I think I have boasted enough so that you all know that my son, Charles SteelFisher, was the new media director for Patrick Deval's successful campaign to become Governor of Massachusetts. My friend Laura found this link to an interview he did on NEU TV in Boston. It is pretty interesting. I called to tell him how I had enjoyed it (and learned from it) and he didn't even realize it had been put on line! Thanks, Laura, from the proud mom.
This place we live in, a deeper awareness of it, settles on us in bits and pieces. We go to a party at the hacienda in San Marcos that existed before the town because we met the heiress at our book club in Xalapa – and then again at the Universidad Veracruzana -- Escuela para Estudiantes Extranjeros where she is an administrator and we are students. So we are neighbors of a sort. Only fleeting ones, though, because the hacienda is now uninhabited and Christina uses it only for parties and gatherings.
The party at the hacienda is a birthday party for a woman named Felicia, an old woman now, elegant and intelligent. An American, she has lived in Xalapa for over 40 years and raised six children, three of whom live in the U.S., three who live in Mexico. One of the daughters is an actor here in Mexico. She is a serious actor and like most good and serious actors here she makes her living in telenovelas. She was at the party as were two other of Felicia’s children, all beautiful, and some grandchildren. All the children here are married to Mexicans. Christina, our hostess, is married to an American and has been for forty years. He and she met when he was a student at the UV Escuela para Estudiantes Extranjeros many years ago. It is he who takes us through the faded, high-ceilinged old rooms now barely furnished: an elegant old canopied bed here, an old chest there; artwork framed in termite-ridden frames, an array of antiques on the floor which the heirs haven’t gotten around to choosing from, a game table with chairs pushed away as if a game had just ended; here the room he and she stayed in when they were first married, there her parents’ marriage bed. Ancient photos of her grandfathers: one sympathetic to the revolutionaries a hundred years ago, the other not.
The party is outside, in the coredor, or covered porch which runs the inside length of the building. Sitting here in a large circle of friends and relatives, we are completely unaware of the buses and cars and trucks making their way up and down the busy road just forty feet away. The party is a convivio: everyone has brought something to eat, from Mexican flautas (not called flautas here, but if I remember simply rolled tortillas) to sushi. We have brought salami and cheese and crackers. The birthday cake is glorious. Cream and chocolate, towers and swirls of icing. There is one candle with one of Felicia’s rings around it in the center of the cake. The grandchildren, the children, the friends, the men, then the women, take turns ringing Felicia at the table to sing Las Mañanitas and Happy Birthday as well.
The coredor does not look out on a garden as one might expect, but on a large, two-levelled concrete courtyard. This was a working hacienda, a coffee hacienda. The coffee was dried in the courtyard. Christina’s husband, a Minnesota boy when he arrived, ended up running the day-to-day operations. In those days, they lived here for the coffee-harvesting part of the year. Even as a child, Christina did not live at the hacienda full time, but only perhaps five or six months of the year. She and her family lived in a house in el centro de Xalapa, one that now contains some store or other.
In days gone by, the land around the hacienda was all coffee-growing land that belonged to Christina’s family. I have not yet fit this into the broader history of our area, but bit by bit, they sold the land off or squatters claimed it and the townof San Marcos grew while the hacienda became a beneficio, a place where small growers and pickers bring their coffee to sell. Christina’s husband told us how the growers brought the coffee and how he sorted it. He showed us tubs for soaking the coffee before it was hulled and how the coffee was laid out on the courtyard for the first part of the drying process which was then was finished in large cookers. He also talked about how the coffee has been hijacked recently by giant companies and how he would like once again to open his beneficio so he and the growers could sell directly to smaller buyers in Mexico City and the U.S. He had had good relations with the producers and felt they all deserved a better deal than they were now getting.
I thought of the movie, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as we said good-bye. All these beautiful people, the generations of them together and seemingly happy inside a wall, so close and so distant from the noise of modern Mexico outside. But unlike the Finzi-Continis, their cloistered existence ended some time ago, if it ever existed at all.
Our dog, Rita Bita, has been so inspired by her dad's Flickr efforts that she has created her own flickr page with photos, profile and commentary. Check it out at: http://www.flickr.com/people/rita_bita/
She also wants everyone to know that she really appreciated the commentary of A Dog in my last post.
