by Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands Blog
It was late 2008 when I first came into contact with this amazing story surrounding three generations of determined women in coffee.
At the time, I was involved in a CRS coffee project in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua called CAFE Livelihoods, when I convened the project teams from each of the four countries for the first time in Managua. To open the first session, I paired each person with a colleague from another country and asked them to spend a few minutes getting to know one another. I also asked each person to share some story of a personal connection with coffee. When we reconvened, we had a round of introductions and coffee stories.
The exercise served as a powerful reminder of the cultural significance of coffee in Mesoamerica. I learned that one colleague from Guatemala spent a lot of his youth in the coffeelands tagging along with his father, a capataz, or farm manager, for coffee estates in the western highlands. I learned that a colleague from Nicaragua spent every harvest at a coffee estate near the town where he grew up, picking coffee alongside his mother. And I learned that my colleague Ivania Rivas from El Salvador was born into coffee. Literally. She was a third-generation colona, or female permanent farmworker, born on the historic MALACARA estate in Santa Ana.
As I have gotten more engaged professionally on issues related to coffee farmworkers, I reconnected with Ivania to hear more of her story. I am glad I did.
Can you tell me the story of your family’s history with MALACARA?
My grandmother on my mother’s side was abused by her husband. She left him and took their five children with her to look for work. A friend suggested she try MALACARA, and Don Samuel, as my grandmother called the owner, took pity on her as a single mother of five children. He gave her a little room and permanent work as a colona. Her children grew up on the farm, and so did the children of her children. I am the youngest daughter of her youngest daughter, her last granddaughter.
What are the things about your life on the farm that you remember most fondly?
The big trees, the beautiful landscapes, the harvest–which always gave the farm a very festive atmosphere–and my friends there.
How did it occur to you to seek your future off the farm as a third-generation colona?
It was my grandmother’s idea. She was a visionary woman. My mother, unfortunately, followed in her footsteps and became a single mother of five children, but my grandmother always supported her and encouraged her to leave the farm and give us a good education. So my mother left the farm and set up a stall in the market. Together, my mother and my grandmother paid for our studies.
How old were you when you left the farm?
I left when I was eight to study in Santa Ana since the school on the farm only went to third grade. But my brothers and sisters and I went back to the farm every weekend to be with my grandmother, and I returned every year until I was 17 to work during the harvest to earn money for my studies.
There is growing interest in specialty coffee in the lives of coffee farmworkers. What can you tell the blog’s readers about the lives ofcolonos: the good, the bad and the ugly?
The good: I had the good fortune to be born on a beautiful farm. I always felt very proud to be from MALACARA. The treatment of the workers was always very good. We had a school through third grade, a bus that made a daily trip to town, electricity at night thanks to a generator, a house, a permanent supply of water, although it was rationed during the dry season, and fields to play in.
The bad: Our diet was always very basic because there was nothing on the farm but coffee, not even fruit trees. We ate beans, rice, tortillas, cheese and bread, and drank lots of coffee.
The ugly: The opportunities for personal and professional development were limited. From my generation of 20 kids, only two of us made it to college and got good jobs. The rest never got past third grade and ended up working on the farm or in the maquilas.
What are the things you recall from your life on the farm that you can’t imagine ever having to do again?
Carrying water in heavy jugs to start every day and walking great distances to school. I studied in a school far from the farm in fourth grade and it was a horrible year for me. That’s what motivated my mother to get me off the farm.
Despite the limitations you describe here, in some ways isn’t it true that colonos enjoyed more stability than temporary and migrant workers on coffee farms?
Definitely. I was blessed to be born onto a farm whose owner had strong values and was committed to social justice, so he made sure his colonos had their basic needs met: housing, food, education, transportation and recreation. The colono worked as a salaried employee and got the agreed upon payments on time, even when the harvests were down. But that was not necessarily the case on other farms in the area where the treatment of the colonos was harsh and farm managers sometimes beat colonos. It seemed more a form of slavery than salaried work.
As part of the colonato [the system of permanent farmworkers tied to a particular estate, often across multiple generations], farmers become salaried workers. They have a stable source of income and their basic needs are met, but they have to subject themselves to the rules of the estate owner or manager. In the majority of cases, the colono does not have land to work and his or her opportunities in life depend directly on the owner’s vision for his or her workers.
I think it really depends on the realities on each farm. In some cases the colonato can be a good thing, especially where the State does not have a strong presence and a farm owner is committed to social justice and reducing the vulnerability of workers. But in other cases, the absence of the State can make the colonato an instrument of abuse and violation of human dignity.
In all sectors of the global economy, there has been a shift toward more “flexible” labor arrangements, and my sense is that coffee is no exception. Isn’t the colonato class of farmworkers disappearing from the coffeelands of El Salvador?
Yes. In our case, when Don Samuel passed away and his children decided to pay out the colonos and move them off the farm, employing them instead as day-laborers. Since then there haven’t been any colonos on the farm.
My sense is that migrant laborers are the most vulnerable actors in coffee supply chains. You have spent a lot of time in the fields of El Salvador, both as a coffee worker and now as a program manager for CRS. Is that the sense you have from all your experience in the field?
The migrant farmworker, in my experience, is more vulnerable than the colono. There isn’t always work available for the migrant farmworker and there is no long-term commitment there. The migrant laborer is always on the move, often leaving his or her family behind, and in many cases the minimum daily wage is not effectively enforced by the State, which leaves a lot of room for abuse.
It’s ironic, because migrant workers are among the most vulnerable people in our economy and they are the ones who are responsible for the food we all depend on.
Today you work for CRS and you participate in projects that involve coffee growers and farmworkers. How did you find your way into this work?
The truth is, I don’t know exactly how I got into this line of work. I wanted to study languages, but my older brother convinced me to study economics, which meant leaving the countryside for the capital. At the age of 20 I started working with an NGO on an agriculture project with families affected by El Salvador’s civil war. That work helped me to understand another reality of my country–up to that point I had only heard about the civil war. The region where I grew up was not as affected by the conflict. It was the biggest coffee-producing region so it was well-protected. But when I went to the eastern part of the country to meet and work with subsistence farmers growing basic grains, I came to understand that I had grown up in a paradise. At the beginning it was hard to understand what the people who had been victims of the war had gone through, but I adapted quickly and came to love the work. I have now been working on development projects for 18 years.
Do you think that at some level you chose this line of work because you were born into agriculture and continue to identify with the campo? Perhaps there is on some level a desire to help another little Ivania out there in the coffeelands to have the same opportunities you had?
I have had the opportunity to coordinate lots of different kinds of projects, but the ones that always motivate me the most are the agriculture projects, since it has always been one of the most vulnerable sectors of our economy. I believe that if we can give 1 or 2 of every 10 people the little push they need to fulfill their dreams, we have done something valuable.
I got ahead in life thanks to the sacrifices of my mother and my grandmother. Toñito was the only other person of my generation on the farm who became a professional–he managed to study thanks to a scholarship project managed by a priest. Today he is a pediatrician with a deep sense of social commitment, and my children are his patients. His life changed because of a project.
I believe everyone needs compassion, but beyond that we all need motivation, new ideas, space to learn and grow and develop as human beings who can contribute to making our society better.
Michael Sheridan has worked on coffee for Catholic Relief Services since 2004. He currently directs the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador and advises other CRS coffee projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is based in Quito and publishes perspectives from the intersection of coffee and international development for the CRS Coffeelands Blog at coffeelands.crs.org.