Juan’s World: A Sombrero, A Poncho, and a Mule

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Juan’s World: A 5 part mini series on the inner workings of Colombian coffee

Part 1: A Sombrero, a Poncho, and a Mule

The story of Juan Valdez is the story of one of the world’s most successful marketing campaigns. The National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers (FNC) did something that no one had ever done before: they branded a country. And they did it with astounding success. There are books written about the startling effectiveness and sheer vastness of the Juan Valdez campaign, of how “Colombian” became synonymous with coffee. One of the campaign’s most impressive features is its longevity; the campaign that was developed before I was born has never needed an aggressive rebranding overhaul- it has simply evolved organically with both the people it represents and those it sells to. The character of Juan Valdez was done right enough the first time that he has never had to sell out in order to survive. He doesn’t drive a Toyota and he’s not wearing Nikes. In 30+ years he’s still a mustached coffee farmer with a sombrero, a poncho, and a mule.

But you can follow his blog. And you can order his café in lattes at kiosks in the mall in Panama City. You can Tweet at him right after you Like his new chocolate drizzle “granizado” (Frappachino equivalent) on Facebook.

When I was gearing up to head out for a high school year as a foreign exchange student, people would say, “oh! Like Fez from that 70s show!” And my answer was always, yes, like Fez; I’m going to be the awkward one with the accent. When I was gearing up for this year on coffee farms, people would say, “oh! Like Juan Valdez!” And my answer was always, yes, like Juan Valdez; I’m going up into the mountains where people still carry things by mule.

But I didn’t realize how much like Juan Valdez Colombia was going to be.

Juan Valdez is pretty much the original voice of coffee speaking. He gave the North American coffee drinking masses a narrative to apply to the sourcing of their coffee. He wasn’t just a logo; the campaign gave him a life and a personality. And most importantly a human name. The FNC forces behind the campaign were spot on in finding a narrative that not only effectively spoke to consumers, but one that effectively spoke for hundreds of thousands of Colombian coffee growers. Juan Valdez, though a figure developed for advertising, is in fact a pretty accurate representative of Colombian coffee growers. Which is a hard thing to get right.

When you have a representative it’s tempting to forget that the representative is not in fact the same as every member of the group that the representative is representing. A representation is not the equation of one part of the whole with every part of the whole; a representation is the understanding that a part of the whole is in some ways similar, comparable, to other parts of the whole.

Representations work differently with different wholes. A randomly selected sample of soil from a uniformly mixed batch should in fact be the same as any other randomly selected sample from the same batch. A handful of coffee from a bag of Excelso grade should in fact be the same as any other handful from that bag (in theory…more on coffee trickery- by the seller and the buyer- in Juan’s World: Factor 90, coming later this week). But when you have a person acting as a representation of a group of people, he or she is not an equation to the rest of the people in the bag, but rather a representation of certain commonalities among individuals who still retain marked differences.

The concept of representation is particularly important in the case of Mr. Valdez, because the agency that created him, the FNC, is itself a representative body. The Federation is indeed a Federation, with representatives elected to serve in the congress and make decisions about things that affect every single coffee grower, like what to do with resources allocated to them by the government.

People as representatives are tricky because it’s important that the members of the group they represent feel ok with the fact that that specific person is representing them. (Which is the idea behind voting.) But, when you develop a representative who is not in fact elected, the members of the group still have to like the representative enough that they’re all ok that said rep is not exactly the same as they are. They have to like the rep enough that they’re willing to accept that he’s also different in some ways.

Part of the reason Juan Valdez has been able to endure as a representative, without having to change himself, is that his representees like him. They’ve always liked him and will continue to like him because they like the parts of themselves he represents.

Juan Valdez is a hard working, honest gentleman. He doesn’t get drunk, he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t go wooing women, he doesn’t beat his animals, he doesn’t grow drugs, and he certainly doesn’t neglect his coffee trees. He gave Colombian coffee growing men an admirable archetype to aspire to. At the same time, he reflected realities they all knew: to get good coffee you have to grow it way up in the cool mountains, it takes a lot of work, and you move it by beast of burden.

All these years (over a generation!) after the campaign first hit the screens and pages of domestic and international media, Juan Valdez remains largely unchanged because the people he represents are largely unchanged. Coffee growers now have cell phones and many a Facebook profile, but they still wear wide brim hats and most still have a mule or two, even if they also have a moto or a car to use every once in a while. (The farm I’m staying on uses a mule to move sacks of picked coffee within the property- from the trees to the beneficio- then uses a car to drive it into town, for example).

Even the style, perhaps the most iconic element of Mr. Valdez, is still pretty accurate. Plenty of middle aged caficultores still have thick handlebar mustaches and wouldn’t be caught in town without a crisp white poncho folded over one shoulder and a crisp hat on their heads. I even saw a guy in his 20s wearing jeans, a t shirt, and a crisp hat and poncho as he posed in front of a monument in Medellin, with his girlfriend, dressed in a Victoria’s Secret “Love Pink” florescent sweat suit, snapping the picture. The traditional coffee grower formal attire is still a common style, common enough, that even though most of the youngest coffee growing generation does generally wear jeans and t shirts, they still respect the style of their parents and grandparents.

But more fundamentally, coffee growers as a group remain largely unchanged because growing coffee is largely unchanged, even over a generation. It’s true that since Juan’s inception Colombian coffee growing has become exponentially more technified, and if Juan were to represent the full reality of growing coffee he should have a bomba pesticide-spraying backpack on, and be dressed in the regulation agrochemical application outfit: orange hooded jumpsuit, goggles, facemask, rubber gloves, and boots.

The intricacies of coffee cultivation have certainly evolved, but at its core Colombian coffee growing today is similar to Colombian coffee growing a generation ago because it is still widely done on the family scale; land is still owned by individual people- not corporations (or exporters or trading houses or roasters or the government). Even if families have hired workers, individuals hold titles to the land on which coffee is grown, and most of it is grown in little pieces. Of course there are sprawling “plantations” that do in fact resemble plantations in their organized monoculture and forces of modestly paid employees, but it’s the smallholding Juan Valdez’s of Colombia that make Colombian coffee happen.

At the second session of an 11 session free course on coffee production held by the free National Learning Service (SENA) in conjunction with the FNC, the professor asked the twenty plus attendees who they thought would outlast whom in the Colombian coffee arena: the big guy or the little guy. Attendees’ answers were mixed. His official prediction: the little guy. Why? The price of labor with respect to the market price of coffee. Coffee is falling off the trees because there’s no one to pick it. The smallest growers, families who do everything themselves without any hired help, are immune to this cost because they never have to pay it. When the largest landowners are loosing their harvest, the little guy is collecting 100%: like always. The future of Colombian coffee might have to cede everything back to the Juans in order to continue.

But for now, it’s more or less business as usual. Juan Valdez still serves as a dashing representative in ways that the farmer with a pitchfork standing next to a cow and a red barn in a field on your package of Hillshire Farms burger patties doesn’t. Juan is as many parts accurate as he is idealized; there are in fact still hundreds of thousands of families with sons and fathers and brothers who all put on their hats to block the slanting afternoon rays as they strap overstuffed sacks to their mules to haul coffee through the Colombian mountains every day.

As I’m up in the Colombian mountains where internet is slow, I can’t upload pictures here. But I can add to whencoffeespeaks on Instagram, so check their for what Juan’s World looks like.

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