those of us who are so far removed from the source of our food, any story about a producer can open our eyes; the accounting of how our food arrives at our kitchen table is informative and significant.

But to me, it’s so important – critical – to delve even deeper.  The products we eat and drink are our well-being and life-source.  But trade is also a means to an end.  The accounts of how people have struggled and survived, are making it work and improving their lives and communities, and still continue to struggle; to me this is the heart of fair trade and why we are here.  This is the place where we shed tears, share laughter, open our hearts, and remember our humanity.  Because the story of each co-op, the members’ efforts to earn livelihoods, provide us with our sustenance, care for their environment; this is also our story – it shows us how we are interlinked with each other.  If we don’t know, we can’t care; and if we don’t care, we deprive ourselves of our human connections, deny our responsibilities in owning what happens to each other.  In a sense it is the only way we can stand up to political and economic systems that threaten to steamroll over all that’s precious in our fragile world.

The story of CIRSA is, sadly, the story of so many small farmers.  The producers’ parents, grandparents and ancestors, were virtually enslaved on large plantations often owned by foreigners.  Treated worse than animals, they worked seven days a week, were beaten when they stopped to rest or take a drink.  If a producer stopped to sharpen his machete, the foreman would give him his own – all to keep them working without a break.  Their wives were considered property of the landowner and his sons. At any moment, the landowner could send for someone’s wife or daughter and the families could do nothing to protest.  If they were caught growing crops to feed their families, their pay was discounted for cheating the landowner. Health care and education were non-existent.

It’s a long story of struggle, and each time I’ve had the privilege to hear the founding members of CIRSA recount parts of this tale, it has always been accompanied by tears as they remember all the injustices that they and their ancestors have been through.  Attempts to secure their rights, afforded in the Mexican constitution, were repeatedly made through pacific means.  The landowners responded with violence.  Many farmers were jailed, disappeared and assassinated.  Eventually, after many decades of struggle, the land which had once belonged to their ancestors, was returned to them – for a price.  The farmers then formed co-operatives and tried to sell their coffee, once again to be denied access to loans and technical assistance by the government and to be cheated and taken advantage of by the multi-national coffee companies doing business in Chiapas.

It’s a long story which I hope to share in time.  In the meantime, over the next few days, I’ll give you some of the highlights from the three or so days I spent in Simojovel with Filiberto Mazariegos Roblero, Bartolo Perez Lopez, Andres Diaz Diaz, Juan Carlos Perez Perez, and Victor Hugo Garcia Lopez.

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