The Coffee Pickers! pt. 1: Poor and Indigenous


“In the coffee plant lies the chief source of wealth of the Central Americans.” These words were written back in 1932 by Louise Hearst for the Economic Geography journal, in a report entitled Coffee Industry of Central America. How ironic, that the very same year, in the western coffee-producing provinces of El Salvador, masses of poor indigenous coffee pickers led an uprising against the plantation owners, wielding nothing but rocks and machetes.

The resulting government response to this uprising was so brutal, that the event came to be known in posterity simply as ‘La Matanza’ (the Massacre). In her brilliant account of the event, Virginia Tilley described how “its repression would go down in history as the bloodiest single crisis in modern Latin American history until the 1980s” (Tilley, 138). An estimated 30,000 indigenous people were killed in the following days. Although many historians and scholars in the past have argued that the uprising was part of a Communist movement, Tilley’s detailed study shows that the revolt is better characterized as an ethnic, rather than solely a Marxist class-based movement. La Matanza, in January of 1932, could be considered the last organized indigenous revolt against the mostly-European and ladino landowners, in all of the Americas.

In order to understand power and wealth distribution in Central America, we must look to the coffee industry. Specifically, we should first identify who profits and who doesn’t. Who are the coffee pickers, and what is their history?

1492: The Year that Changed Everything

The initial, brutal clash between Europeans and the indigenous groups of the Americas has determined the course of Central American political, economic and social history. We can’t deny the ‘racial’ component. I hesitate to use the term ‘racial’, because race is more of an idea than a fact. After all, we’re all apart of one human species with differences in ‘phenotypic variation’ (Cartmill, 659). But the racial component of present-day Central America is evident if you look at the poorest Central Americans and the wealthiest ones. In fact, “the poorest social strata are associated with and dominated by Indian ethnicity” (Tilley, 248) in Central American society, while the wealth elite of these countries are mostly (but not all), of European descent.    

Central America was inhabited by dozens of ethnic groups in the pre-Columbian days. Each country’s territory had multiple tribes who spoke their own languages and observed their own customs. Even today, in Guatemala, there are over 20 separate indigenous spoken languages. So you can imagine the diversity when the cultures were thriving. There were the Nahuas who had a flourishing city called Cuzcatlan, and the Mayas of Guatemala, along with the Lencas and Nicaraos, amongst many other groups.   

Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. By 1525, territories from each of the current-day Central American countries were engaged in years-long indigenous wars against the Spanish conquistadors. By 1609, Spain had consolidated power throughout the area and deemed the region a ‘captaincy’ (the term used for a colony of Spain or Portugal in those days) called the Kingdom of Guatemala. This colonial arrangement carried on for about 200 years. All throughout the 1600s-1700s, each of the Central American territories would endure periodic indigenous uprisings which would be quickly quelled by armed forces at great human costs.

Mayans call this, Ixcanul…a volcano in Guatemala

Revolutions & Independence

By the late 1700s, the American and French Revolutions had thrown the European political climate in turmoil. The ruling class of European landowners amongst the Central American countries began rumblings of their own visions of independence from Spanish rule. The coffee industry at this time was still nascent. Coffee was introduced to the Americas in 1720, but it only began to be cultivated seriously by the mid 1820s (namely in Brazil, through the use of slave labor).

By the early 1820s, each of the countries achieved independence from Spain. They were supported by the United States, a still-young country establishing itself on the global scene. In what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine, President Monroe publicly stated in 1823 that the United States would assist any country if it were threatened by European colonial interests. The Monroe Doctrine can be understood as the official beginnings of U.S. imperialism in the Americas, which came to a head during the brutal revolutionary and civil war period of Central America in the 1970s and 80s. For much more on that, Noam Chomsky is the man to see. See his book titled Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America & the Struggle for Peace.    

Coffee pickers rely on firewood to heat up tamales for dinner. Elba used to collect firewood as a young girl for this purpose.

After independence, the sudden departure of Spain’s administrative apparatus plunged each of the Central American territories in chaos. “By 1830 nearly every region was poorer than it had been in 1800” under Spanish rule (Burkholder & Johnson, 326). Factional rifts and infighting between the newly independent states would continue for decades. The Central American territories even banded together as one country, called the ‘Federal Republic of Central America’ which lasted about 20 years, until the early 1840s, when each country finally branched out on their own.   

American consumption of coffee increased greatly after the American Revolution, with the Americans eschewing British imports of tea in favor of the new national drink, which also happened to be cheaper to import. This increase in demand served to increase the amount of land in Central America allocated to producing coffee. At this time, the Central American countries were struggling to set up political and state institutions, while attempting to build legitimacy on the world stage amidst their newly found sovereignty. The state’s ability to tax its people, its authority to maintain public order and its ability to maintain public services were severely limited. It’s here that we can find the true impetus for growing coffee. The countries needed cash, and what better way of attaining that than producing cash crops. Global coffee consumption was skyrocketing, in large part due to the first coffee-houses opening and spreading all across Europe around this time.

The Central American Coffee Boom

The serious cultivation of coffee in the region began during the early 1880s yet by the 1930s, coffee came to dominate the Central American economies (with a few exceptions, namely Belize and Panama). This period is referred to as the Central American coffee boom.

A mural in Guatemala of Mayans working in the coffee plantation.

Independence from Spain did not mean good things for the large indigenous populations of Central America. From their perspective, the only difference was who they were being taxed by. For example, President Benito Juarez of Mexico is universally lauded for his reforms in the 1860s along with maintaining the legitimacy of the Mexican state in the face of repeated invasions from France. Although he was an indigenous man, his famous liberal reforms, which catered to the growing middle-class urban professionals and merchants, did little for the largely Indian peasantry. “Many communities lost land to the haciendas; debt-peonage increased accordingly, and the burden of taxation fell most heavily on them” (Williamson, 266). In fact, in many cases, their situation worsened after independence from Spain in comparison to the later colonial period (1700-1800). Edwin Williamson explains how this is possible.   

“The chief difficulty until the middle of the seventeenth century had been economic – the creoles needed Indian labour, so the separate republica de los indios had been undermined by the exploitation of Indian resources by the whites. In the later colonial period and until the 1850s the position of the Indian communities had stabilized because economic demands on them had receded. It was after the mid-century, when the Spanish American economies began to expand, that renewed economic pressure was exerted on the Indians”  (Williamson , 245)

These sisters spend their days on the coffee plantations picking coffee cherries.

This economic expansion was no doubt the product of export economies, which used cash crops (coffee, indigo, cacao, cotton, sugar, bananas) to fund state-building. For a bit more on export economies, see my related blog The Central American Countries. The coffee boom produced massive wealth for coffee plantation owners. I’ll include Virginia Tilley’s full text on the topic of the formation of a new elite, that would go on to rule the Central American countries for the rest of the 1900s. She has worded this much better than I could have:

“In the new economy, ladinos were rapidly gaining new leverage. The development of a nationwide infrastructure (roads, railroad, telegraph and telephone) was quickly providing them with the new external sources of wealth, security and political power. They also were gaining new instruments of outright force: the local town police, the rural police, and now the treasury police, created to secure the coffee crop. They also had the notorious National Guard, whose mission by the 1930s was primarily control of the Indian labor force (also in the interest of coffee production). Ladino hacendados regularly hired Guard members as private guards for the estates. Landlords could even deputize private citizens at will for specific purposes like pursuing a fugitive – and people could not refuse such service. Ladino landowners therefore had flexible and effectively unlimited police power, directed largely toward arresting drunks and brawlers but also toward suppressing strikes or labor resistance of any kind”

“Ladinos’ need to sustain the old caste patronage system was therefore vanishing. They no longer needed sharecroppers; coffee provided their (rapidly rising) incomes. They no longer needed to appease indigenous communities with reciprocal services; they now had the Guard. They controlled the terms of credit and wages to smallholders and laborers, and those terms became more usurious each year. Indian resentment rose, and labor unrest with it – but this only increased ladinos’ reliance on force.”   Tilley, 131-132)

When looking at El Salvador for a New York Times piece, Lindsey Gruson characterized “the fundamentally colonial nature of this country’s social structure; despite the efforts to increase social mobility, a tiny elite and dominant army officers essentially rule an illiterate majority made up of peasants.” She goes on to explain that “for centuries, survival in El Salvador, the hemisphere’s most densely populated country, has depended on access to land. But largely because of the introduction of coffee as a cash crop in the late 19th century, thousands of peasants were forced off their plots by a handful of powerful families, many of whom built enormous fortunes and sprawling estates.”

The example of El Salvador is analogous to other Central American countries, namely Guatemala and Nicaragua. Who were these elites? And how did they get control of vast territories of land?

Coffee and The Land Required to Grow It

Coffee, the plant, is a very finicky one. Maybe ‘sensitive’ is a better word. It thrives under precise growing conditions. Central America is uniquely suited in this regard (see blog: Central American Coffees). The very best coffee lands of Central America are at high altitudes, on the hills of the volcanic mountain sides. The fertile volcanic loam is ideal for coffee growth. It just happens to be a coincidence that these were the lands occupied by the majority of the indigenous peoples. The reason is because many indigenous peoples fled to the countryside on the mountains to evade taxes and/or forced labor during the colonial period. “By the early nineteenth century, as much as a quarter of the rural population was scattered invisibly amidst hills and forest where, as one visitor observed, ‘they enjoy living in liberty and without any subjection to any law’” (Tilley, 111).  This respite was to be short lived.

