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Editor’s note: This article first ran in the September 2020 issue of Coffee T & I Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.

Facing Machismo: a Producer’s Perspective

By Sandra Elisa Loofbourow

Growing up in a matriarchal Latino household, I was taught two things: that a) women are just as strong and capable as (if not stronger than) men, and b) we must demand the right to be treated as equals. Chile, my second home, has recently been participating in a wave of social unrest much like the #metoo movement in the US. This one demands non-sexist education and an end to violence against women. The hashtags center on #yotecreo (I believe you) #dondeestalajusticiachilena (where is justice in chile?) and, most tragically, #antoniabarra, a young woman’s name. She is one of countless victims who has not yet seen justice.    

It was through this internet uprising that I discovered something truly disconcerting about women’s rights in Chile: a married women’s right to own property and manage their funds are completely dependent on their husband’s approval. Share a bank account with your husband? You cannot remove or administer those funds without his co-signature. What about a savings account for your children – even one for which you are the exclusive contributor? Sorry, you need a co-signer for that too. Worse still, if you owned property before the marriage, he must now approve any changes – mortgage, rental, or sale – to that property now that you are married.  

I can’t think of a better example of how insidious the culture of machismo is in Latin America. It’s baked in. Even in a country like Chile, who’s already had a female president, has universal healthcare, and is already discussing UBI, these laws remain in place. 

Chile doesn’t grow coffee, but these problems aren’t unique to the southern tip of Latin America. This led me to wonder: what is it like to be a woman working in an agricultural industry that is overwhelmingly male, within a culture that is extremely machista? What challenges do these women face and how to they confront those challenges 

Momoca visiting Santa Elena (photo courtesy of Mayra Orellana Powell)

To answer these questions, I spoke with two women within the coffee industry to find out what their experience has been, how they’ve dealt with this male-dominated industry, and what advice they have to others.  

Mayra Orellana Powell is from a rural town deep in the mountains of Santa Elena, Honduras. As a young woman she emigrated to the United States, where she lived for almost two decades. Even though coffee had been her family’s main source of income in Santa Elena, she seemed unable to find Honduran coffee in the US. On trips back home, she would stuff her suitcase full of roasted coffee each time she visited her family, bringing back enough to drink for the next year.  

When she inherited her grandparent’s coffee farm, she wondered again: why wasn’t there Honduran coffee in the US? Where was it going? More importantly, how could she get the farmers more money for their product? 

This led Mayra to create the Catracha Community Project. Starting in 2010, she imported some coffee from small holder producers from her remote region of Honduras. Direct access to market meant the farmers could get higher prices for their product, and Mayra was on the ground in the US finding buyers for their coffee. Together with her husband Lowell, they began working on improving the quality of their coffee, aware that higher quality would also lead to higher prices. The Catracha project redistributes profits directly to the farmers at the end of the season – a second payment for agricultural workers who usually only see one lump sum upon delivery of their product after harvest and processing.  

Mayra and Lowell work as a team; now that they’ve moved back to Santa Elena full time, Mayra’s focus has shifted to community projects specifically for women and youth, while Lowell collects data on processing methods and cup quality, providing recommendations to their coffee producing partners (who are usually men). 

When Mayra first began organizing events and workshops in Santa Elena, she found it was incredibly difficult to get the women to leave their houses for any social gatherings. There was simply too much to do at home – cook, clean, care for children, and help in the field. While it’s common for men in Santa Elena to spend their evenings drinking with friends, women don’t get the opportunity to socialize outside of specific activities, usually centered around church. To increase the attraction of these events, Mayra brings in artists like Momoca to teach skills like making these beautiful little purses (see picture below) which the women can make and sell to bring in some extra income. Mayra sends a clear message to each woman in attendance: invite a friend, sister, or mother in law – help spread the word! And slowly, over the years she’s been able to build a community of women reaching across the mountains of Santa Elena.  

