Below is a historical narrative, part of the same story I have been sharing here for the last two weeks. I’m still unsure what I will do with this material. What frame can this story take?
November 1935. “Entrerios,” a coffee plantation in the municipality of Viotá in southern Cundinamarca department. Juan, the adolescent son of the head blacksmith, was secretly gathered with the other workers, and they were listening to the Communist envoy, Maria Cano. She was a poet and she borrowed from her poetry, “I am a woman and in my core, there shakes the pain to think that I can conceive a son that can be made into a slave,” she said.
Juan stared at Maria Cano: her signature look was dark clothing and dark hair, styled into short curly layers that resembled shaved chocolate.
“My people, this land is yours,” Maria Cano whispered, and her firm and serene voice displayed self-confidence. “The people you are slaves to are selling away your work to other countries.”
No more than ten candles lit the crowd. There were more than one hundred people here. Juan was seated in the front row.
The candlelight flushed out Maria Cano’s pomegranate cheeks. “You are the motor that moves the wonderful machinery of progress. Brother Lenin has taught us that our unity is the only power that we factory and land laborers have,” she said. She ended by explaining Lenin’s instructions, “Comrades, when the other haciendas near here are on strike, you must be ready to join them.”
One year later, November 1936. The night was dark, and in la Señora Maye’s house no one seemed to be awake. It was past midnight. Juan was drinking aguardiente, and as an old man, he’ll justify drunkenness was the reason he participated tonight. The torch he carried nearly burnt his hand. The others with him, also carrying torches and fueled by liquor, possessed the look of anger, born in their bellies and intensified in their eyes. There were about eighty men, and a handful of women—though neither Maria Cano nor Zoila Blanca Luna, the teacher, was here. These women kept a low-profile.
The closer the crowd got to la Señora Maye’s window, the more explicit the threats became.
“We’ll burn down the house.”
“No. No burning the house. It’ll be our party headquarters soon.”
Someone threw pebbles at Maye’s window.
Amongst them, there were faces which Juan did not recognize, and one of those strangers said, “We should take the girl while we’re here. Then the old lady will negotiate.” The girl was my grandmother, Ines.
Maye was awake. This was what she’d anticipated, and she instinctively lit a candle and reached for her cane. She opened the balcony door and stepped outside. There were more here than she would have thought. Her old-lady hands quivered. Sweat glittered from the men’s foreheads.
The sight of the elderly patrona, her long and loose grey hair and the frailness of her bony shoulders, moved Juan. He wanted to jump to her side. He now saw the helplessness that touched him when he carried her in the sedan chair, when he assured that neither he nor the other three slipped. He was who often called out, Watch out for those pebbles up ahead, Don’t slip on those leaves.
“We have come to ask you for this land, this land that is ours,” a voice from the crowd demanded.
Maye blinked, blinded by the glow of the fire reflecting off the machetes they waved in the air.
But, Juan figured, I am a worker, I am not part of la Señora Maye’s family. Juan spoke up what he was taught, “You are a traitor to our national interests.”
Immediately, Juan wanted to take his words back. La señora was good to his father, Augusto, keeping him on despite the hip that slowed him down.
“Juan Gil, this is your home, you know that,” Maye said. “If you and I work hard, it will be you and I who will prosper.” She picked up strength from the scent of the roses in her garden. Maye knew the workers well. She and the communist leaders perceived the same answer: Success depended on finding solutions to people’s problems.
“Look already what you have all achieved. The success of this coffee depends on you and me because I cannot do this alone,” she said. “And this is success that will bring work and much business to this region, success that brings investment to this desolate rural area, and success that will feed your children.”
Por el amor de Dios. La Señora Maye made a lot of sense to Juan. But so had Maria Cano. This land is ours. We were the ones born here, raised here, dying here, Juan’s thoughts were in a whirlwind.
Another voice from the crowd, “You are a traitor to the interests of people like us.”
“I want to see your children reading and writing,” Maye continued. “I want the coffee that we grow together to bring progress here.”
“How?” asked Juan. Logic sat well with him, and he was a curious lad. It was from his son that Augusto confiscated the evidence he showed Maye. Now Juan was beginning to think: Who was this Maria Cano? Someone who showed up one day, and besides her Lenin this, Lenin that, she had not contributed anything else. Instead, la Señora Maye gave each of the workers and their families a present every Christmas. Juan recalled his mother still cooked with the pots and pans from ten Christmases ago. Last week, la señora spoke to Juan about finishing school, and though he took it as an insult at first, he could see how it was more of a concern.
La señora’s voice was strong for an older lady. “What is it that you would all like?” she asked. “Your interests are my interests.”
Maye proceeded to detail basic supply and demand; how if together they produced good quality coffee, buyers would request coffee from “Entrerios,” and this would mean continuous employment for them; how Maye, on behalf of them as well, negotiated the best price, and passed along to them as much of the gains as she could.
Juan next noticed the majority of the crowd was tipping their hats, and he did likewise. The machetes were back in their leather casings, again hanging from the men’s hips.
Maye’s words disarmed the workers.
“God bless you, su merced,” a few said. “Buenas noches.”
Juan followed the pack away from the house.
Maye locked the balcony behind her, and stumbled on Ines, who’d witnessed the entire exchange.