Humanity of Commodity: Working Project Rationale
Everything has a story. No one of us, no moment of anyone’s life, fits a template or follows a formula. We are all the amalgamation of nuance. We are inseparable from our stories, and so is everything we consume.
I’ve been traveling through South and Central America since September to collect a healthy crop of stories from coffee farmers (caftetaleros, caficultores, cafeteros, depending where you go) in an effort to humanize a commodity we all interact with daily (even if you’re not a drinker, you see, smell, and experience coffee in some way every day). This project is an open investigation to gather the human stories behind something that seems so familiar. Coffee is an integral part of our lives, but we as North American residents have no point of reference for how our morning pick-me-up arrives in the paper cups of our favorite cafes or filters into the carafe on our countertop; we have no framework for thinking about what happens behind the scenes of our k-cup or latte.
Coffee is an inherently remote commodity because our North American climate simply does not support its cultivation. Currently, people in this country are expressing a renewed desire to flock to farmers’ markets to shake the weathered hands that harvested their lettuce and meet the butcher who personally parsed their recently slaughtered, pesticide-free grass fed cut of filet mignon. But with coffee, it is simply impossible to localize- to humanly connect with the source- due to the equatorial climatic requirements of the plant.
Coffee may be close at hand in our daily lives, yet it is colonial and distant in its origins. Along with chocolate and fruits like bananas, mangos, pineapples, and kiwis, coffee is a lifetime member of a family of imperial commodities sourced from tropical colonies, commodities which we’ve adopted (perhaps kidnapped?) and cherished as our own.
Because coffee is sourced from formally imperially controlled locations, the histories of coffee farmers are largely histories of oppression and injustice. In the face of a legacy of such exploitation, the grossest injustice we, as consumers and residents of an imperial power, can commit is to speak for people who can speak for themselves. Even with negligible incomes, without access to clean water, education, and healthcare, the one- and arguably the most invaluable- commodity to which every human still has access is his or her own story. By removing the white lens that distorts all summaries written by (however theoretically unbiased) imperial visitors/observers/consumers, we exercise more equitable storytelling through listening to what people have to say for themselves, rather than putting the stories of others into our own continually privileged and historically controlling words.
Every commodity we consume is itself an amalgamation of nuance and particulars. This collection will offer stories to humanize one of the United States’ most pervasive commodities, coffee.