Finally, we arrive in Simojovel, passing through an arch that announces, “Simojovel de Allende, La Tierra del Ambar (Land of Amber).” All those rows and rows of jewelry stores that line the streets of San Cristobal with so much amber it practically spills out of the cases; this is where it comes from. Lots of the CIRSA producers have family members who work extracting the amber from the mines. The city has changed considerably since I was last here. Before, you could buy the jewelry from makeshift roadside stands; now newly-constructed amber shops line the streets. Simojovel appears to be modernizing.
I drop off my things at the Hotel Cassandra and head immediately over to CIRSA’s office. It feels great to be back and yet this time the only familiar faces I see are Filiberto Mazariegos (CIRSA’s coordinator) and Dona Teresa, the cook. CIRSA holds board elections every two years, and the current board is less than a month old. Usually they rotate the seats so that there’s always an experienced group holding office, but this year they voted in a whole new group. Since the board members come from the communities, many of which are hours away from Simojovel, the seven members live at the CIRSA office Monday through Friday.
It’s unclear where these folks sleep since there are no beds set up or extra rooms, but what they might lack in accommodations, they certainly make up for in Dona Teresa’s cooking. Ironically, although San Cristobal is known for having good restaurants, the best meals of my trip were in the CIRSA office. As soon as I arrive, Dona Teresa puts a heaping plate of rice and beans in front of me, with a mound of fresh corn tortillas and a cup of steaming hot CIRSA coffee. “It’s all local,” she smiles, “and organic”. I love that about CIRSA.
Filiberto comes in and takes up a seat at the wooden picnic table. He tells me how Bodega Aurrera has merged with Walmart and they are constructing a supermarket in town the size of a soccer field. “It’s going to put many of the local merchants out of business,” he tells me. We shake our heads sadly and then he adds, “there are some upsides, I mean, I just bought my first exotic fruit ever at a Bodega Aurrera, a kiwi; I think it comes from Australia. I can’t buy that in a Simojovel market. “Then again,” he tells me, “the kiwis cost more than my lunch and dinner combined.” Still, he says, “sometimes it’s nice to have that option.”
The board members shyly enter the kitchen, joining us at the table. They’ve been waiting for me to arrive for most of the day. Dona Teresa gives them their afternoon refreshment – plates piled high with cut up chunks of watermelon and cantelope. No kiwis here.
Local, organic food. Farmers markets in the truest sense of the term. Walmarts and mergers and super super-markets. All just another reminder of the issues that link us together.
After our meal and conversation about the elections which just happened a few months back in Mexico (and which are still being contested in Simojovel and throughout the state of Chiapas and other states), we head to the second floor, which is really the roof top, to begin planning out my stay. Sitting in chairs under the branches of an enormous mango tree, the sun is going down. I’m distracted occasionally by the noise of flocks of birds flying just over our heads.
We discuss the various possibilities and then after awhile it’s decided. Don Bartolo and Don Andres are two of CIRSA’s founders: tomorrow they will tell me their stories, about the long history of CIRSA and then we will go out in the afternoon and visit farms. For tonight, they want me to tell them about Equal Exchange. Of all the things I tell them about, they are most excited to hear about our program selling coffee and other products to the churches. They nod approvingly as I tell them how the churches serve our coffee, theircoffee, after Sunday mass, and use the occasion to talk about the lives of producers and the social justice issues they face.
They’re also pleased to hear that we are most clearly NOT a private business, in this for our own self-interest. We walk in solidarity with them and we too are a co-operative in existence to fulfill a social mission. Yes, they say, any reluctance now diminished, although the stories are painful, they will be happy to share them with me tomorrow.
Filiberto and his wife Rosenda, who also works at CIRSA, walk me back to my hotel. Along the way, we stop at Rosenda’s parents so they can pick up their beautiful 3-month old baby, aptly named Ambar. We visit for awhile and then call it an evening.