Coffee can be many things, depending on who you ask. An aromatic beverage, a plant, a drink, a commodity, an export crop, to mention a few. It heralded a global industry, ignited social and political upheaval, and helped shape the very landscape (both literally and figuratively) of the Central American state.
Elba, our coffee roaster, is from El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. She often says that “coffee is in my blood”. How is it that the coffee plant became such a dominant part of the life of many Central Americans? The answer to that question is too wide-ranging and complex to tackle in a short blog, and would require the length of a book to fully examine. In fact, there have been many great books published on this very topic (see the Sources section below each of my blogs for references).
Any historical account of Central America must take into account the role that coffee played in shaping the Central American state. I’ll include the following passage in full, instead of attempting to paraphrase, because I think Robert Williams couldn’t have put it any better;
“Along with the expansion of coffee came changes in trading networks, international financial connections, patterns of immigration and investment, and international political relations, but coffee also reached back into the structures of everyday life of ports, capital cities, inland commercial centers, and the countryside, altering the activities of merchants, moneylenders, landowners, shopkeepers, professionals, bureaucrats, the urban poor, and the peasantry....A careful look at this single commodity affords a lens through which to view the construction of Central American states.” (Robert Williams in his book States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America, as reproduced in Mark Pendergrast’s seminal coffee book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.)
Coffee arrived in Central America relatively late when compared to other coffee producing regions in the world. Coffee production began in the 1870s in Central America, but within 50 years, it came to dominate the economies of most countries in the region. “As the twentieth century began, the coffee elite was in economic, political, and ideological control of Central American society.” (Paige, 99) In effect, coffee had created great wealth amongst the landowners, right alongside abject poverty amongst the coffee pickers. In certain provinces, entire indigenous populations are wholly dependant on the production of coffee for their survival (Pendergrast, 139). See the following blog for more details on the tough situation of the coffee pickers: The Coffee Pickers! Pt. 1: Poor and Indigenous
Elba took this picture of a mural in Nicaragua. Notice the coffee pickers in this picture are not smiling.
Part of Elba’s goal is to promote Central America in a more positive light, in part by highlighting the unique flavors of coffee from the region, while also giving back directly to Central Americans. More specifically, she wants to give back to the people who do the most arduous labor in the coffee-supply-chain, the coffee pickers. Even more specifically, she wants to find those coffee pickers who are single mothers (as her mother had been), and help them on a direct one-to-one basis.
This is our mission and it's a personal one. We are not doing this as a marketing ploy to attract new customers. We are not looking for certifications from organizations which ‘prove’ that we are giving back (see the The Coffee Pickers! Pt. 3: Front and Center! blog for more details on our thoughts regarding these certifications). We are doing this because our history and the lives of our ancestors have been intimately tied to the trajectory and destiny of the coffee bean. In short, we are doing this because coffee is in our blood! (see The Central American Coffees blog for more).
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, dozens 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.
Paige, Jeffery. Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Page 99.
Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Pages 38, 139.