Giving Hope to the Future through Education

    Cutting Coffee
Roasted Coffee Beans
Cutting Coffee: A Personal Essay by Catherine Austin

Catherine and Marisol
Catherine and Jenny's oldest daughter, Marisol
Catherine Austin is an active volunteer with Avivara, both in the U.S. and in Guatemala. In her third and most recent visit to Guatemala, she had the opportunity to work "cutting" (harvesting) coffee with a family she has gotten to know quite well over the last several years. In this personal reflection, she describes a typical day for a Guatemalan mother and her family who work as seasonal laborers in the coffee industry near Antigua, Guatemala. When not volunteering in Guatemala, Catherine works for the U.S. Forest Service in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington as a trail maintenance supervisor.

If you’ve never wrapped a plastic rope around your waist to hold a twenty pound basket of newly harvested coffee, you really should, just so you know where your morning cup of coffee comes from. Hands sticky with the juice of the red coffee “cherries” and grime coated from wrestling the spindly branches, you add to the weight at your waist one, two, or three cherries at a time. If you are me, and the ripe cherries are plentiful, it takes at least two hours to pick this much, which will end up earning around a dollar when the paychecks come.
At first, my Guatemalan friend Jenny wasn’t sure that the plantation manager would even allow me to work, but I wanted to come along and try. Jenny's plan had been to get started early, which is hard when you’re a young mother of three and your kitchen is a wood fire in a concrete box. But even with our desire to get an early start, we found ourselves waiting down at the village plaza, feeding coins into the pay phone to find out whether Jenny’s aunts and their sons from the neighboring village of San Miguel would be joining us. Eventually, with a wheelbarrow full of plastic baskets, little tubs of food, blankets and spare clothes to be worn as coveralls, our finally assembled fleet of women, small children, and young boys on bicycles, set off towards the coffee finca, or plantation.

We walked along the bumpy dirt roads of lower San Pedro to the entrance of the Finca San José el Sauce – the Willow – which is marked only by a small break in the barbed wire and prickly weeds used to define property lines. The field foreman met us there and led us among the shade trees on trodden paths towards the back of the plantation. Jenny had little Juanito wrapped in a rebozo (an all-purpose shawl) on her back while one of her aunts pushed the wheelbarrow; we all ducked the swaying branches temptingly loaded with red fruit until we reached the far end of the next rows to be assigned. The foreman moved his cane pole thirteen rows down – one for each of us – and left us to our picking.

Second pairs of jeans went on over top, fabric was wound around waists, handkerchiefs covered heads, and baskets and ropes were distributed. My instructions consisted of: “Pick the ripe ones, just the ripe ones.” This would seem to be clear, but coffee ripens unevenly, both within the clumps along a twig, and over a single cherry. Some cherries are juicy and ruby red; many are bright red with one pale side or green with a flush of crimson, like opaque little grapes. These do not easily detach from their tree. And yet picking only the softest ruby cherries leaves the intermediate ones to dry out before the second round of picking can begin. Here there are three rounds over three months, always sorting out the ripest coffee, which demands the best price. Managers watch workers to make sure they neither skip the poorer-yielding bushes on one hand, nor pick too much unripe coffee on the other. I heard Jenny scold her daughter once, “¡Mucho verde!” Too much green! Between squinting into the sun overhead and plucking recalcitrant cherries from their twigs, I kept eyeing the baskets of my companions to determine what would be an acceptable percentage of green.

Ripe coffee on the tree
Coffee break
Leticia, Marisol, and their cousins Ana Cristina and Jose enjoying a break from their morning work
At ten o’clock the plantation manager came around to check in – or maybe more importantly to exchange our coins for tiny packets of chips and spicy Cheetos. My teachers, aged nine, ten, and eleven, plopped down in the dirt to eat. I looked up with some trepidation, but the diminutive official in his white T-shirt didn’t seem especially perturbed by my presence. He just asked, “Was I studying Spanish?” then checked my harvest and approved it. Workers usually come from nearby San Pedro, neighboring villages, and the more distant mountain highlands, but there aren’t too many tourists in the fincas. Other workers had noticed and commented on my presence... “Look! There’s a gringa!” But no worker documentation is required, and many times a whole family harvests under the name of one member who receives the check. So I dump my slowly accumulating basket into Jenny’s sack and no one cares.
Sharing Lunch
Just like in trail work at home, it is my stomach that signals the proximity of lunchtime. The kids have already gone off to start a fire in one of the wider spaces between rows. When my name “Caty!” eventually echoes from somewhere among the greenery I hitch up the weight of my basket and gratefully stoop under the boughs of my row. The fire, now mostly coals, heats tortillas in the smoke, and plates, plastic tubs and the odd spoon emerge from bundles. Tía (Aunt) Victoria scolds, “Who got the dishes so dusty?” and wipes them out with her apron. Teenaged boys tussle while Tía Teresa arranges her fleece blanket wrap to sit down, and gradually the group gathers around the food.

I am handed a small saucer of soupy whole black beans, a glop of cream from a plastic bag, and a bit of hotdog in tomato sauce, and as an afterthought, a couple of scoops of revolcado, which I don’t refuse. When I first started trying “típico” (common) food in the Guatemalan comedors, (small, family run eateries), revolcado was the one dish I pawned off on my friends. Made from pork, it is the animal’s head and sometimes the innards and skin that get chopped up and stewed. Brain tissue is not something I generally want to eat, nor the unfamiliar textures of unnamed parts... But the height of social insult here is to refuse food, and besides, I was hungry.

With smoky tortillas I drowned the texture of the offending bits, and only one tiny scrap with too many pig bristles found its way to the circling dogs when no one was looking. This was a feast where all was shared amongst the company, so I put out my glass bottle of whole-fruit punch and some steamed squash. The conversation and laughter that had run constantly all morning paused as dirt-blackened hands moved food from plate to mouth, using tortillas as the main utensil. Victoria joked that we could use palitos (little sticks) like the Chinese, which seemed smart, so I picked up two sticks and applied chopsticks to my beans and meat, garnering more laughter. The aunts seemed surprised that I had not objected to dirty hands and sitting cross-legged in the dirt and Jenny informed them that it was because I worked in the mountains at home and saw things like polar bears. (She likes to tease me.)

Harvested Coffee
Shortly after lunch we finished our rows (me with help), and moved to another corner of the plantation. The sun now seemed to glare fiercely from between the dry mats of vines that covered the bushes, sprinkling me in debris and little spines when I reached up to grab each new branch. Marisol, age ten, had been left to watch the baby, sleeping in a shawl strung between two coffee bushes, and Jenny moved nimbly around each bush, plucking the good ripe cherries and leaving the green; I kept looking back from a new angle and discovering that I’d missed a branch. Younger shrubs with their first fruit might be only five feet tall, but the older, better yielding bushes are ten feet or more. This height requires pulling on small branches to bend the main trunk down within reach, and once there was a “crack!” and one of the boys went sprawling. This can be worth a scolding from the foreman – since it takes at least 3-4 years for a coffee plant to be productive – and a loss in future pickings. So gingerly, but trying to move fast, I leaned into the overhead branches only as much as I judged would not break the woody stalks, and tried to disentangle crushed cherries from leaves and debris between my fingers. I wasn’t sorry when two thirty arrived and we could sit down to sort out the afternoon’s harvest.
Jenny had brought plastic sheeting and we poured the day’s yield out onto it twenty pounds at a time. Here and there others were doing the same. Two or three pairs of hands fluttered over each pile, flicking sticks and leaves aside, plucking up the odd bright green cherry, and hoisting handful after handful of cleaned coffee into plastic feed sacks. My hands don’t seem to be capable of moving like butterflies, but between us all, massive mounds of coffee were picked through and recollected, tied up with bits of rope or children’s garments, and hefted into the wheelbarrow for the day’s final procession.

