Guatemala: Discovering Common Ground(s)

Students volunteer in coffee rich and economically poor Guatemala

SAN LUCAS TOLIMAN, GUATEMALA – Samantha (Sam) Kociemba starts her mornings sipping dark, rich coffee, with a hint of skim milk, out of a worn porcelain mug. Her right hand warmed by the brew, she checks her e-mail on a laptop in her St. Paul bedroom. As her blue eyes scan the screen, she watches the steam meander upward and ponders the coffee shop she plans to own one day.

The sweet aroma takes her back to San Lucas Toliman, a town tucked away in the mountains on the shores of Lake Atitlan, in southwest Guatemala, just south of Mexico.

Her mug and its flavorful contents originated there, where she and nine other St. Thomas students volunteered last January. The mug had been used by hundreds of volunteers at the San Lucas Toliman mission, but Kociemba couldn’t part with it, so sophomore Mike Beaudoin made a donation to the mission and gave the mug to her.

"I love coffee. Coffee has character," said Kociemba ’07, a native of Melrose, Minn., population 3,000. The coffee, called Juan Ana, is grown in the villages around San Lucas Toliman. The mission’s coffee cooperative exports 40,000 pounds of beans to the United States each year. The United States, with 100 million coffee drinkers, imports more coffee internationally than any other commodity, except oil.

"I thought I’d go to Guatemala and learn the coffee process," she said. "This trip opened my eyes. I thought, ‘When I open my coffee shop, I can give back. I can participate in Fair Trade coffee so that people can continue to thrive.’" Fair Trade certification guarantees farmers a set minimum price for their coffee. Juan Ana is not Fair Trade-certified because the mission offers a better than Fair Trade price to local farmers for their harvest.

St. Thomas community members have been volunteering since the 1970s at the mission, which Father Greg Schaffer has overseen for 40 years. The trip is St. Thomas’ longest running VISION program, which began 20 years ago. Over the years St. Thomas volunteers have helped build homes, a clinic, school library and a women’s center. They’ve laid water pipes, hauled dirt and worked alongside the Guatemalan people.

On her trip Kociemba helped build a house, construct rebar (steel support beams for homes), plant trees and pick coffee.

"Here, in the U.S., I’m just a consumer of coffee," Kociemba said. "In Guatemala, I was part of the supply chain. I was involved in the process."

And the process is not easy.

Hilario survives civil war and graduates from UST
Hilario (Layo) Hernandez Zapeta started picking coffee when he was 11 and living in the mission’s orphanage in San Lucas Toliman with his sister and four brothers.

He was born in the remote Mayan community of Quiché, three hours away, when, at age four, he watched government soldiers murder his mother and oldest sister in their home. They were killed because they did not speak Spanish and couldn’t communicate with the soldiers. The family spoke one of the 22 native languages of Guatemala, a country of 12 million people.

Knowing he was a wanted fugitive, his father, a guerrilla sympathizer, took Layo and his siblings to the orphanage, which the mission had created to accommodate civil war orphans. His father was killed two years later.

During the civil war (1960-1996), rural Mayan farmers were the primary victims of the army. More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and more than 100,000 people were killed.

Although he remembers the Quiché events vividly, Hernandez, now 31, has developed a sense of humor. "Kids grow up drinking coffee in Guatemala," he said. "We joke that instead of milk in our bottles, we drank coffee and that’s why we’re not tall enough!"

Now living in St. Paul, Hernandez’ story is quite different from his siblings. He received a four-year Latino Leadership Scholarship from the University of St. Thomas and graduated last December with a communication studies degree and a minor in Catholic studies. He is married to Mary (Boyle) Hernandez, a 2000 graduate of St. Thomas who majored in Spanish, and justice and peace studies. They have two small boys who will not grow up to pick coffee.

