How Cacao Source Started Working with Maya Kaq’chikel Women’s Collectives
Cacao Source and Maya Kaq’chikel Women’s Collectives Story
With Cacao Source, we actively work with 7 chocolatier women’s collectives. Throughout the last 3 years, we shared with them the delicious art of transforming cacao from dried beans into cacao paste.
Each collective represents about 5 to 10 people– neighbors or members of the same families, usually. They live tucked in the hearts of different Kaqchikel neighborhoods, across steep mountains of the barrios, overlooking the iconic Lake Atitlan.
There, while climbing the stairs pathways and narrow alleys, you may cross paths with laughing ladies and smiley men, right after you were chased and barked at by herds of semi-wild dogs. But the humans aren’t laughing at you only because of the improvised ninja skills you aimed at the dogs to dissuade them from nipping at your calves. They are also amused to see new “gringos” in their neighborhoods where tourists rarely adventure.
After a while living there, I started understanding that they also laugh because of what you may see of them and their lifestyle, in a sort of self-derision mastery, considering that you probably come from different countries as they see on TV, where you live in radically different environments. Then your eyes might unexpectedly reflect the exoticness of the context they live in.
There, together with a daily reverence for the breathtaking beauty of the landscape around, is where the Kaq’chikel women’s collectives live. That’s where it happened for us: the magic of transcultural awareness in the form of mind-blowing moments of understanding or surprise, as much as funny periods of mutual observation and co-working/co-living. In these intertwined places– the barrios– in the middle of the peaceful and vibrant community life, we discovered the depths of what a “cultural gap” is, and how enriching it becomes when we take proper time or care to understand it and even build bridges above it.
There, cacao was an incredible vessel for connection and compassionate involvement, once again offering its phenomenal capacity to bring humans together and take down the energetic walls that sometimes pile between them.
We are so grateful that the Cacao Source adventure slowly allowed us to become friends with the elegant Kaq’chikel women we work with– to understand each other and support each other. They grew up in radically different dimensions than the ones familiar to Westerners like us.
We have so much to learn from them and they have so much to learn from us.
The Mayans live in the tightly orchestrated freedom of the “viviendas”, the households. This is where large families share a togetherness: a happy dance with the cycles of seasons and elements, a daily connection with fire and corn, a fascinating weaving of artisan crafts, traditions, and for the last few decades the breaking-in of modernity. It is a lifestyle in which qualities such as humbleness, presence, commitment, and devotion are impressively reinforced. Not to mention the spectacular propention to hard work and epic house maintenance.
Most of these ladies have to (and want to) stay home a lot of their time. It is part of the local culture in multiple ways. Families have some of their women (and also few men sometimes) systematically committed to the keeping of the fire, caring for the children and the elderly, gardening, cleaning, organizing, washing, praying, and guarding the household.
Organically, when living high up in Barrio 1 of our picturesque village for an extended period, we acknowledged how impressive these magic hands were in the backstage of unseen neighborhoods. We observed throughout the days, the massive amount of tasks they handle with constancy, temerity, lightness, songs, and laughter. Our admiration for these discrete heroines was growing wide and strong.
At this time, three years ago, our passion for offering healthy cacao to the world was also growing, beating like the vibrant hearts it was already reaching in the community. We were starting the process of officializing our devotion to Cacao– officializing our purpose to bring the alternative of Cacao instead of chocolate, artisan instead of industrial, ceremony instead of consumption, and proactivity instead of profit.
So it became obvious that we wanted to bring Cacao to the Kaq’chikel households, where it was quite rarely present, despite its ancestral value in these lands.
On the one hand: Toasting, peeling, grinding, and molding cacao require a lot of patience and commitment; although they also are quite accessible skills that can be done in a home environment.
On the other hand, the Kaq’chikel ladies we admired could be immensely empowered by a professional activity providing fair wages. However, they have lots to do every day and they rarely wander too far outside of the cultural norm. They oftentimes love their culture, as their family lives are immensely important to them.
