A Better Cup of Coffee
By Karen Marzloff
From HippoPress Manchester
When Joe stops at the roadside barra outside his Dominican vacation resort, he finds the local coffee comes in a single, perfect denomination, "a dollhouse-sized cup filled with delicious, dark brew that leaves stains on the cup." He takes a sip and tastes a coffee that will change his life forever.
Joe is the main character in the adult fable/parable A Cafecito Story by award-winning Vermont novelist Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1990), In the Time of Butterflies (1993), and In the Name of Salomé (2000)). Illustrated with wonderful, imaginative woodcuts by celebrated Dominican artist Belkis Ramírez, the book comes in three parts: The "Cafecito Story" of the books title; an afterward by Bill Eichner, Alvarez's spouse and co-owner of their organic coffee farm; and a surprisingly rich and sensible resource section.
"The Cafecito Story" unfolds through the eyes of Joe, a Nebraska native with farming in his blood. Joel feels increasingly displaced from the natural world, so he takes a getaway vacation to the Dominican Republic.
What's so special about the cafecito he finds there? The beans were grown in the traditional way, on a shaded farm in the Dominican's mountainous interior. When Joe visits a coffee farm in the hills, the farmer Miguel tells him that the old ways are fast disappearing as farmers rent their plots to "La compañia" to grow coffee quickly in full son, for better short-term yields. The result is the destruction of a sustainable way of life through deforested mountains, depleted soils, and pesticides and chemical fertilizers that wash into the rivers. And for the coffee drinker half a world away, notes Miguel, "The sprayed coffee tastes just as good if you are tasting only with your mouth. But it fills you with the poison swimming around in that dark cup of disappointment."
I'm drinking a cup of certified organic coffee as I write this. How could I drink anything else? This book is meant to be more than light summer reading. It's meant to change your thinking, and it's likely that it will.
Eichner and Alvarez's real-life story picks up where the fable leaves off. Eichner writes in the afterward about Alta Gracia, their organic coffee farm established with them campesino neighbors in the Dominican Republic. Where the fiction is simple and prose sometimes choppy, the afterward is much more lyrical. It clearly conveys the rewards of helping to renew a landscape scorched by agribusiness, the joys of seeing the songbirds return and the literacy rate rise, and the fulfillment in transforming the dream of sustainability into a reality.
Like a young tree, the parable and the real-life story intertwine and take root in the reader. In part three, an extensive and imaginative list of resources will help coffee drinkers participate in fair trade, a set of marketplace practices that create a better future for half a million family coffee farmers around the world.
In an age when we often want to make a difference but are uncertain of where to begin, drinking a better cup of coffee doesn't seem like much to ask. After all, writers Eichner, "Anyone can begin by planting a tree, or a hundred trees…. The future does depend on each cup, on each small choice we make."
Eichner and Alvarez manage to tell a complex story with global consequences without being preachy of heavy-handed. They intend to inspire, and they do.
A Cafecito Story: Fiction with a mission
by Francette Cerulli, book correspondent
May 17, 2002
Born in the Dominican Republic, Middlebury College’s writer-in-residence Julia Alvarez has succeeded brilliantly as both poet and novelist. And having had to leave her homeland as a girl because of political pressure has fostered a vision in this writer that is at least binocular.
A poem of hers I didn’t even know I remembered kept floating to the surface of my mind recently. I was vacuuming and dusting, trying to create order somewhere in my life the week after a friend, a Vietnam veteran, killed himself. In the poem Alvarez, too, was cleaning house as she listened to talk of Vietnam body counts on the radio. She must have written it at least 30 years ago and I don’t even own the book that contains it.
But she understood both the futility of and the need for earnest, fruitless efforts to try to make small order of chaos and bloodshed by cleaning up dirt, to accept loss by removing dog hair from a rug. It was all there in her last line, which for some reason I remembered: “Not a speck of death anywhere.”
A Cafecito Story is the latest product of Alvarez’ global vision. It comes through Chelsea Green, our own Vermont publisher of books encouraging sustainable living. To say the story, format and message of “A Cafecito Story” are all pleasing may sound like too-faint praise to describe the effect of this little gem of a book. But there is something so unified about the way that the tale, the illustrations and the purpose all work together, that using hyperbole to describe it feels like an insult to its quiet integrity.
Simply told, A Cafecito Story is about coffee. It is also about Joe, a man born into a Nebraska farming family whose small farm had to be sold off to pay bills. When Joe sees that farming has become “a business run by people in offices who had never put their hands in the soil,” he decides to become a teacher. And every morning, as he reads and looks out over what used to be his father’s fields now strangely empty of birds, he drinks a strong cup of coffee.
But something is missing for Joe, and after years of teaching he feels stale. He decides to take a vacation. And on the Web (this is a modern story) he finds a nice package vacation to the tropics, complete with photos of “barely clad beauties” playing on the beach. He has great hopes for his vacation to the Dominican Republic, “the lap of happiness.”
What Joe finds is both more than he bargained for and exactly what he needs. Bored with the bunker-like atmosphere of the hotel compound he arranges to go into the mountains. There he sees two kinds of coffee farms. One kind is planted on steep, clear-cut hillsides, the bushes grown in full sun and rushed to maturity with chemicals and pesticides.
The other kind of coffee farm is spread out under tall trees that shade the coffee bushes, bringing them slowly to maturity in about three years. Joe learns that these small farms, tended by mostly illiterate families, are fast disappearing. It is more profitable to grow coffee the new, quick poisonous way on huge tracts of land. What happened to Joe’s parents’ farm is happening here, too.
Joe, it turns out, never leaves the mountains of the Dominican Republic, except to go back home briefly, where he finds the final surprising ingredient in his life. He buys his own parcela of land. He teaches the campesinos to read and write, which enables them to protect themselves from small print in contracts, keep their farms and continue the old, respectful ways of growing coffee.
The woodcuts of Belkis Ramirez, the Dominican Republic’s Mary Azarian, are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, drawing us more deeply into the book. Her work is mystical and evocative. Feathery, fine and full of detail, Ramirez’ woodcuts invite us to linger over them as we would over a good cuppa joe (is this, I wonder, where our hero’s name came from?).
There is an afterward by Alvarez’ husband, Bill Eichner, the “Joe” of the story, who describes the genesis and parallel real-life events of “The Cafecito Story.” He and Julia really do own a coffee plantation in the Dominican Republic, where the old methods are followed and farmers are given fair trade for their beans. There are half a million coffee farmers now worldwide who follow the same practices and are protected by the same fair trade rules.
The last section, “A Better Coffee: Developing Economic Fairness,” describes exactly what fair trade is: “efficient and profitable trade organized with a built-in commitment to equity, dignity, respect and mutual aid.” Coffees like Equal Exchange, available at food co-ops and now even at many supermarkets, give us a chance to make sure our coffee habits give fair prices and support for sustainability to the people who grow the beans in our cups of wake-up.
This is followed by a short, informative list of U.S. resources.
I would argue with one thing that Eichner says. He attributes the “sour and transparent” coffee in the Midwest, where he grew up, to inferior beans and “the frugal nature of prairie farmers.” A Minnesota friend of mine offers another explanation. On weekends, she says, it’s a Midwestern habit to catch up on news and gossip, dropping in on several friends in one day. And it’s the height of rudeness to refuse another cup. Watered-down coffee is a necessity if one is not going to be one irritated nerve by the second or third visit of the day. If coffee is weak, I pour it down the sink and make it again the right way. But in the Midwest, it seems, it’s good for neighborly relationships.