In October 2018, 20 students worked with Internews and National Geographic Photo Camp to create photo stories and essays from four locations in Puerto Rico, a little more than a year after Hurricane Maria.

This work examines the mountainous region of Adjuntas in central Puerto Rico, documenting a family coffee plantation struggling to recover a year after the hurricane. 

Student Essay: The black gold of the mountain

Adjuntas is a place where days begin at five in the morning because you begin working at six, five minutes is really 15, and new acquaintance becomes family from one day to the next. Above all, the town in the central mountain range is where there are no timetables for coffee, because there is always time for one. While there are stories everywhere, this one has to be made known so the world can understand the work sparked by those 6 ounce cups of morning caffeine.

“When does coffee stop being coffee? When you pour milk on it,” said Fito, owner and founder of Hacienda La Mallorquina, one of the coffee plantations that was greatly impacted by Hurricane Maria that hit the island on September 20, 2017. 

His statement is synonymous with family, effort, and passion for the land. His ex-wife and four children worked on the farm with him. They devoted themselves body and soul to coffee. Some time later, they all took their course and there was only him, his son Ricardo, and a chain hanging from his neck, which reminds him of his family abroad. That cup of coffee, something perhaps so banal and routine when it reaches your house, was interrupted by the storm. In order to feel again the flavor and aroma of coffee, the agricultural communities mobilized to save their farms.

Puerto Rico’s coffee industry was severely affected by hurricane winds. Planting was whipped by the category five atmospheric event for 20 consecutive hours. The infrastructure and all the plantations suffered extreme deterioration. The collection, production and sale was paralyzed throughout the industry. It was no different at Hacienda La Mallorquina.

Fito tells how, at the age of 25 after the death of his father in 1979, he decided to work planting coffee and bananas. Production was successful until Maria struck: the farm was completely destroyed. Since September 2017, Fito, his son, and their workers have worked hard to ensure a high production of coffee. After the hurricane, there was a little left in the plantations. Most was blown across the ground, and they had to collect it what they could find, allowing them to begin growing again.

Fito and Ricardo are completely dedicated to the farm where coffee, citrus, banana, and guineo are currently harvested. Thanks to these products the workers have an economic livelihood.  Few people are willing to work under harsh climatic conditions. Among the workers we met, the stories of the couple Juan and Haydee Torres and José Manuel “Papo” Vélez stand out.

After the hurricane, Papo began to experience anxiety about the scarce conditions he faced. The anxiety was so great that he clenched his jaw, which broke some of his teeth. There was no remedy to save them, and they had to be removed. Working in the coffee plantations is his therapy, he tells us.

“If you didn’t go to school, you had to pick up coffee,” Haydee said. And that’s how she’s been in this trade for more than 40 years. She narrates that she picked up coffee during her first and third pregnancies, working every day until the time of delivery. As a couple, Juan and Haydee have had to overcome adversities after the passage of the hurricane by losing all their agricultural production.

These narratives are an example of the hard work of the Puerto Rican people, the daily life of the countryside, and the resilience to the adversities of natural disasters.  Employees begin the workday at 6:00 a.m. where body heat awakens; there is no difference between sweat and morning dew. 

Fito, full of joy and motivation, show us the raw coffee beans, which the employees cultivate daily. During the production process, “the black gold of the mountain” is created – and as Fito says, best enjoyed without milk.

“Casa Pueblo,” an Adjuntas community organization that is influential throughout the entire island, is in charge of the production. There they have all the necessary machinery to export their “Café Madre Isla” to the different shops in Puerto Rico. They roast it, grind it, weigh it, and pack it in the same place.

In addition to the preparation and sale of coffee, Casa Pueblo is in charge of community assistance. After the hurricane, the founders of the center, Tinti Deya, Alexis Masso, and Arturo Massol, were able to supply energy to the community of Adjuntas thanks to their solar panels during the emergency. They were also responsible for providing solar light bulbs to everyone in need.

The coffee is of better quality if harvested in the mountains, and with the passage of the hurricane, there was an exodus of farmers in the 22 central mountain municipalities. According to the workers, there is a fear that the coffee industry is not because young people might not want to to take charge of the farms. Luckily, La Mallorquina has a two-year-old heir to whom Ricardo, his father, has instilled a love for the land. Fito and his son have hope that he will follow in their footsteps.

It’s hot, and a fan to blow a little air on this tropical island is never too much, or even better, a visit to a little bar is good to reduce the dripping of sweats. At “El Abanico” most of the workers of Adjuntas meet after the arduous hours of work. It’s a place where everyone who enters knows each other, where the hours go by running and without haste because for a cold Medalla, the ubiquitous Puerto Rican beer, there is always time.

But don’t look for Fito there because you won’t find him. He always stays at the Finca (farm), whispering, “I don’t like to leave her alone.”