We'd been having rain, rain and more rain. My brother-in-law, down from Alaska to escape the northern gloom, was having trouble doing that. He'd run into ice storms in New Mexico and gloom in Dallas. Here when it wasn't raining, fog and mist swirled round the mountains and down the streets and filled the valleys. Very English said the Americans here. I thought it was beautiful. In fact, I think the winter weather here is the best weather all year. For example, one evening we went to Xico with friends for dinner. The restaurant we'd hoped to go to was closed, but the owner pointed us to what we all thought might be an Italian restaurant. We followed a curving, cobblestone street with lamplight diffused in the mist to El Restaurant Mediteraneo hidden in a stucco building. It wasn't Italian. I'm not sure what it was, but they had reasonably good food and drink. Actually, we got their last bottle of red wine and had to supplement it with beer. We sat around for hours, drinking and eating shrimp and meat and other stuff and finally staggered out back into the fog. And, yes, we drove home, thinking it looked even more beautiful than ever. Except for John who was really craving a bit of sun. Anyway, he escaped briefly to Veracruz and environs and encountered weather that was at least a bit warmer and then returned and milagro de milagros the morning we thought to take a drive the sun greeted us.
Not yet the trip -- Jim has a blog now. QUITE an interesting one and beautiful to boot. It is at cascada-jb.blogspot.com .
And here is another detour. I have started to read "My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk, last year's winnder of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In this book there is a chapter called "I Am a Dog," written, indeed, by a dog. The reason I am bringing this up is that living here in Ursulo Galván, I have watched many of the neighborhood dogs and have come to the conclusion that, though their lives may be shortened by parasites and their fur may not be the most glorious, many of them are indeed happy. Our indulged and beloved Rita, in fact, longs to join them more often than she is permitted. This is a revolution in my thinking about dogs in Mexico. It's not that there aren't dogs in Mexico that suffer terribly, it's just that some of them clearly don't, and not because they are coddled.
So here is some of what Pamuk's dog says (including a detour about coffee within the detour about dogs):
"Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen."
"...this Husret Hoja [a cleric]...declared with spittle flying from his mouth,'Ah, my devoted believers! The drinking of coffee is an absolute sin! Our Glorious Prophet did not partake of coffee because he knew it dulled the intellect, caused ulcers, hernia and sterility....Coffeehouses are places where pleasure-seekers and wealthy gadabouts sit knee-to knee, involving themselves in all sorts of vulgar behavior....coffeehouses ought to be banned....Men frequent these places, become besotted with coffee and lose control of their mental faculties to the point that they actually listen to and believe what dogs and mongrels have to say. But those who curse me and our religion, it is they who are the true mongrels.'
"With your permission [says the narrator-dog] I'd like to respond to this comment by the esteemed cleric. Of course, it is common knowledge that hajis, hojas, clerics and preachers despise us dogs. In my opinion, the whole matter concerns our revered Prophet Muhammed, peace and blessings be upon him, who cut off a piece of his robe upon which a cat lay sleeping rather than wake the beast. By pointing out this affection shown to the cat, which has incidentally been denied to us dogs, and due to our eternal feud with this feline beast, which even the stupidest of men recognizes as an ingrate, people have tried to intimate that the Prophet himself disliked dogs...."
Well, this narrator-dog tells us a lot more about how dogs have been maligned and mistreated because of the misinterpretation of the Koran and also recounts its true noble place in that holy book.
The dog-narrator acknowledges that clerics aren't the only one to mistreat dogs, and this mistreatment may surprise you. He says:
"In the lands of the infidel Franks, the so-called Europeans, every dog has an owner. These poor animals are paraded on the streets with chains around their necks, they're fettered like the most miserable of slaves and dragged around in isolation. These Franks force the poor beasts into their homes and even into their beds. Dogs aren't even permitted to walk with one another, let alone sniff and frolic together. In that despicable state, in chains, they can do nothing but gaze forlornly at each other from a distance when they pass on the street."
Now here is the ideal dog life which could be found in Istanbul and can, minus the biting, be found in Colonia Ursulo Galván:
"Dogs who roam the streets of Istanbul freely in packs and communities, the way we do, dogs who threaten people if necessary, who can curl up in a warm corner or stretch out in the shade and sleep peacefully, and who can shit wherever they want and bite whomever they want, such dogs are beyond the infidels imagination."
So when you come to visit, realize the dogs are just enjoying themselves, being true to their dog selves.
Since this is so long, the trip to Tembladeres will comprise the next entry.
