I wake up in San Cristobal and arrange to get myself up to Simojovel. It’s a much quicker trip this time in a car than I remember it ever having been in a mini-van filled with EE staffers and food co-op workers. The land is green, the sky thick with clouds, and in the distance, it all looks very grey; I imagine it’s raining ominously in Simojovel. The curvy road is worse than I remember as the driver swerves to avoid the enormous potholes and slams on the brakes every time the pavement disintegrates to sections of nothing but rocks. Occasionally he doesn’t quite miss the pothole and our stomachs receive another jolt. Every now and then we brake for a “cooperacion”. This is when men string a rope across the road where they are supposedly volunteering their efforts to patch up sections of the highway. In order to pass, a donation is “suggested”. When the workers see me in the car, they raise the cooperation from 10 pesos to 30 pesos. The driver grumbles, “everyone is looking for a handout,” he says disapprovingly. “When I was a kid,” he tells me, “we had to walk 2 hours to school and back each day, and no one gave us any help. Young people today don’t know what it means to pull yourself up.” I say nothing.
We are listening to Mana, a popular Mexican rock band from Guadalajara, Jalisco, on his cd player. I try not to engage too much with his conservative views and his suggestions that we get together when I’m back in San Cristobal. I focus instead on the scenery outside the window. We pass dozens of churches, all are decorated with streamers and garlands of mustard and orange colored mums; the Day of the Dead when the Mexicans spend the night in the cemeteries, eating, drinking, and listening to live music to accompany their loved ones who have passed on, is fast approaching. Occasionally we pass an indigenous woman wearing a beautiful embroidered huipil ( blouse) that proudly identifies her ethnicity, sitting in front of a modest house weaving in the front yard. Children play; dogs with their ribs protruding run behind them.
We pass through some of the Zapatista Autonomous Communities where the Good Government Boards make decisions for the community: health care, education, law; all is in the hands of the indigenous communities in these parts. Government projects are not accepted as they are seen as tools to co-opt an already oppressed group of citizenry. We pass through the towns, with the brightly painted revolutionary murals and slogans, “Everything for everyone, nothing for us”.
I’m eager to get to my destination. In the five years that I have been visiting Simojovel, I was always leading a delegation of Equal Exchange or food co-op staff, and because I was organizing the visit and translating, I never had a chance to write down the profoundly moving and heart-aching stories we were told. I feel I owe it to CIRSA to put their story on paper. I hope one day to translate it into Spanish and offer it as a gift to them.
In between the driver’s musings, and his shameless flirtations, my mind drifts back to previous visits to CIRSA. One of the strongest memories I have, and probably the one that will forever tie me to them, was the day we got together – the entire seven member board – Filiberto, the coordinator, the group of delegates and myself, to hear the story of the organization’s birth and evolution. In a small, darkened room, one of the members was noisily roasting batches of coffee that CIRSA would package and sell into the local market in a small drum roaster behind us. One by one, each board member (and CIRSA founder) told a part of their story: what life had been like before they won (back) their land, why they had organized, the oppression they endured as a result, and finally their modest, but notable successes and achievements. The delegation members sat in front, notebooks open and cameras ready.
During this particular meeting, which started as so many other co-op meetings do, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Inadvertently, our group had arrived on the anniversary of a particularly painful event in CIRSA’s history when some had lost their lives and others imprisoned simply for asking for better working conditions. Diego Perez Lopez, began to tell his story. He spoke in short sentences so that I could translate. But before he could finish his story, in the middle of a sentence, he broke down crying. Of course, I did the same. Within moments, the entire delegation was also crying. We hadn’t yet heard the full story but the pain on his face was more than we could bear. The next member of the Board broke in, you’ll have to excuse Don Diego, there has been a lot of suffering. But as, Pedro Lopez Ruiz continued the story, he too broke into tears. The board members, all now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, were deeply emotional. Our hearts were heavy. After several starts and stops, we decided not to pursue the story at that moment. The whole week continued just like that.
The profound sadness and suffering they expressed was matched only by incredible warmth, generosity, humility, and gentleness. In Spanish there’s an expression “calor humano” and CIRSA epitomizes it. They treated us like, well, like “[email protected]” in the true sense of the word. “I never dreamed that one day someone who bought our coffee would be sitting in front of us, interested in hearing our story.” I remember another telling us, “we feel so proud and so humbled knowing that you all have chosen to spend so much money, to leave your families, and travel so far just to see how we are living, how we grow our coffee, and to be concerned for our well-being.” We talked about our commitment to the environment and to organic farming, and it strengthened our bonds, as they spoke repeatedly of the need to protect the Madre Tierra (mother earth). When they learned that Equal Exchange was a co-operative, and that our strongest allies were food co-operatives and interfaith partners, we truly recognized ourselves as partners. “We’re walking the same path, we’re taking part in the same process of transformation and Equal Exchange has built the bridge that has connected us.”
My second memory was of a time we visited one of the communities. Packed into the back of a pick-up truck, we were driven three or so hours into the mountains from the CIRSA office in Simojovel. We arrived at dusk. The entire community was waiting for us in the church at the top of the hill. I remember looking down the mountain and seeing the lights of some of the villages and towns starting to glimmer. Outside the church, a group of men was getting ready to kill a cow; in our honor there would be a feast that night.
As we followed the Board members into the church, the smell of incense was strong. We were led to the front two pews. Then after the service, which was conducted in Tzotzil, one at a time, they called the town elders to come to the front of the church and tell us, the distinguished guests, the history of this community. I’m so sad to this day that we didn’t record those stories. They were presented to us in Tzotzil, translated into Spanish, and then I translated them into English for the group. Once again, the tales of government oppression, army repression, endurance, organizing, imprisonment, assassination, and then out of all this… acquiring land and slowly organizing a co-op, learning about the market, beginning to export to Germany and then to Equal Exchange in the U.S.
They then asked one man to come forward. They told us how the plantation owner had sent men to his house when he was just five years old. His father opened the door and in front of him, two men shot and killed his father. Apparently he had been organizing farmers to go to the state capital to demand better treatment on the plantation.
All-in-all, it was kind of a surreal evening. We left the church and were each given a delicious plate of beef and a cup of hot coffee. Even the vegetarians amongst us ate the meat that night. We were later shown to the houses of some of the farmers in the community where in my case, the farmer and his wife gave up their bed and offered it to myself and two others on the trip. They slept on a straw met on the floor next to our bed.
And finally, I’d like to share a lighter memory. The first time I visited CIRSA, we naturally took endless numbers of photos: the women in their colorful huipiles, the men in their cowboy boots and straw hats, farmers carrying 100 pound sacks of coffee on their shoulders, etc. But what gave me no end of pleasure was during our second and third years visiting CIRSA, they turned the tables. As we “helped” them pick the bright, red coffee cherries from the bushes, this time, it was the CIRSA extension workers and board members who snapped our photos. When members of the group wanted to try their hand at carrying a 100 pound sack of coffee down the mountain on their backs, the CIRSA folks laughed with delight (and some concern) as we staggered under the weight, took a few short steps, and gave up. This time they had it all down on video cameras. I loved watching their faces as they laughed and pointed to us… take a photo of that one; ha, make sure you get that one!
Ahh finally, the tables are turned and we can take photos and laugh good-naturedly at each other, recognizing of course that we all play an important role in this business of Authentic Fair Trade.