Working for under $2 a day and remaining grateful
Thirty-seven percent of Guatemalans work for under $2 a day. "It’s hard for them to get ahead financially because they don’t own their own land," said Schaffer, a St. Paul native, who attended the St. Paul Seminary and was ordained in 1960 for the Diocese of New Ulm. He has been pastor and director of the San Lucas Toliman mission since 1964.

"I thought volunteering in Guatemala would be like working in a soup kitchen," Kociemba said. "I didn’t picture it as poor as it is."

"The clothes we brought in our backpacks are more clothes than some of these people have," Alex Zoltai ’07, said at a reflection gathering, which were held each evening.

Each day the St. Thomas students climbed into an open-air truck and stood, tightly gripping the bar overhead to steady themselves as the vehicle lurched along the narrow and sometimes rocky road to take them to that day’s work site. They passed many smiling people who shouted "hola" and waved. Children especially seemed excited and happy to see them. When the truck stopped, the children surrounded the group. Children are safe to wander the streets where they know everyone. Sometimes barefoot, the children didn’t mind the dust that covered their feet and clothing as they stepped around glass and rocks in the street.

Although half of the students knew little Spanish, the children were eager to communicate, which they did by speaking Spanish slowly and smiling profusely.

"People are friendly, humble and happy," said Marcy Stech ’07, a communication studies major from Duluth. "At first I thought the streets were really dirty with trash, and after awhile, I didn’t notice. I found beauty in the houses that weren’t perfect. I noticed the details of doors and windows. I’m impressed with how they live with their resources."

"It’s hard for me to feel the poverty, because they seem happy," said Stephanie Edquist ’08, one of two student leaders. "There’s a great sense of pride here no matter what profession people have, that I don’t see in America." Edquist hopes to work for a U.S. nonprofit to help inner city people escape poverty.

"I love their sense of community and simplicity," Kociemba added. "Their hearts are in the right place." Their emphasis on family and faith reflect her own values. Her father serves as a deacon at St. Mary’s in Melrose and her brother will be ordained a priest in two years. Kociemba recalled her most memorable moment: attending a Mass held in the nearby village of San Andreas, where people displaced by a mudslide were living. "People came from their houses when the church bell rang. Father Greg arrived and the kids ran to him shouting ‘Padre! Padre!’ and embracing him. The Mass was held in a wood-framed room with tarps as walls. Old ladies were kneeling on the dirt floor and the children were belting out the hymns. It was very moving."

Like most of the students, Kociemba was eager to travel to Guatemala. One thing she didn’t realize, however, was that feral dogs wander the streets looking for scraps, and that they can get vicious. Unfortunately, she was bitten by one near a work site. Fearing rabies, her fellow students rushed her to the clinic. Reassured by a nurse, she received a shot and returned to the work site shaken, but determined to continue.

Construction is messy, challenging, rewarding
On several days, the students rode to a home about the size of a one-car garage. A mixture of bamboo stalks tied together and some patches of wood, it was topped with sheets of metal to allow wood smoke to escape. Guatemalans burn sticks to cook food in their homes. Within these walls lived nine boys (from newborn to 15-years-old) and their mother and father. Guatemala has a high infant mortality rate, so families tend to have more children hoping that more will thrive.

"I had a club house when I was a kid that we built out of plywood; this house reminds me of that," said Mike Beaudoin, a St. Thomas ROTC cadet from Omaha, Neb.

Next to the house was the new home that the students and other volunteers were helping to build through the mission’s Land Development Project. More than 3,700 Guatemalan families have received three acres of land each through the project. The new homes have three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room and a kitchen with an efficient wood-burning stove.

Many students found the messy construction job a challenge. Kristin Lueth ’07 shoveled dirt, and Beaudoin poured the cement mix out of its bag and dumped a bucket of water on it. He mixed all three ingredients with a shovel and scooped the goop into buckets. Students standing or sitting precariously on boards placed across two walls were handed the buckets. They plopped the grey oatmeal-like substance on a concrete block and carefully placed another block onto the mix, checked to see if it was level, added more concrete and smoothed out the sides. Sometimes Luis, the site supervisor, laughingly would tell them to start over.

