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High and Amazing Graces

For the last 15 years, my husband Bill and I have been involved in a project in the Dominican Republic, a coffee farm with a literacy program, which we named, Alta Gracia, after the national virgencita. It seemed the right name for a farm located high in the mountains (alta) dedicated to spreading grace (gracia).


We look for hope wherever we can: here's a double rainbow seen from Alta Gracia.
Note the deforested mountainside. What ours looked like before we planted trees.
(© Bill Eichner)

The coffee part was ambitious but straightforward. We wanted to reforest the mountainside, grow organic coffee, and get certification for the coffee from our farm and from those of local farmers who would all pool their coffee together under the umbrella Café Alta Gracia. We wanted to find a First World market for this coffee. We also wanted to model Fair Trade practices.

But we had only a vague idea of what the grace part would be. We knew we wanted to serve the community, but we weren't sure how.We knew we wanted to serve the community, but we weren't sure how.

But then we discovered that most of people in the community couldn't read or write. It's no wonder, given the rundown condition of the local school at the time. So we decided to start a school at Alta Gracia. But who would staff it when we were back in the States? We needed a year round volunteer teacher. One of the pluses of being connected with a college is that there are any number of interested students who are often eager to take a year to do a service project upon graduation. And so we started the volunteer program. For years we had one volunteer, the teacher; a few years ago we added a second volunteer to focus on other community projects. Each year we wonder if anyone will apply, and amazing grace, a handful and sometimes as many as 10 graduates apply!

Our first volunteer was an attractive young woman, blonde and radiant and friendly. I admit I was a little worried about sending her off to a remote mountaintop without a chapter one. Every young and not so young man in the community would be trying to romance her. Before Laura flew down, we met to give her some advice on — among other things — what to pack for the year. After mentioning the obvious, practical items she should take, I asked her to add a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping iron. First thing she should do when she got to Alta Gracia was put that poster up on the wall at the office casita and tell everyone that it was a photo of her boyfriend, a very jealous guy.

Laura not only survived the year at Alta Gracia as our first guinea-pig volunteer, but she did such a terrific job, she set the bar high for all other volunteers who have followed. She also did get a handful of marriage proposals, which she handled gracefully. Meanwhile — I don't follow the stars — I understand Arnold Schwarzenegger's own marriage has fallen apart.


Our vibrant, pretty maestro Laura
(© Bill Eichner)

A few years into the volunteer program, when we were beginning to have readers in the community because of the school, another grace came knocking. A youth group in Wellesley contacted us. They wanted to come down and build something for the community. Our current "library" was a Twinkies box in the little casita of the Peace Corps couple who had come to work in the community, inspired by Alta Gracia.Our current "library" was a Twinkies box in the little casita of the Peace Corps couple who had come to work in the community, inspired by Alta Gracia. So we asked the Wellesley group to build a library for us. We pondered what design to use. Since there's no such thing as public libraries in the Dominican Republic, we wanted to make the space familiar so that people would feel welcomed. One of the most common structures in the countryside are the little barras along the road, where people can stop and get a refreshment and hang out before proceeding on their way. So the Wellesley group built us a barra biblioteca right on the main drag, where folks can stop, borrow a book or have it read to them, and then go along on their business.

So many high and amazing graces have come to both Bill and me from Alta Gracia, I've stopped counting. Bill's tireless work with local farmers and his efforts to get our coffee to a First World market have begun to pay off. Café Alta Gracia began with a duffle bag of green beans, which Bill would bring back to Vermont from the farm, then drive to a local roaster, package, and deliver to friends who became our first fans and customers. A few years into doing this we had the good luck of meeting Paul Ralston, who was just starting Vermont Coffee Company. He took over the importing and roasting and marketing of the coffee, traveling down to the Dominican Republic from time to time to meet the growers, and supporting projects that have made a big difference in the community. What a great affirmation in 2004 when New York Magazine selected a coffee blend, made by Vermont Coffee Company with Café Altagracia and served at Jack's Stir Brew in the village, as the best cup of coffee in New York City.

More graces have followed. Charlie Parker, the great jazz musician, once remarked, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."Charlie Parker, the great jazz musician, once remarked, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." The experience of Alta Gracia has definitely come out in my writing, not only in books directly based on the project, like A Cafecito Story, but in my choice to begin writing for young readers. So many of the books I brought down to use at the farm school were translations of American titles whose subject matter had nothing to do with experiences of the local community. And yet, the oral culture was alive and well, replete with wonderful stories, stories about the little Virgin Altagracia; about the ciguapas, a tribe of beautiful women with their feet on backwards; about la Viejita Belén, an old woman who brings gifts after Epiphany to poor children who hadn't received anything from Santa Claus or the Three Kings. I began writing these stories down as a way of creating reading material for the new readers in the community.

But the highest and most amazing grace from Alta Gracia has come in the form of friendships with locals, with our volunteers, and with the Haitian migrants who have moved into the area to work on farms. One of these was Piti, a youngster who turned out to be 18 but didn't look a day over 14 — why his nickname in Kreyòl means "little." We've watched that boy grow into a young man, become a husband, and a father, and now a character in a book I've written about our friendship.

This whole grace thing seems to operate like those old chain letters. You're asked to send the message on to 10 people, and two weeks later, you can expect a million bucks or a magical surprise. So also with gracia. You move into a place of grace (and now I'm talking a state of mind, not just a coffee farm); you act as if hope will have its day; you stay with it even when it seems a long stretch between small blessings, and I can vouch for the fact that you might not get a million bucks — in fact, you might be out a million bucks — but you do get a hundredfold blessings back. It's happened often enough at Alta Gracia that we've come to believe that we gave the place the right name.

(© 2012 by Julia Alvarez. All rights reserved.)

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Julia Alvarez is the author of 19 books, including the novels How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. A Wedding in Haiti is her personal memoir.


Books mentioned in this post



Julia Alvarez is the author of A Wedding in Haiti

One Response to "High and Amazing Graces"

  1.  
    DeniseB May 1st, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    What a beautiful story and project you have created!! Can one donate to this community or its' library?

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