This'll be brief...but there will be more. This is a link to an article by the National Resources Defense Council and The SMithsonian on coffee which deals with environmental aspects of the problem as well as the social consequences.
Bet you'll never be able to drink a cup of coffee without thinking about it again!
Life in Ursulo Galván gallups apace. I haven’t written for awhile because it has seemed as if I haven’t had any time to do it. I hope this finds you all well as we are.
We’ve lived here almost a year now, and the extraordinary has become a bit more ordinary. We hardly hear the dogs and roosters and waterfall and street vendors and music pouring out of open windows and buses lurching around our corner and the burros. We don’t think much about the fact that most of the time we hang our laundry out to dry or that we have Jero to do the dishes and a whole lot more.
We do still notice with surprise that we are drinking coffee from our own coffee beans. Jim has taken to roasting it on our stove every couple of days. It takes quite a lot of work for it to get to the point where he can roast it. All over the hillsides surrounding the Colonia and throughout the region whole families have been picking beans by hand. Some people pick coffee on their own terrenos, some on terrenos they rent, some pick on larger coffee fincas, some do it everywhere. They make perhaps $1.00 an hour, a little more, regardless of whose land they work on. As I’ve said before, the coffee here is Arabica and related sorts, top grade coffee. Bit by bit we learn more about how it all works.
You may remember that the coffee the big companies put in cans and use for instant coffee is robusta, and it is grown at low altitudes on flat plains, principally in Southeast Asia and Brasil, industrial-style. This is monocropping to the max, replete with the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. The soil is dying, rivers are contaminated, jobs hardly pay, etc. etc. This plantation-style coffee growing has depressed prices for all coffee including high grade pretty badly. Prices first fell dramatically in the late 1980's and haven't recovered. This year, for the first time in a while, prices for high-quality coffee have gone up a little. But this rise has not been reflected in the earnings of the producers and harvesters. In fact, in some cases, the earnings have gone down.
In our colonia, coffee production seems to work as follows. The coffee beans cluster densely along the branches of the plants, ripening at different times during the harvesting season. People -- men, women and children -- go out among the coffee plants, baskets tied around their wastes, and carefully select and pluck only the red beans until they can fill several sacks -- as many as they can carry on their backs and shoulders, or sometimes put in the back of pickups. They deliver the beans to a beneficio where they sell what they have harvested. There is a beneficio here in the Colonia. At the beneficioit the beans are hulled, dried, hulled again and sold in bulk to middlemen, or coyotes, who load them onto trucks to start their journey to wholesalers, exporters, importers and roasters – who all may or may not be associated with one company -- and on to coffee retailers who might roast some of their own. This is high-grade coffee we are talking about: the growers I think get about fifty cents a pound. If you buy it by the pound, you pay probably pay around nine dollars for the same pound. And what you should know is that everyone along the way makes a lot more than the coffee producers and picker.
Now here is something else you should know: that processor/exporter/importer types (which themselves are often embedded in giant multinationals) sell a lot of different kinds of coffee products. Many of these businesses have started marketing FairTrade coffee, but often this is kind of like a loss-leader: they devote only a tiny portion of their product space to FairTrade, enough to give them a good name with environmental and social justice types, while they hide the fact that most of their business is the exploitative kind. If you look at any of these large companies, you will see they all have environmental and social mumbo jumbo on their webpages. Like Wal-Mart selling organic and building a few green buildings. How much do you think Wal-Mart actually expends on its “green” efforts? How much does it affect their profit margins? How many workers actually benefit? How much are they actually improving the environment, especially in comparison to what they are damaging?
Interestingly, it seems US companies don’t dominate the profitable side of the wholesale coffee business. Nestle is Swiss, Agroindustrias Unidas de Mexico is part of a huge group called ECOM with offices (or whatever they are) in countries as far apart as Papua New Guinea (where they operate as Monpi Coffee Exports) to Japan to Britain and Brasil and the US. Café California is a subsidiary of Neumann Kaffee Gruppe, a holding company whose offices appear to be in Hamburg, Germany. The companies that dominate the retail end are Nestle and the US companies Kraft, Sara Lee and Proctor and Gamble.
