Photo: Mujer vertiendo chocolate - Codex Tudela. (United States Domain Tag: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Copyright_tags#United_States )
“After straining, the cacao is lifted up high so it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth. And whoever makes it well, makes and sells the cacao such as only the lords drink: smooth, frothy, vermillion red, and pure, without much corn masa. Cacao that is no good has a lot of masa and a lot of water, and so it doesn’t make a good froth, only a bubbly scum.”
Those were the words of Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary who wrote about the Aztec culture during the contentious period of the conquest of Mexico. He documented daily rituals, spiritual practices, and culture of the indigenous people including their consumption and production of cacao. (more…)
Rocja Pomtila, la Chua, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
Doña Olga is a rockstar. She wields a machete like a warrior in the field and attends evening church services dressed like a queen. She is a cacao farmer, community leader, and a mom to three teenagers.
The best way to describe her attitude is “¡vámanos!” (let´s go!). Do you want to go visit the cacao farm? ¡Vámonos! Nor the heat nor distance fazed her. We strolled through the corn field and I observed how she paused, keenly attuned to the natural surroundings with ears perked for the sound of howler monkeys.
We bonded out there on the farm. Usually that´s my chance to ask farmers about technical aspects of cacao farming, like how often they prune and whether they graft or plant from seeds. Visiting the farm with Doña Olga was different. We talked about the plants. We talked about people. We talked about relationships, personal journeys, and aspirations. “Do you remember the first time you tasted cacao?,” I asked her. Oh yes, she said. It was five years ago when she planted cacao to supplement the income from corn and cardamom. She remembers tasting the fruit for the first time and falling in love. I nodded in agreement. Cacao for both of us is a love story.
She pulled out a bag to collect the seeds that we had sucked. Her resourcefulness reminds me of my Chinese grandmother, a petite yet a mighty force of nature. Everything has a use. Doña Olga gathered cardamom pods, corn mazorcas, even the bird-picked cacao seeds on the ground. She walked—or more accurately glided—with wild instinctive grace over the slippery leaves, perfectly at ease through the shadows of the forest.
Her enchantment is the ability to transform. While not so uncommon for women to work alongside men on the farm, women are still in charge most household activities. Doña Olga cooks for the family, washes the clothing and dishes down by the river, and tends to the backyard chickens. Her work extends even beyond the household. For the past couple years she has served as a member of the Junta Directiva committee represent the cacao farmers’ association. She can be quite opinionated too, and I like that about her.
That evening we attended the Evangelical church service together. I had nothing to wear but soiled jeans and boots so she lent me her daughter´s corte and huipil, the traditional Maya skirt and loose tunic still worn by women in indigenous communities. Wearing the huipil can be a marker of both class and identity, according to my friend Callie who is studying Guatemala’s textile tradition. Both for everyday use and special occasions, the huipil is an example of the living and dynamic Maya heritage.
Doña Olga was the first woman I have met who identifies herself as a cacao farmer. Even among men this identity is rare; being a cacao farmer takes tenacity and dedication. It takes an attentive eye to subtle shifts in the balance of nature, a soft touch to pick the cacao pods when ripe, and the endurance to keep going when the weather turns sour. It’s not a matter of male or female capabilities. Rather, it’s about the core character strengths that make farmers like Doña Olga truly different.
Plus, she is adorably in love with cacao.
This is a traditional Q’eqchi’ huipil (top garment) and corte, with a characteristic waistband around the skirt.
Final interview question: What about cacao makes you happy?
Me gusta porque da frutos, es bueno el jugo, se siente uno sano.
I like that it gives fruit, the juice of the pulp is delicious, and it is good for the health.
“The bush” is what people in Belize refer to as the jungle, or what I more generally describe as living in “el campo” (the countryside) where modern amenities like flushing toilets and electricity are hard to come by. It is less comfortable. It feels raw.