Jenny and family after cutting coffee
Jenny, Leticia, Juanito and Marisol sorting the coffee beans
Weighing the day's yield
Back at the entrance where we’d begun there was now an iron platform scale on the concrete patio. The manager, and a couple of men with rippling biceps, were hoisting each sack of coffee onto the scale, fiddling with the weights, and giving understated pronouncements. Someone marked the results in a notebook and the others poured the contents into even larger sacks for sale and delivery to the coffee processors.

Jenny maneuvered a wheelbarrow holding some two hundred and fifty pounds plus a bemused Juanito (her youngest) balanced on top. First, they weighed Victoria’s family’s sack… then Teresa’s family’s sack… the kids started coming back from the water tap with hands and faces a new color… and finally our sack. We all waited to hear the results of our work: Jenny, the prolific picker, Marisol, for whom summer vacation before second grade means helping, and me. I think I might have been holding my breath. One hundred and eighteen pounds! Not bad. Not a record breaking amount, but respectable.
Her aunts both had more than we did, but they had the help of competitive teenaged sons. At the end of two weeks, workers are paid by the pound, at a rate of Q40 (just under $5) per hundred pounds. And while average daily weight depends on how plentiful your rows are – and how fast you can pick, how many family members you have, and whether you have to stop to take care of an ill child – it seems possible for a good picker with a little help to harvest somewhat over a hundred pounds a day. This income is only seasonal, however, since the coffee harvesting lasts from December through February in the Antigua area. And the yield declines with each successive harvest, as the branches get slowly picked clean. By round two, Jenny will be lucky if she can pick eighty pounds in a day.

The harvesting is finished but the day is hardly over...
At the end of the afternoon, feeling hot, scratchy, grime coated and tired, we deposited our baskets in a corner of the patio for the next day and wandered out the gate, sucking frozen milk popsicles in knotted sandwich bags. Teresa waved back to us as she turned towards San Miguel, leaving us San Pedro residents with the shorter walk home.

Not that San Pedro is feeling particularly lucky lately. The town water pump has been broken now for five days, and families have been queuing at all hours at the faucets on the main road with their buckets and plastic tubs. The large pila (a concrete washbasin) in the village square where the women gather to do their laundry is like an empty swimming pool, the water entirely scooped up and carried away. Even tiny children carry a bottle or pail proportional to their size. Since the house where I am living has the unspeakable luxury of a cistern with a pump, I am the only one who can look forward to a shower after the day’s exertion. Not to mention a warm shower, in a real bathroom with tile. And then maybe collapsing with a book for a while… But with the sun sinking lower, Jenny’s day is far from over. 

She is planning to walk her family’s dirty laundry to the next town over to wash it. This arrangement is only slightly better than the number of buckets she’d have to carry four blocks uphill to do her wash at home. Feeling sneaky and unjust, since the other neighbors could easily feel snubbed, I make her promise to come to our house and use our cistern water instead. Because after that, she’ll still have to go home, start a fire, and cook dinner for her family  – hopefully something with leftovers, since she’ll have to bring some tubs of food for tomorrow’s lunch among the coffee boughs.

Later, I stand with Jenny at the small pila (washbasin) in our house as she washes maybe a hundred separate garments and mounds them into a wet pile to carry home. We chat and laugh about the day, recalling teasing between her aunts and me. At around 7:30, Jenny’s husband comes to help her haul the tub of laundry home, and she wraps the baby onto her back as they disappear together into the darkness of the street, making their way uphill to their one room home at the edge of the village.

Editor's Note: If you would like more background on the history and economics of the coffee industry in Guatemala, please see our accompanying webpage, Coffee in Guatemala.

When not harvesting coffee or other agricultural products, Jenny works to help support her family by selling shaved ice drinks and fresh fruit on the streets in San Pedro Las Huertas. Jenny's husband, Julio, also works as a seasonal farm laborer and construction worker wherever and whenever he can find work. Their combined incomes usually average around Q2400 a month. The Guatemalan government has estimated that the cost of feeding a family of five a balanced diet with the minimum daily caloric requirements is approximately Q3600 per month. They live in a rented one-room cement block house, with two beds, one chest of drawers, no running water, an outdoor toilet, and cook on a concrete block wood stove located just behind their home.

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