Women and youth from the community sharing a meal at Catracha’s community center (photo courtesy of Mayra Orellana Powell)

Rural communities are slow to adapt. While big cities, and especially capitols, have come a long way in regard to women’s rights, the countryside is nearly always more conservative – sometimes extremely so. This corner of Honduras is extremely remote; the nearest city is Marcala, but it’s a one-hour drive, and most people don’t have cars. As is the case in most of Latin America, this means that many people – especially young peoplefeel forced to leave to find better opportunities 

Mayra tells me about her friend Gloria, one of Catracha’s producing partners. About two years ago, Gloria’s husband and oldest son left with the caravans travelling north to the US. Since then, she has overseen their small coffee farm on her own. “The quality of her coffee has gone up tremendously, it keeps improving year after year” Mayra says. The main difference? “Unlike her husband, she follows our recommendations! 

On the other side of the equator in Peru, Edith Meza runs a farm she inherited from her mother in 2007. She’s had her share of sexist encounters and tackles machismo head on.I had to make a strong impression in order to win their respect”, she says, referring to her male neighbors and colleagues who grow coffee in the region. Edith opens our conversation with a story about a contractor she hired. Having brought her team of workers (mostly young men) with several trucks full of coffee to his remote receiving dock, she received a rude welcome: “He started telling me off as soon as I arrived. He wanted to make me look bad in front of my team.” Edith stood her ground, saying “Look, you can charge whatever you like, that’s your right. It’s my right to decide to work with you or not”. She’s positive that his attitude was based solely on the fact that she was a woman in charge of a group of men.  

How does she handle this treatment? “I find someone else to pick up the contract. Someone who doesn’t have trouble working with women. If they do a good job, then I continue to work with them. Over the years you realize, this is how it has to be.” 

Edith was lucky to be raised by parents who built up her confidence and instilled a determination to get the job done. Her mother worked outside the home, often traveling for weeks at a time. Coming from the high sierras in the Huancayo zone, her mother’s upbringing was very traditional, but Edith says that as time went on her mom became more and more empowered. It was she who first bought the coffee farm Edith runs now, although she was only able to work it for two years before passing away in 2007.  

Edith also feels lucky to live in a comparatively open-minded part of Peru. She was one of 750 women in Peru to participate in Goldman Sach’s “10,000 Women” project for entrepreneurs. “The women from the North said they had a terrible time with their husbands”, Edith reports. These women were all business owners and creators, but their husbands strongly opposed their participation in this program and many women had to put their foot down in order to attend at all. I asked if this was because the husbands didn’t want them to travel – “No!” says Edith. “The trainings were in their area. There was no travel involved.” Then why such a fuss? “Well, isn’t that just how men are?” 

Edith Meza on Finca Tasta in Peru

Although Edith has coffee producing friends in other parts of the country and abroad, she’s the only woman in the jungle of Satipo who grows coffee. “The men have already accepted me, whether they want to or not” she says. “It’s their wives who are still having trouble.” The area where Edith lives is pure jungle, and in order to make it accessible the locals paid for roads to be paved, and now organize regular maintenance. Edith attends all the community meetings and helps the President and the Treasurer of Roadways by going door to door with them informing her neighbors of what needs to be done to maintain the roads. “There’s times when the wives get jealous. That’s when being young and single works against me”. One time, a neighbor’s wife called her with accusations about her husband. Edith remembers thinking “So much for all my empowerment”.  

But Edith is hopeful for the future. “We have to move forward, people will adapt. The newer generations are already more flexible. Things will change.” She takes great pride in her work and loves the international community she’s found through coffee.

She signs off with an anecdote about a friend of hers in Brazil, who recently took over a coffee farm. I imagine them talking on the phone late into the night, sharing their successes and commiserating over their shared difficulties in this male-dominated field.

Her friend asks: “Edith, Have you noticed an improvement in your coffee since you took over?”

Yes, actually!”

“Me too! I think women have a knack for this”