What we see here is the glaring proof that on a local level in rural and semi-rural economies in poorer countries, globalization when it means the “free” market destroys lives (and creates emigrants). Ideally for free trade to succeed, producers would have access to “…perfect market information, perfect access to markets and credit, and the ability to switch production techniques and outputs in response to market information….” To the contrary, people living in our Colonia and our area and in many similar areas have none of this….and their lives are not conducive to developing these marketing resources. And in my opinion, they shouldn't have to develop them. Really, for people here to connect to the globalized economy would mean only that they would become more closely identified with a large company, not that their lives would necessarily improve. Some of the workers in coffee, in Viet Nam, for instance, where they grow the industrial way and work for large companies, may make less than fifty cents a day. They have become, essentially, beasts of burden.
There is no way I can see that globalization of the free market system as it is envisioned by global capitalists can lead to significant improvement in the lives of most of the people of the poorer areas of the world.
The farmers in our area are demanding government intervention to establish fair prices. There has been some movement, but not much. And currently people cannot survive on coffee because it is seasonal, the wages, which are low as it is, are even lower if you consider how much of the year people can earn them. Basically, what you have is a product which is an artesan product, a high quality product, having to compete with the cheapest of the cheap -- as if there were no difference between them. And the people here are forced to participate in a market system which shows no mercy. They have no way on their own to battle it aside from demonstrations. If they strike, or don’t pick, they can’t earn anything at all. There is no strike pay here.
So what do I advise? Or what do I wish we could do? Here’s what I suggest.
1. There are several certifications now available for coffee growers which are supposed to insure a fairer break for the farmer/harvester: FairTrade, the oldest; Transfair (USA fair-trade); International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (FOAM); Rainforest Alliance; and UTZ KAPEH.
I wrote a somewhat negative commentary on our neighbor Juan Calypso’s forum about FairTrade, et.al. The people in our Colonia don’t benefit from any of this certification at this point and I didn’t want them to get LESS money than they already did if all of us greeny types stopped buying Uncertified high quality coffee. But I have learned a lot since then, and I think maybe you folks in the U.S., should not only buy certified coffee, but also demand to know where OTHER coffee in your local coffee shops and supermarkets comes from: from field through processor, exporter, importer, etc. Don’t worry, it may all be one company. For instance, find out what kind of deals or contracts the owners of your friendly neighborhood coffee shop that looks all green has with their suppliers and who those suppliers are.
2. Not only should you buy only certified products, if you buy certified products put out by big companies like Nestle,ONLY buy their certified products. Don’t start feeling all warm and fuzzy because Nestle has an instant coffee called Partners which is Fair Trade and go and buy other Nestle stuff, for instance. I can assure you that Nestle is NOT a warm, fuzzy company. Let your friends know this is what you are doing. Let Nestle know.
Be willing to spend the extra ten cents a pound for certified products. Pay a little more, drink a little less. In your local Starbucks, say in a nice loud voice for the benefit of everyone standing behind you in line, that you know by buying certified you are working to restore ethics to business and giving producers a chance not to live in grinding poverty. AND helping the environment. Which leads me to say, buy shade-grown coffee. It doesn’t have to be certified organic, by the way. As I’ve mentioned before, shade-grown coffee is usually very close to organic by its nature.
EVEN MORE IMPORTANT, REMEMBER THAT ORGANIC COFFEE IS NOT NECESSARILY FAIR TRADE COFFEE IN ANY WAY AT ALL!!!! MAKE SURE YOUR ORGANIC COFFEE IS CERTIFIED BY ONE OF THE ABOVE GROUPS!!! For that matter, not all Fair Trade coffee is completely organic. It really doesn't have to be.
3.Finally, find out if any of your coffee shops or organic or gourmet
groceries or coffee providers deal directly with small-scale providers. Support those that do; find out if others would be interested.
What is The Economy for? Is it for itself – some giant parasite scraping the earth and its life to the bone to make more and more unneeded stuff to exchange for piles of money for the already very rich? Or is it a means to an end – should there be economies, rather than an economy, that provide the means for many different kinds of groups to nourish themselves, joining with each other in a flexible network.
Actions you take in buying your coffee make a difference. Coffee itself is a huge business -- I mean really huge -- among the biggest in the world. We all need to be Davids slinging stones at this Goliath.
1 Not to mention that Nestle is apparently working on genetically engineered seeds to produce beans which turn into more easily soluble instant coffee. I bet you can hardly wait. The threat of genetically modified food crops is at least as significant economically as it is biologically (we have, after all, been genetically modifying crops ever since we humans discovered agriculture) because companies in control of them can dominate all aspects of production.
2 Fair Trade on Wikipedia is an excellent article summarizing just about everything having to do with FairTrade (as opposed to Free Trade). This quote comes from that article.