Picking Coffee in Brazil

Picking Coffee in Brazil

After passing by so many women searching for the bad beans,
it is very likely that what finally fell
into the containers was pretty
clean. At the end of the time, a company employee came and
each woman’s little bag, and gave her a paper with
a number indicating how much money she had made.

Eva P.


What year was that? I don’t recall precisely the date, but it may have been 1962, when I was about to start the third
grade of the elementary school. What I do recall precisely, however, is that my family was going through a rough spot.
Christmas had come and gone without one single toy for any of us. My mother had managed to make me a simple new dress for
church, and a new shirt and shorts for my brother Zico, who is two years older than me.

The older people in the family had to make do with their same old Sunday clothes to go to church both for the Missa
do Galo and for the Missa of December 31. Now that both my oldest sisters were married, one of the big brothers was in
the Suez Canal working with the United Nations, and the oldest one had left to look for a job somewhere else, the only two
people working and making money in the house were my father and my 16-year-old brother Elton. The money they both got
was barely enough to pay the rent and buy food.

January rolled on with the usual heat of the Paraná kind. Zico and I enjoyed ourselves exchanging
gibis—cartoon magazines for children—with our neighborhood friends. By the end of January, we all had read everybody else’s magazines
and we were bored to death. The radio may have been broadcasting some Gerônimo special, but I didn’t care for that.

Instead, I spent the days stitching together little bits of scraps of fabric and making dresses for my plastic dolls, an
activity enjoyed by all girls my age in the poor
bairro where we lived in Maringá. With the approach of February, my mother
announced that we would have to do something to get money for the school material. But the chances were not too good.
Although my mother was a master seamstress, the truth is that the neighbors were all as poor as we were, and could not afford to
pay her to sew anything.

Besides, she had to wash all our laundry by hand, get water from the yard well, cook everything from scratch, keep
the house clean (a feat in itself for anybody living at the side of a major road what had not one inch of pavement). At the
end of the day, my poor mother was exhausted. But she knew that if we were to have school materials, something had to be done.

In the Paraná of those years, the only crop was coffee, and the city of Maringá, nested in the dark, red, rich soil ideal
for the coffee fazendas, was a Mecca for any activity related to our "black gold." In the Vila Morangueira where we lived,
almost every family had the dining room table taken up by coffee beans at one time or another. What was called the "black
gold" was merely a scrawny gray thing when it got to the homes, in 60 kg burlap bags.

Why did people bring the coffee to their houses? Simple: they obtained the bags from the coffee companies, who
hired people to sort the best beans from the bad ones. For the poor families whose mothers could do nothing else, the
sorting—or picking—of coffee beans (catar
café) was an important source of income. My mother decided that we were going to
get us a bag of coffee and sort it out.

She sat Zico and me together and gave us a talk to about the need to do that carefully, diligently, and quickly, so that
we could make the money needed for the materials. We both agreed that we would help. My father brought the bag of
beans, and we set to work, early the next morning. It started all very well.

We whistled as we separated the best beans from the less good ones in neat piles. Pretty soon we had finished the
little bowl my mother had assigned us to clean and got some more. And then some more. Zico and I established a
competition. After losing a couple times, I realized that his beans were not as clean and well separated as mine. When I pointed that
out to him, he called me boba and continued doing what he was doing.

I called my mother and told her my suspicion, while Zico kicked my legs from under the table. Yes, Zico had to do
all his coffee sorting again, and I got some pretty bad bruises as well as some threats of a horrible death by some snake
poison he had heard about in the last episode of "Gerônimo, o herói do sertão" (Geronimo, the Backlands Hero).

By the end of the day, we had done half of what we had been told to do. My mother looked at the table—the only
one in the house—covered with coffee beans, and scratched her head. If she took all the beans and put them away, we
wouldn’t be able to continue for an hour after dinner. If she left them there, where would we put our plates to have dinner?

That night, we all ate with plates on our hands. My father was not too happy about that, but couldn’t do anything.
The same thing continued for three days. We were supposed to take the coffee back to the company after five days, but Zico
and I were not making too much progress. I particularly remember feeling my eyelids heavy with sleep in the hot afternoon,
sitting at a chair in the airless kitchen, almost unable to distinguish one bean from the next.

Zico and I slumped on the chair or put our heads on the table several times, and had to be woken up by my mother.
Finally, on the fourth day, she put aside her house work and sat with us. We barely made it to within the deadline imposed by the
company. If we had not finished our work in five days, the company would fine us, and we’d lose part of the money we were
supposed to make.

So, when that cursed bag of coffee beans left the house, Zico and I felt relieved, as well as proud of our feat. We
celebrated with a huge fight in the yard, rolling on the dust. My mother picked us both by the ear and had us help her scrub the
floors of the whole house. That should teach us, she said.

But she missed the point: we had accumulated so much youthful energy those five days of excruciating boredom
while sorting out the beans, that nothing like a healthy sibling fight to help us spend it. When my father returned from the
company with the money for the coffee sorting, my mother went with us to the neighborhood bookstore and bought the books,
notebooks, pencils and pens we needed.

