A labourer on a coffee plantation explaining to me something of his poverty. He said, “There are three things we must have to survive. We must have food, clothing and medicines but one is always lacking. You see, working on a coffee farm we earn only enough to buy two. It was slaves that originally did the back-breaking work on the coffee farms; however those we knew during the late fifties in the interior were only a slight cut above slavery.
The workers, “colonos” lived in row housing with no electricity, no running water and no indoor toilets. It was a hard life for the workers, the mothers and their children. There were some “colonos”who would get a share of the coffee production in trade for labour. In those cases the women and children often worked in the fields, everyone doing their best to put rice and beans on the table.
It was on one such farm we met a lovely family. Four girls, all in their teens worked with the dad but in the fields with the mother helping as she could. They did not pick the coffee beans from the bushes when they were in the red stage though that produced a better tasking coffee. But picking required more hard work. If the rough farm clothing of these young ladies were switched to our Sunday best they would fit right into our society. Dark hair, light skin and pretty Latin faces made them stand out. And since most Brazilians have a bit or a lot of Latin blood, they had an artistic bent. The four girls sang with lovely harmony.
The coffee bushes were about 8 feet tall and planted in rows. The workers would clean the leaves and loose dirt from under the trees using wide hoes. Then the harvest was to simply knock the dried coffee beans to the ground and from there to scoop them up to be winnowed by hand. Then the beans were placed on large brick drying floors. Later the bags of beans were taken to a machine—“a maquina de beneficio” that would remove the bean husks and prepare them for roasting or export.
Coffee growing was much different now than in the late 50s when we moved to the interior of the State of Sao Paulo. We were in the middle of huge coffee plantations, some with a million bushes. At that time the work was back breaking and now much of the production is mechanized.
There is no perfume more enticing than the aroma of coffee is being roasted. In the small village where we lived. When coffee roasting was in progress the tantalizing smell would be wafted over our home. Nothing would trigger a desire for that dark demi-tasse cup, the “cafezinho” more than that smell. In Brazil a cup of coffee is dark and strong. That reminds me of what Brazilians say when they taste our Canadian coffee. “One has to drink a gallon of water to get a cup of coffee.”
Coffee production in Brazil was called “the wave that passes.” The reason is that growing coffee depletes the soil so when the coffee cycle is finished another type of farming takes over. Now those same coffee fields may be producing sugar cane, citrus fruits or beef cattle. Growing coffee came not only at a cost to the land but to the workers in those fields.
Since we lived in midst of huge coffee plantations with workers barely being paid a living wage, they would move from one plantation to another to earn just a few more centavos. So it was common to see a truck loaded with belongings travelling the dirt roads taking a family somewhere. Occasionally we would see a donkey and a cart piled high with all of a family’s earthly goods. The aroma of roasting coffee in the air did more than make us want a cup. It reminded us of the desperate people trying to scratch out a living and raise their family.
Now you can understand why there was room for one more Canadian family doing their little bit to give a helping hand. There was room for us and many more.