A mix of old and young coffee trees

Throughout the late 1800s, the oligarchy used their rapidly expanding resources and political power to have “the courts force peasants off land that was to be concentrated in private hands to increase coffee production and to force the landless peasants to serve as cheap seasonal labour” (Popkin, 13). In El Salvador, “as a result of these self-styled Liberal land reform measures and the ensuing confusion over bureaucratic procedures for the issuance of lawful titles, large numbers of peasants were dispossessed of their lands. The process was closely connected to the expansion of coffee. With the extension of coffee cultivation…the traditional small land parcels were consolidated into large units, often lying fallow or producing export rather than subsistence crops” (Durham, 40-43). Similar measures took place in Guatemala, where “a series of laws and outright force” allowed the Barrios government to usurp prime coffee lands (Pendergrast, 31).

The Indigenous Coffee Pickers

You can see now how things may have gotten worse after independence from Spain. In the later colonial periods, “a good number of Indian villages managed to keep their communal and/or ejidal lands through the colonial period and into the first years of the Republic” (Durham, 40-43). Now, with all the land converted to coffee plantations, many indigenous groups were rendered landless peasants. As has been the case since the European conquest, native people were used as the labor force for producing commodities to be exported. In certain provinces, entire indigenous populations are wholly dependant on the production of coffee for their survival, even to this day! Louise Heast wrote about the “common practice among large planters to recruit extra workers by sending labor contractors into the bleak upper country where the Indians cannot regularly make a living. These contractors persuade the Indians to work on the coffee estates, and eventually they become so deeply indebted to their employers that they are virtually peons” (Hearst, 60).

Young coffee trees growing in Nicaragua

I’ve tried to make the association clear. If you think about coffee pickers in Central America, they are typically the poor and indigenous. Virginia Tilley gives the following explanation to show how the terms are intrinsically linked together. “The term indio (Indian) or even indigena (indigenous) does not bring to mind native peoples fighting white settler (Spanish) invaders, as in the U.S. stereotype. Instead, it carries an explicit class association: the subordinated and usually poverty-stricken workers of the society – the maids, gardeners, road workers, coffee pickers, and other so-called ‘black labor’” (Tilley, 48).


I didn’t want to mix politics with business. Yet the further I look into coffee and the role it has played in Central America, the more I see that the topic is fundamentally political. The injustice of the invasion did not disappear with the passage of time. It hasn’t been forgotten. Its legacy is blatantly obvious to those thousands of uneducated workers who spend every single day of the seasonal harvest in the fields. Central America has the highest rates of crime for any region in the world. The roots of this do not stem from drug trafficking or the recent gang phenomenon. The roots of these problems stem from grave inequalities in the distribution of land and wealth. If we decide to further examine the roots, they reach back centuries…a history of subjugation and unchecked violence without a glimmer of justice on the horizon.

Elba with a young coffee tree in El Salvador.

It is from this history that Elba was born, in a small village in El Salvador in 1955. She was born into a poor family of coffee pickers…descendants of the Nahua ethnic group. The Nahua peoples once had one of the great capital cities of the Americas in Cuzcatlan. But now, their history and culture is on the verge of disappearing. Most do not even speak the language anymore. Elba told me that when you’re a coffee picker (and especially an indigenous one), there is no hope for anything else. There is only work. I think the movie Ixcanul (I wrote a blog on it: Ixcanul) captures that theme in a haunting yet simple way. But there hope. Elba’s life experiences are a true testament that no matter how hopeless your situation looks, a vastly different life is possible.

It is now 2018, and Elba lives in Canada and owns her own business. She told me she never hears about the coffee pickers (called ‘los cortadores’). We hear a lot of talk about “socially conscious” companies, and certifications (Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance etc) but we almost never hear about the actual coffee pickers. This is the purpose of all these blog articles I’m writing…to properly frame the discussion. I’m passionate about the topic, not only because I’m an employee of a company I believe in, but also because Elba is my mother, and this is part of my personal history. Coffee is a 100 billion dollar industry by some estimates. The coffee pickers arguably do the most manual labor in the global coffee supply chain, yet they get paid the least. See my blog entitled The Coffee Pickers! Pt. 3: Front and Center! to find out what a small coffee roasting company like Cafe Elba hopes to achieve.


Written by Coffee Mike



I like to include the following disclaimer below each of my blogs. I try to make references wherever applicable, but I’ve read many books, tons of articles, watched documentaries and taken courses on these subjects over the years. I mention this because sometimes I may forget the exact source of my information, so I ask the authors to forgive me if I have not cited some information where I should have.

Burkholder, Mark & Lyman Johnson. Colonial Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Page 326.

Cartmill, Matt. “The Status of the Race Concept in Physical Anthropology.” American Anthropologist. 1998. Page 659.

Durham, William. Scarcity & Survival in Central America: Ecological Origins of the Soccer War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979. Pages 40-43.

Gruson, Lindsey. “For The Peasants of El Salvador, Promised Land Seems to Recede.” New York Times. 1989.

Hearst, Louise. “Coffee Industry of Central America.” Economic Geography 1932. Page 60.

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Page 31.

Popkin, Margaret. Peace Without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 2000. Page 13.

Tilley, Virginia. Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. Pages 48, 111, 131-132, 138, 248.

Williamson, Edwin. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Pages 245, 266.

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