Mission helps Mayans get their land back
Guatemala is agriculturally rich and economically poor. Its eight major volcanoes provide soil rich in nutrients and good for growing corn, black beans, rice, tobacco, sugar cane, bananas, broccoli, snow peas and coffee.

However, most people don’t own land on which to plant so they work on plantations. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado, a Spanish explorer, came to Guatemala. Europeans considered anyone different from them as uncivilized, Schaffer said. The Spanish considered the land in Guatemala to be theirs. They gave land grants to the indigenous people in exchange for "civilizing" them, according to Schaffer.

Eighty percent of all Guatemala is owned by 2 percent of the people. Approximately 18 extended families, heirs from the original Spanish colonists, retain control of the industrial and agricultural output of the country. Five of those families control coffee.

The mission helps the indigenous community become selfsupporting. It has been buying land to give back to the Mayans so they can grow their own coffee and have an income. Schaffer used the inheritance from his parents for his first purchase of land, and the coffee produced is named after them: Juan Ana (John and Ann).

"I hope that visitors come to appreciate, respect and feel solidarity with the people," Schaffer said. "We’re here to walk with Guatemalans, not take care of them or tell them what to do."

Coffee: A lot of work for a few beans
Although there are five main steps to processing coffee, the St. Thomas students mainly picked coffee. The next steps would be removing the beans from the pulp, drying the beans, removing the husks, sorting and roasting – all of which is done by hand.

Coffee fruit, which looks similar to cranberries, grows on trees. The students stood on boulders and pulled down the flexible branches to reach the top berries. It was a sticky process that made them glad they had work gloves, which local pickers do not.

To yield 100 pounds of coffee as an end product, it takes 600 pounds of coffee fruit. One basket holds 25 pounds of coffee fruit. None of the students were able to fill a basket in the two and a half hours that they picked.

"I learned that when you take time to think about how things, like coffee, get into your hands at home, you realize that it doesn’t come easy," said Zoltai, the other student leader and the most enthusiastic picker. He plans to return to San Lucas Toliman this fall to volunteer with the mission.

The mission runs a coffee cooperative in which 600 families participate. It pays a much higher and constant price for the coffee than the world market price, which fluctuates. Typically, the street price for 100 pounds of coffee is about $8. The mission pays about $27.

Schaffer, 73, makes several fundraising trips to the United States each year but knows that he won’t be able to continue forever. He hopes that Hernandez will become the main mission-fundraiser in the United States. "I would really love to raise money," Hernandez said. "That’s why I got a communication studies degree – to be able to talk to groups."

Meanwhile, Hernandez works construction at night and cares for his children during the day. His wife, Mary, works in St. Thomas’ International Education Center and cares for the children at night. Child care centers don’t exist in Guatemala. Family takes care of family and Layo and Mary are keeping the tradition.

Kociemba’s coffee shop dream
Kociemba won’t pick coffee again anytime soon.

"I’d go back to Guatemala in a heartbeat," she said, "but there are other things keeping me here … like a wage! I’m hopeful that within a couple years I’ll have enough money for my coffee shop," Kociemba said. "It will be in the Brainerd-Baxter area, which I love. I’m a small-town girl at heart." Before graduating from St. Thomas, she worked at Coffee Bené, a café near campus.

She often writes down her ideas for the future, which have changed since visiting Guatemala. "I want to incorporate culture and community in my coffee shop," she said. "I want to make people aware of the coffee process in Guatemala."

A marketing and entrepreneurship double major, Kociemba started as an executive team leader at a west metro Target Store in July.

She isn’t one to rush out the door to work with a spillproof jug of Starbucks coffee propped in a cup holder. She still starts her day with a home-brewed, steaming cup of Juan Ana coffee, sipping it very slowly, savoring every coffee bean. After all, she might have picked some of them.