Part of this post is originally from the blog’s archives. However, because last Tuesday I remembered José Manuel Marroquin, today, I remember his daughter, affectionately known to her close ones as Maye.
1935. In the municipality of Viotá in Colombia’s southern Cundinamarca department, in a coffee plantation called “Entrerios,” a shrinking elderly lady supervised from atop a sedan chair. Four men took turns transporting her—and this was the kind of oppression that the Communists, the FARC’s godparents, pointed out to justify strikes and riots and violence. But the lady, by now in her late fifty’s, needed the sedan chair because she was disabled. She could limp along with the help of a cane, but since the age of twenty-six, one of her legs was paralyzed from an inflamed vein. She could not ride horses, or mules. She was a widow, and the coffee was her livelihood.
She was Maye, my grandmother’s grandmother.
It was eight in the morning and Maye attracted a crowd to walk side-by-side her in the sedan chair. The men’s folded-over wool ponchos lay limp on their shoulders and machetes hung from their waists. Maye knew their names, their wives’ names and their children’s names; the men were like her family.
Most of the year at “Entrerrios,” there was the savory whiff of roasting coffee beans, and this reminded Maye of one more to-do. The machines for drying the coffee will need their routine maintenance soon, she thought.
The men hummed and Maye learned a line or two of their tune, “Allá arriba en aquel alto, hay una mata de ahuyama,” and she softly sang along with them, “cada vez que subo y bajo, le traigo dos a mi mama.” They sang in tune with the hummingbirds and the toucans.
Maye learned about the coffee business from her husband, a lawyer who’d yearned for country life. He was the Conservative Colonel, Marceliano Vargas, and since his death, she never shed her black clothes or her black sunhat. Maye and Marceliano lived in Paris, from 1904 to 1910, when he was Colombia’s ambassador. It was then that he began exporting the coffee from “Entrerios” to the European trade houses. For dinner parties at the embassy, Marceliano filled sacs with coffee to use as dining room chairs, and when astounded Parisians asked, Marceliano explained, in his characteristic deep laugh, that it was from his hacienda, back in Colombia. Given a choice, Maye preferred the scenes of “Entrerios” to any tableau at the Louvre.
For Maye, pleasure was observing the campesinos leading the coffee sacs, stacked on the back of mules, sometimes three sacs per animal, to the packing post where they’d be shipped overseas. There were three sacs on that one skinny mule, that was one hundred and eighty seven kilos! A few miles from the house, Maye set up another collection post for the workers to leave their day’s coffee pickings to be weighed and added to their wages.
Such was Maye’s life in her coffee plantation. She was a coffee pioneer.
When the workers of “Entrerios” carried Maye on the sedan chair, she and the workers also sang, “Copeton, copetoncito, que cuando empiezas a clavear abres el pequeño pico, abres el pequeño pico y te pones a cantar. Bird, little bird, when you start to nibble you open your little beak, you open your little beak and start to sing.”
Ten years later, another refrain quickly became popular amongst the men. “Allá en Viotá la Roja, allá donde triunfamos. Over there in Red Viotá, over there where we triumphed,” they sang.
Be sure to read next week, for another taste of this historical material.