Synopses & Reviews
A Cafecito Story is a story of love, coffee, birds and hope. It is a beautifully written eco-fable by best-selling author Julia Alvarez. Based on her and her husband's experiences trying to reclaim a small coffee farm in her native Dominican Republic, A Cafecito Story shows how the return to the traditional methods of shade-grown coffee can rehabilitate and rejuvenate the landscape and human culture, while at the same time preserving vital winter habitat for threatened songbirds.
Not a political or environmental polemic, A Cafecito Story is instead a poetic, modern fable about human beings at their best. The challenge of producing coffee is a remarkable test of our ability to live more sustainably, caring for the land, growers, and consumers in an enlightened and just way. Written with Julia Alvarez's deft touch, this is a story that stimulates while it comforts, waking the mind and warming the soul like the first cup of morning coffee. Indeed, this story is best read with a strong cup of organic, shade-grown, fresh-brewed coffee.
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.
About the Author
Belkis Ramrez, who created the woodcuts for A Cafecito Story, is one of the most celebrated artrists in the Dominican Republic. Visit Belkis' web site.