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Barry Mehler, 'Juan Valdez Portrays Wrong Image of Farm Workers'

Opinions piece published in the Ferris Torch (November 5, 1991) p. 5.

Among the most disturbing advertisements on television, are the Juan Valdez coffee commercials. When I first met Jaun Valdez he was personally examining every bean before he picked it, just to make sure that my morning coffee was perfect.

He smiled and was relaxed as he set off with his trusty mule down the mountain to deliver his hand picked coffee beans.

These days, Juan and his mule wait patiently in the kitchen closet. When the door opens he personally hands the coffee to our typical American housewife.

In the latest series of commercials Juan can be seen everywhere reminding Americans of his dedication to our morning pleasure.

But a few weeks ago, Effrain Carrera, a Hispanic activist from Texas, was here reminding us of what it is really like to be a farm worker. He described how he and his eight-year-old sister would work in the fields picking tomatoes and other crops. He said that the crop dusters would fly so low that the workers would have to hit the ground to avoid being killed. Those crop dusters would regularly cover the men, women and children with DDT, which was then still being used in the fields.

His statements reminded me of a young coffee picker - the real Juan Valdez - describing the misery and powerlessness of life, and death on the coffee plantations of South America.

Two of my brothers died in the plantation. The first, he was the eldest, was called Filipé They'd sprayed the coffee with pesticide by plane while we were working, as they usually did, and my brother couldn't stand the fumes and died. The second one, his name was Nicolas, died when I was eight.

He was two then. When my little brother started crying my mother didn't know what to do. He lasted 15 days. The little boy died early in the morning. We didn't know what to do. Our two neighbors were anxious to help my mother but they didn't know what to do either - not how to bury him or anything. Then the overseer told my mother that she could bury my brother in the plantation but she had to pay a tax to keep him buried there.

My mother said, 'I have no money at all.' He told her, 'Yes, and you already owe a lot of money for medicine and other things, so take his body and leave.' It was impossible to take his body back to the highlands. So my mother decided that, even if she had to work for an extra month without earning, she would pay the tax to the landowner, or the overseer, to bury my brother in the plantation.

For the coffee pickers of South America, like the rest of the poor of the world, life is a grueling ordeal filled with suffering and injustice. Nothing could be more obscene than the commercial transformation of this exploitation into the idyllic vision of Juan Valdez.

The next time you sipping you're morning coffee, take a moment to remember the real Juan Valdez whose little brothers died for your morning coffee.

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