Drive between Santiago Atitlán and San Lucas Tolimán some late April morning. As you course through rolling hills covered with coffee in bloom, you will anticipate the beauty of the coffee harvest.Tiny white-star clusters shower the waxy emerald green leaves, as splashes of yellow sunlight filter through the shade trees above. Stand at the upper reaches of finca Pampojilá in late December. Look down its straight rows of coffee trees bursting with red fruit to the beneficio (processing floor) below. Finally climb Cerro Iquitíu and look down at the coffee coating the fantastic fairyland hills mushrooming up around San Gabriel and El Naranjo. Everywhere you look there is coffee.
My coffee harvest experience was within finca Pampojilá, San Lucas Tolimán, in the days before Tropical Storm Agatha (May 29th, 2010) changed the face of the finca forever.
Pampojilá employed no migrant workers, Therefore, Pampojilá lacked the international flavor of the coffee harvest in many fincas. Finca Santo Tomás Perdido near the hot-lands of San Lucas hires migrant workers from many of the poorest parts of Guatemala. This finca is therefore alive with colorful native dress from many parts of El Quiché, Huehuetenango, Sololá, and elsewhere. Many Maya idioms proliferate within the finca as well.
No one commuted far to finca Pampojilá. Workers came from nearby communities of San Lucas Tolimán. Hurricane Stan in October 2005 destroyed many finca homes, forcing workers to relocate. These workers returned to harvest coffee from the new colony built with the help of the Parish of San Lucas Tolimán, Colonia San Andrés. Though born to San Lucas, most shared common descent from San Andrés Semetabaj, the birthplace of the original Pampojilá owner, Manuel Díaz..
Among the harvesters were real characters and personalities. There were women of awesome beauty and fearsome strength. Whole families from infancy to old age participated in the harvest. Small children carried smaller children in perrajes (rebozos) or towels on their backs. Mother picked the upper branches. Kids searched the middle branches. Toddlers combed the bottom. Grandma knelt in front of her canastas (baskets), where she selected out the green, red, yellow, and dried-out brown fruits one from the other.
Old women strolled together beside moss-covered stone walls beneath the towering eucalyptus trees which lined the ancient roadways.They lolled the time away while balancing 70-80 pound sacks of coffee on their heads. Younger women bearing far greater loads on their backs raced past them.The work was exhausting, sticky, and strenuous. However, the mood, was one of pure joy and celebration.
The first time I entered through the monumental front gate of Pampojilá and passed its elegant public pila (communal wash basin), I was struck by the beauty and history of the place. Walking along the rows of dilapidated shacks lining the road and pila, I also sensed something of its misery. Standing among the ruins of these mostly abandoned habitats, I imagined that some fun was also had here, some good fun, and probably continued still.
Those who arrived from San Lucas and surrounding colonies to pick coffee each morning knew more about that than I did. Many traced their ancestry to one or more of these broken-down shanties.They shared memories of deceased co-workers and common ancestors, whose presence they could feel working alongside them in the harvest. They still imagined their grandmother at the pila washing clothing, or Grandpa straining down a mountain trail with coffee on his back.
The old woman selecting coffee beans on the ground was once nursed in the cafetal. She was once the little girl picking berries from the bottom branches. Her memories of other old ladies selecting coffee, as she now knelt doing, somehow kept her eternally young. Hence, the true appeal of Pampojilá’s coffee harvest was that it provided a sense of family, community, and history to the workers. The harvest connected the workers in a living way to generations past.
Tropical Storm Agatha
May 29th, 2010 changed Pampojilá forever. Mud-slides roared down Volcano Atitlán. Heavy torrents raced down historic lava flows opening a deep gorge below the highway. The current swept away a vehicle bearing the storm´s first two victims. Rocks, mud, and a wall of water raged at the finca. Tumbling boulders took out the elegant pila. Mud buried the finca´s church and destroyed most of the finca’s remaining homes. Mud and rocks also buried an old couple, as they slept embracing. I watched in horror on May 30th as men removed their bodies.
A huge mud-slide also plunged down Santa Monica and deposited a heavy lode. The torrent killed all coffee trees in its path and buried the lower level of the home of plantation owner Oscar Diaz.
Oscar Díaz, melancholy from his losses, sold the finca to Pantaleón, a huge sugar processing plant near Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, Escuintla. Thereafter, life on the finca changed. The work became more regimented .Small children and seniors were no longer allowed to accompany their families to the harvest. The workers had dedicated their lives and labor to the finca for generations. Now they were no longer welcome there.
Shortly after Tropical Storm Agatha I made a video slide-show for Oscar Díaz. The video shows both the coffee harvest before Agatha and the destructive force which the torment visited upon the finca. When Oscar and his wife watched it, they wept.
I have published Oscar’s video on Youtube with a link to this site. Have a look.