So we decided to act: We would share with them how to make artisan chocolate at home. We would provide the best beans we were already sourcing with the highest care. We would make sure to slowly build a strong enough network so that everybody involved in it would benefit equitabilly from its power of abundance.
And so we did. We spent full days toasting and peeling in the middle of Kaq’chikel laughs and giggles– what a blessing! In the beginning, it was slow and casual, as good neighbors, sharing skills and recipes. But as soon as we started selling the cacao blocks they would make– as soon as they earned money and understood how profitable this home job could be– they showed the length of their potential commitment and work ethics. Imagine how exciting it can be to access a fair wage when you never were able to before.
Unsurprisingly, several challenges would also appear. But their solutions shaped our originality, authenticity, and resilience.
For example, many of these ladies often don’t speak Spanish and were hard for us to communicate with. They are super shy and reserved, if not conservative. So we established that the ones that we could communicate with and that were more extroverted would stand as spokespersons for the groups. Even better, the communication gap inspired us to put in more efforts of inclusivity. So, through hours of conversation we realized that behind the need to make a decent and steady income, we shared a similar social vision and a will to reach the persons that are the most in need. The prominent Christian mentality mixed with the secretly-kept Mayan wisdom helped this dialogue, and soon enough we were working with single mums, teenage mums, abused wifes, families living in poverty… etc.
Another example of a challenge: allowing people to work at home is an amazing opportunity for them, however, not a great way to control hygiene and quality. We got a bit worried about that, but not for long. In fact, the culture of hygiene that these ladies display is mind-blowing. Considering the rudimentary of some of their households, we have been very careful with this aspect. But our hopes were surpassed: they always have shown an extremely strong propention to bring the highest standards of cleanliness to their work. Our observations were unanimous: the ladies are impeccable, their hands are so clean when they peel the toasted beans, they are always extremely careful of where and how the cacao is stored. They never directly touch the ground blocks, but with a new biobag or gloves. And they are extremely aware about the cleanliness of the environment they work in. On top of that, they were impressively efficient with maintaining a constant with roasting profile and quality control, making sure each block is at the right flavor profile before we double check them.
Another challenge: artisan work takes more time and more hands. And as we grew in numbers, we also grew into greater efforts of administration and quality control. But we trusted the purpose and our hearts. This brought patience and laughter into problem-solving. Slowly, but surely, we created systems of cohesion and rhythms of resilience. Some moments were highly demanding, others absolutely delightful. And at some point we were already working with more than 50 people, farmers and women’s collectives. As we went through phases of growth, we kept our original vision strong: share the work instead of concentrating it, infuse trust and keep an eye on everything, give responsibility to like-minded people who want to join the crew. And they did. Our team was joined by amazing beings that drastically expanded the horizons of potential and doability with the magic wands of their willpower in less time than it takes to dream about it. Because they were the right people attracted to the right mission.
Challenge after challenge we went on, boosted by a glorious sense of purpose. Criticism like the ones of cultural appropriation or racial exploitation were easy to answer, with direct and raw solutions like profit-sharing transparency or intercultural empathy and dialogue.
Our lower profit margins would also tickle some “profit-making specialists” that warned us that we should generate more. That created a fear chatter in our minds. But as soon as we shared and showed the social/ecological business model we were developing, an amazingly wide community of cacao/nature lovers immediately resonated with it. We were tapping into a largely understood and shared intention to work differently than the corporate world. Instead, we foster justice through entrepreneurial and cultural activity
Chocolatiering, or the art of transforming cacao seeds into paste, wasn’t part of these households, these neighborhoods, or our lives before we activated this journey of collaboration. It is an electrifying thought to realize that we are participating in the fantastic re-emergence of a millennial tradition that centuries of horrific colonialism couldn’t completely destroy.
We are tapping into a tradition of abundance, nourishment, and connection to Nature. But also to our nature, to each other, to our power of healthy community building and working.
So from all our hearts, we want to thank you for being part of this amazing journey. Because every-time you give your energy in the form of money, time, attention or help to Cacao Source, you’re joining this dance for a connected, compassionate and fair intercultural network.