My first shock was the darkness. When the sun sets around 7 pm the reality of no electricity really sinks in. At my first homestay in San Antonio the family relied on hand-held flashlights to illuminate their evening activities like cooking, washing up, and helping the kids with homework. We ate in almost complete darkness, taking turns on wooden stools and huddling by the fire. There was no feeling of needing to rush off to check email or phone because the only thing to do was enjoy each other’s company. Darkness is conducive to storytelling. We chatted about the Mayan rituals that, more common two generations ago, are fading over time.
Generations before cacao was sold as an export commodity in Belize (since 1986), it was more commonly a household drink and cultural emblem. Cacao was the beverage of nighttime ceremony. It could fuel worship during the pre-harvest dance or keep people awake during periods of vigilance. Sudden wealth could incur a jealous neighbor’s curse. A bushman would prescribe a three-day fast of sleep to watch for evil spirits. Others believed that before planting cacao it was necessary to sacrifice small animal like a chicken. These and other stories are part of the mystic that shroud the invisible value of cacao.
Imagination too takes hold in life sans electricidad. On the second night of the homestay, the kids and I stood outside under the stars telling stories of the bush. I told them the Slavic folklore of Baba Yaga, a version of Cinderella in which the beautiful heroine Vasilisa makes a journey through the woods to bring back oil for her evil step mother and step sisters who await in darkness. Vasilisa is condoned to visit the ferocious witch woman Baba Yaga lives in a hut with sticks that look like chicken feet. Cinderella makes it back home, bestowing the light so pure and bright that it blinds her evil step sisters and step mother. As I told this story the children while sitting under the stars in the cacao lands of Belize--where houses really do look like huts on stilts—the distant fairy tale of my childhood came alive.
Some families, whether through their own innovation or the fortune of external assistance, have light past dusk. At my third homestay in Santa Elena the family had a solar-powered battery that provided light and even powered a small television. This family was both modern and traditional. They had a gas stove but preferred to use firewood in preference for the smoky taste. For them, wealth was this freedom of choice.
Solar power meant that Mr. Choc could stay up later at night and help out his son with schoolwork. But it also meant that his son spent more time in front of the television watching movies. He told me this, shaking his head that sometimes he couldn’t stop when these movies exposed his son violence and profanity. He wanted to teach his son things that could only be taught on the farm, like how to maneuver the machete, how to forage for wild plants, and how to chop up sugar cane to suck when you run out of water.
Mr. Choc too was a storyteller. He told me the legend of the farmer who swapped places with a turkey vulture. This farmer was too lazy to weed the bush and sow his corn. He gazed up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture circling around, diving, and within a matter of seconds capturing prey to eat. The farmer made a wish that he could have an easy life and swap places with the turkey vulture. His wish was granted, but soon enough the farmer—now a vulture—realized that he did not know how to fly or hunt for food. Soon he became hungry and wished he were a farmer again.
Pausing so that I could contemplate the message of this story, Mr. Choc turned to me and said: “You’re not really here for the cacao, are you?” Somehow he knew. He could sense my interviews with the farmers are part of something bigger, part of a deeper personal journey. Farmers, too, are travelers and wandering spirits. We share a quiet anxiety and drive to go out and explore the natural world. At the same time, we hold a healthy respect for her capricious nature. We are painfully aware of our small position as human beings in the world.
At the same time, we are not afraid. Some farmers, like Mr. Choc, carry a special object like a secret stone or clove of garlic to protect them wherever they go. This stone protects them when they travel alone through the bush. It keeps them safe from harm´s way, be it a venomous snake or a biting insect. Should the farmers become lost they only need to take out their secret stone, turn their shirt inside out, and find re-direction from within.
Do good and good will come to you. That’s my secret stone. We were finishing up the farm tour when a hummingbird whizzed past us, so quickly that she stopped us in our tracks. “That is a sign of good luck, especially for females and travelers” said Mr. Choc. I nodded in silent agreement.
Aren’t you afraid of the darkness at night? No, I tell them. Being out there in the bush is part of finding the path.
Getting around the bush in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize