I received a rainbow of reactions when I told my family and friends that I was joining the Peace Corps…again. From “yaaayyy!” to “what?” to “awesome!” to shocked because…“you don’t even like coffee!”
Interestingly enough, part of my assignment was to develop a marketing plan for selling roasted coffee in the United States for a cooperative of small-scale farmers in Guatemala. I knew in order to be effective, I would have to surrender my “nothing but a bunch of beans and caffeine” way of thinking and show up with an empty cup. What awaited me was more jolting than a shot of espresso.
I was lost in translation. Although they spoke Spanish, and I spoke Spanish, I felt like I was on another planet. What I heard was a whole new language – from acidity to fair trade to parchment to wet processed; this new coffee language left my mind a percolating.
I was impressed with my co-workers. I got to work with a team so dedicated, so knowledgeable, and so passionate about coffee… I strongly believe it ran through their veins. They were the experts who wholeheartedly made sure everything ran smoothly. Not to mention their ability to dissect flavors like nobody’s business - talk about sophisticated palettes.
I was amazed when I met the farmers. Men and women who lived and breathed by the coffee grown on their lands, picked by their hands. I saw the struggles and hardships etched on their faces. But I also saw the hope and resilience shining in their smiles. Since coffee is only harvested once a year, the cooperative provided a means to participate in innovative projects that would decrease economic risk for the farmers as well as support sustainable growth and improve their everyday lives. Some of these opportunities included bio-factories specializing in the production of organic fertilizers; crop diversification through beekeeping (no extra land required as beehives can be positioned between coffee plants); and breeding goats – a “pay it forward” system that allows community members to share newborn goats with other families, thus contributing to their food security.
I was inspired by youth. I witnessed time and money invested into the sons and daughters of farmers so that they could learn every aspect of coffee production…beyond the farm and beyond the harvest.
I was motivated by the women who were not only farmers but who were leaders…leaders within the cooperative; leaders providing technical assistance to other members; leaders within their communities. These women farmers worked the fields every step of the way, resulting in a line of coffee that is entirely women grown. Boom!
I was welcomed with open arms. By everyone. All the time. Anytime. Me…a coffee novice gringa.
I was saddened when it was time to leave and extended my service twice…that little bean grew on me. But behind the bean was what captured my attention and stole my heart…a community of men and women pouring their lives into cultivating specialty, organic, fair trade coffee with care. And what lies beyond the bean is another community gathered together, sharing life’s ups and downs over each sip.
Behind and beyond the bean, coffee changes lives. I should know…from avoiding the Arabica with a vengeance just over a year earlier to strictly hard bean (SHB), shade grown, sun dried, single origin, specialty coffee snob who drinks her coffee black…
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Lilly Acuña served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in the western highlands of Guatemala from August 2015 – July 2016. Lilly originally served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay in the late nineties. She is back in Los Angeles, and continues to market Kishé Guatemalan coffee. She currently does not trust anyone who doesn’t drink coffee.
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