I recently sat down with Rosalba Cifuentes, the director and founder of Mayan Harvest, a Chiapas, Mexico-based exporter who has worked with Royal Coffee off and on for the last few years. Rosalba’s a bit of a coffee celebrity, and a familiar face to many in the Bay Area (where she now calls home) and beyond. 

We’ve spoken at length about her coffees in the past, particularly her work with women and her family in the region. 

Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state and shares a large swath of porous border with Guatemala. The state produces more coffee than any other in the country, outpacing its heavily planted neighbors to the west, Oaxaca and Veracruz. 

Rosalba grew up around coffee in the rural Bella Vista community, and is a champion for Mexican coffees, setting out on a one-woman-mission to see her country’s coffees prominently featured in Third Wave roasteries and cafes.  

Over time, she began to recognize the forces in play regionally in Chiapas, and how large aggregators had traditionally focused on volume and generally left rural, largely indigenous smallholders at a distance from the possible value captured by quality improvements. Her work over the last decade or so has begun to change all of that, empowering a growing community of coffee growers towards sustainability. 

In this interview, which starts relatively innocuously with a discourse on quality and a fairly bad attempt on my part to speak in Spanish, Rosalba soon confided with me that the situation in Bella Vista – the community in which Mayan Harvest operates – has become increasingly dangerous. Coffee must move sometimes in secret, and Rosalba was frank in our conversation about the nature of her work, the lifeline that coffee can provide for producers in the region, and the fact that she couldn’t even divulge certain specifics because of the risk to her personal safety. 

Chiapas state is no stranger to political upheaval, famously having birthed the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a group whose recent announcement that it is disbanding has caught recent international news. The state’s remoteness and lawlessness have long plagued politicians and police alike, but the recent situation is even more dire, with organized crime – not political dissent – as a daily reality. 

That coffee grows in challenging environments worldwide is no secret. Whether it’s climate or culture, politics or pressures from war, famine, or disease, or the insidious persistence of colonial legacies, coffee is never easy. 

As I wrote years ago, “the truth is that growing coffee has little meaningful correlation to the larger human struggle of survival, particularly when extreme poverty or violence are involved.” 

That said, in the case of Bella Vista, its denizens have little choice but to stay, and according to Rosalba, “learn to live with the crime, learn to risk their lives every day. There’s no other option.” 

And so, in a fashion we’ve come to recognize as a pattern with Rosalba Cifuentes’ style, she’s returned to Chiapas with determination, and seems to be carrying the coffee – and possibly the survival – of the small community in which she grew up on her shoulders. 

Anyway, the details are in the video, in Rosalba’s own words. Thanks to Rosalba for sitting down with me for the interview, to Doris Garrido, the Crown’s Roaster, for interpreting and providing translation feedback, to Bolor Erdenebat for recording and editing the video and audio, and to you, for supporting good coffee from good people.