Machete in hand, Genaro Meza Mendez walks through the dense jungle in Chiapas, Mexico, to care for his family’s coffee fields where he grows organic arabica and robusta coffee. He harvests each coffee bean by hand and places it in a basket he has tied around his waist. If Genaro didn’t have the opportunity to sell coffee through a cooperative, making enough to feed his family of eight, he might have to immigrate to the United States illegally as his two younger brothers did.
Genaro lives in Chiapas and is part of a cooperative that sells his coffee beans, grown near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, across the northern border with the United States.
Café Justo, or Just Coffee, began 10 years ago as a response to what one of its founders Arthur Bassett III calls “an immigration crisis.” The number of migrants crossing the border illegally began to rise in the early 2000s. As border enforcement increased, migrants crossed through more remote areas of the desert, also causing the number of deaths to increase.
The primary reason for immigration is because people can’t make a living, Bassett said. “It could be because of war, it could be because of a natural disaster, it could be because of … even love. People move to try to better their situation.”
Traveling back and forth from Douglas to Agua Prieta, Sonora, Bassett saw an increase of migrants from Chiapas trying to cross illegally into Arizona. For a while, he put water out for migrants in the desert; he helped feed those about to cross into the U.S. and helped translate at the border, “but it becomes apparent that’s not enough,” said Bassett, who goes by Tommy.
“There’s a big economic disparity, living down here on the border. It’s very easy to witness this, seeing people coming looking for work, trying to cross a border both legally and not legally,” he said, adding that he sees economic development as the key to preventing dangerous and illegal immigration.
Bassett, together with Agua Prieta resident Adrián Gonzales and Reverend Mark Adams from the Frontera de Cristo Church set out to create a vertically integrated coffee business where growers could roast, package, and export their own coffee. They received a $20,000 grant from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and set up a commercial roaster and shipping facility in Sonora, a processing facility in Chiapas, and a sales network in Arizona and beyond.
The cooperative has about 30 members in the mountains of Mexico’s southern most state, including Genaro’s family. The campesinos plant, grow, and harvest the coffee cherries by hand when the fruit is red, glossy, and firm. They peel the cherries and leave them out to dry at a processing facility in Salvador Urbina, a small town in southern Chiapas. After a week, when the beans are dry, Café Justo employees pack sacks full of coffee beans and ship them to Agua Prieta, where days later a handful of employees roast the coffee and pack it into individual one-pound bags. Those bags are shipped across the United States border to Douglas and sold throughout southern Arizona and through Café Justo’s online store.
“A lot of people nowadays are interested in knowing who grew their food, that direct relationship with the provider,” Bassett said. “I don’t mind paying a couple more dollars to the person who grows the corn in my community when I know their kids will be playing with my kids and it built their family allowing them to stay in their house.” The same is becoming true of coffee.
While coffee is not an especially high-value cash crop in Mexico, it is a valuable commodity in the United States and Europe. It is difficult, however, for individual farmers to grow enough to meet market demand and to cover the cost and logistics of international sales. Café Justo’s nonprofit cooperative model allows individual farmers to pool their coffee crops and share distribution costs.
The coffee farmers in Café Justo’s cooperative do not use fertilizers, instead adding natural organic matter, mostly old plant leaves, to help the soil retain nutrients.
“The coffee is good. It’s remarkable and very low in acid,” Bassett said. “This makes it really unique. It’s truly a drink-all-day coffee.”
These coffee beans also work as an anchor that keeps families together by giving people like Genaro an opportunity to make a living from the family coffee crops and prevent them from leaving the village to look for work elsewhere. “What could be worse than being a parent and never hearing from your child again?” Bassett said.
“[My son] goes with me to our coffee plantation and I tell him, ‘Mijo, one day you’re going to be taking care of this land and you’re going to teach your brother.’”
Stories of the dangers of crossing the U.S. border filter down to Mexico’s border with Guatemala. The problems are familiar even to village elders, some of whom have never left the small town of Salvador Urbina.
A mother of seven, Lucia Mendez Sicara, 73, knows first-hand how separation of families negatively affects life in villages such as Salvador Urbina. If her oldest son, Genaro, had immigrated to the U.S., she would have had to sell the family’s coffee plantation—and only source of income—because her aging husband can’t work the fields anymore, she said.
Luckily, Genaro remains in Chiapas to care for the family’s coffee plantation. Her other sons crossed the Arizona desert into the United States illegally 15 years ago when coffee prices were low and economic opportunities few. They’ve found jobs in North Carolina—although Mendez says things haven’t been easy for them, and they have not returned.
On a Sunday morning last fall, Genaro, a 51-year-old campesino, planted coffee seedlings in small black plastic bags with the help of his two young sons, Miguelito and Jael. It will be about three years before these seedlings grow into shrubs or small trees that can produce coffee beans.
“Papi! Papi! Toma esto,” says 2-year-old Jael, eager to get his father’s attention while he hands him a clump of soil.
The single father of three has a family lot, or parcela, where most of his coffee grows. His parcela is a 30-minute walk from his home and Genaro climbs the mountain every day to check on the crops that he sells through Café Justo.
Genaro, like other coffee farmers in the cooperative, cares for his land by picking up fallen leaves and gathering them to create organic fertilizer for the coffee plants. The once dark green glossy leaves help retain moisture when piled up at the base of each coffee tree. He also checks for insects that may harm the plants and makes sure thieves have not dug up newly planted shrubs, something he says has become a problem in recent years.
He also has about a dozen coffee plants in the backyard of a home he shares with his aging parents, his sister, his niece, and his three children.
“My children are young but they’re there when I work. Miguelito already knows what I do and he’s paying attention,” Genaro said. “He goes with me to our coffee plantation and I tell him, ‘Mijo, one day you’re going to be taking care of this land, and you’re going to teach your brother.’ I want to teach my kids the best about these fields.”
By keeping the family coffee plantation, Genaro said, he hopes to prevent another generation from risking their lives trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. ✜
Café Justo. 520.364.3532. CafeJusto.com.
Fernanda Echavarri is a multimedia reporter for Arizona Public Media.
“My mother and father used to tell me, ‘Don’t be embarrassed to get your knees dirty when you’re planting seeds. Love this land the way God loves us because when you love it and work it, you strengthen the ecosystem, you strengthen your family’s economy, and you strengthen your soul,” said Lebastain Lopez Perez. He joined Café Justo almost two years ago after having sold his coffee at a lesser price through coyotes or middle-men.
Caring for the coffee fields takes countless hours of cleaning, shading, and hand picking each coffee bean off the plants. Lopez Perez’s coffee field is about six acres. “Sometimes people who live in urban areas forget about the farmers and the countryside, but if it were not for the country and what we do here, what would urban cities look like?”
Felix ventura gomez cares for the machinery at the facility. For him, Café Justo was the reason to avoid a perilous trek north. “We don’t make a lot but, enough for us to live. I thought about going up there, not so much to work but instead to feel what it’s like to cross the desert, but thank god Café Justo came up,” he said.
He has a friend who crossed into the U.S., but only after getting lost in the desert, and running out of water because a smuggler abandoned the group. Knowing a chance for success exists in Urbina is enough to keep him from risking his life crossing the desert into Arizona.
Edmundo ballinas santiago, a founding member of Café Justo, took over his parcela from his father who died two decades ago.“I get great satisfaction knowing that people in the U.S. are drinking the coffee I planted and harvested,” he said. “I tell my daughters that they must maintain the land and work it like I do to keep sending coffee north.”