There was even enough money to buy the silky paper to cover the books and notebooks with the color for our
respective grades. At night, my brother Elton, who has always been a neat and kind person, helped us cover the material with the
paper, and he wrote our names on the cover with a beautiful script.

Zico and I were both proud, ready to face the school year. But, wait a minute! When my mother took our white
dustcoats—the school uniform—she realized both Zico and I had grown so much since the beginning of the vacation that the
uniforms did not fit. Once again, we had the money trouble to consider. Mom could sew us the best uniforms any school child
ever saw, but she needed the fabric.

She asked my father for money, he said he had none. She looked at the two of us, Zico and me, for once sitting
together peacefully at a corner. We felt guilty of growing. Now we had beautiful material, but no uniform. And the school would
not accept us without the uniform. Either we had both material and uniform, or we could not attend school. "Let’s clean
another bag of coffee?" She asked us. The answer, as quick and as unanimous as we could manage, was a huge "No!!!"

Even my father laughed and commented that he had hardly ever seen us so united. Elton offered to help us clean it,
but we were adamant. After all, we still had enough days before the beginning of the school, and either my father or my
brother might get a raise at their jobs and money to buy the uniforms. Mother sighed, and went back to what she was doing.

Zico and I were happy to go outside and play in the yard. Our street was particularly dusty that day, and, what the
hell, why not just enjoy the joy of being dirty? Of course we could not think in these terms back then, but we did know that
when school began we would have to keep our fingernails clean, wear shoes or slippers to school.

Vacation was a sacred time, only broken by the Sunday chore of going to church, an occasion which always
demanded special cleaning of our ears, exacting brushing of our hair, and general inspection by my mother before we left for mass.
Pretty soon the memory of the coffee cleaning event faded and disappeared, while Zico and I concentrated on the most
immediate joys available to us.

But neither my father nor my brother could get enough money for the uniforms. My mother told us one night, two
weeks before classes began. She was clearly upset, because she knew she could fix Zico’s dustcoat for me, more or less, but
she couldn’t get any material to make one for him.

The solution for the impasse came from a next-door neighbor. She and her two daughters went to one of those
coffee exportation companies somewhere in the city, at night, two or three times a week, to clear the coffee that was going to
be exported. She explained to my mother that the owner of the company only hired women to do the work, because
"women are neater."

The neighbor promised my mother she would take and bring me back. I could not say no, even though my brother
would be the sole beneficiary of my work. I felt I was going to work for my mother, who seemed so anguished with the lack of
money for the uniforms. And Zico promised to help get water from the well as long as I was working with the coffee company.
That seemed like a good bargain to me.

The next day, the neighbor called me from her house, I joined her and her daughters, and we walked to the company.
Once we arrived at the huge buildings, we were all led to a big room, which had what seemed to be very long tables about 50
feet long. There were five or six of those tables, and enough chairs for some 150 people. We all sat at the chairs, and the
cover of the table started moving.

The contraption was some kind of conveyor belt. A machine dropped the coffee at one end of the tables, the belt
carried the beans to the women waiting; they quickly picked the bad coffee, and deposited it in a little bag at their side. The
coffee that remained at the top of the belt was deposited in big containers at the other end of the table.

After passing by so many women searching for the bad beans, it is very likely that what finally fell into the
containers was pretty clean. At the end of the time, a company employee came and examined each woman’s little bag, and gave her
a paper with a number indicating how much money she had made.

The older women were told to sit closer to the end of the table closer to the beginning. They would of course get
more dirt out of the coffee, and therefore get more money for their work. The younger you were, the farthest you would be
from the beginning of the conveyor belt, the less dirt you found in the coffee, and the less money you would make. After
some 3 hours looking intently at the moving beans, head bent toward the table, everyone felt very stiff, and our eyes were puffed.

This routine continued for one whole week. Each day I got a little bit of money, each day I gave it to my mother. She
said she should be doing the coffee picking herself, but we knew she couldn’t. She had so much work during the whole day
that she simply would not be able to do that. I didn’t mind doing it at all; the neighbor’s daughters were fun, and we spent
the way to and from the company chatting. Inside the company, the male employees demanded complete silence, and that
was the most difficult part. I still wonder why they didn’t want the women to talk.

But the time with the conveyor belt passed, and my mother decreed that I had done enough after a week. On
Saturday, Mother and I and Zico went to a fabric store downtown, Casas Pernambucanas. It turned out that there was a special
sale of the while material needed for the uniforms. My mother was able to buy enough for two new ones!

Since a little bit of money was left, on the way back home we stopped at an ice-cream shop. Each of us had a cone.
That was a pretty darn good ice-cream, because I felt I was treating both my mother and my brother. The whole terribly
boring hours trying to figure out which beans were good and which were bad disappeared from my mind.

When classes began, Zico and I had new, immaculate uniforms. Life was good.


Eva Paulino Bueno has published books on Brazilian literature and cinema, Latin American Popular
Culture, fatherhood in world literature. She teaches at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. You can get in touch
with the author emailing her at evapbueno@yahoo.com

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