“What Am I Going to Do to Contribute to Life?”
[Editor’s Note: Her parents might have named her Hope because that is what she brought the mixed cultural family who bore her. Hope is what she brought to a parcel of Salvadoran land she restored nearly single-handedly after years of neglect. And hope is what she sees for El Salvador in her ability to see past the poverty to a brighter tomorrow. But back to her beginning.
Her dad, a Pan Am pilot lands at the San Francisco Airport in 1960 and happens upon a distraught 19-year-old Salvadoran woman whose papers are not in order and is being threatened by authorities with return to El Salvador on the next plane. The pilot knows the immigration official and intervenes on her behalf. “What would it take to allow her to stay?” he asks. “She would need to be married to a U.S. citizen” is the answer Immediately, he comes to the young woman’s rescue and offers to do just that. After a week of courtship, they marry in a civil ceremony in downtown San Francisco.
Their families are furious at the spontaneous decision. HOWEVER, nine months later, little Stephanie (named for her paternal Danish grandmother) is born and heals all the wounds in the families].
At each stage of my life, I felt fulfilled and satisfied. I had pursued my art degree from a college in Denmark and worked in stained glass with commissioned work at places such The Chicago Public Library. Textiles were another medium that appealed to me, and I made art quilts and taught children’s art quilt classes based on favorite children’s stories. I was also a successful commodities broker during the early 80’s.
In 1984 I married a Chicago businessman and we had our son, Adam. I made the decision to give up my job and be a stay-at-home mom. Having been a latch-key kid, I strongly believed it was important to be home during his formative years. I absorbed myself by volunteering at his school, working on my art, being involved with the community. It was an enjoyable period in my life and I committed myself to being the best I could be in that role.
I began to experience some internal stirrings about the time my son was in high school. He was growing more independent as young teens are apt to do. I began asking myself, “What am I going to do to contribute to life?” I began searching for additional possibilities to enhance my life that would give back.
Perhaps the combination of personality traits of my parents combined with the close relationship of my paternal grandmother gave me the strength to quite literally “spread my wings” as I was searching for a way to expand my horizons. As my parenting demands diminished, I needed another purpose.
I am proud of my Salvadoran/Danish heritage. My mom is a very loving, reassuring, and positive individual. She maintains an effusive love for life and is a bright star in encouraging me to this day. My dad was a writer and historian. He was the serious sort and maintained a strict guiding hand over my childhood.
The greatest influence in my life was my Danish grandmother. I spent much of my childhood summer vacations and Christmas holidays in Denmark, my father’s home. My grandmother was a strong person who made me feel safe and loved, but beyond that, she taught me right from wrong and social amenities. All these things combined to give me confidence and consistency. She herself had lived through difficult times, such as the German occupation during WWII. She was my “rock.” She died in 1998, only a month after my father had passed away. I believe she died of a broken heart over the loss of her son (my father). The double loss in such a short time was devastating to me. Even then a larger purpose was stirring within.
When my son went away to college and the nest was truly empty, I saw an inviting opportunity to challenge myself. I read an ad in the paper for a job as a flight attendant for a private jet company that catered to VIP‘s. I applied, got the job, and spent eight weeks training in Miami. Having grown up around the airline industry and traveling back and forth to Denmark, I knew something about the airlines. I was the only flight attendant in the cabin catering to politicians including serving on the John Kerry campaign tour and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were numerous celebrities such as the musical group, Fleetwood Mac, and anyone of extreme wealth who could afford the $10,000 per hour price tag. It was a demanding job that took me on the road from 7 to 40 days at a time. It also afforded me travel around the world to places like Siberia, French Guiana, Easter Island, Europe, and Latin America. During that time I honed my people skills, and became more extroverted and confident.
My husband was not terribly fond of these long absences and it placed a moderate strain on the marriage. It was clear that we had grown apart and in the end, we divorced. It was a difficult decision and my son suffered a great deal. There is never the right time to divorce even if you think your children are grown up and can handle an event like this. For six months, he refused to speak with me. I dug in and called him almost every day to reassure him that regardless of what had happened between his parents, I loved him. Sometimes, he said a few words, sometimes, he cried, and at other times, he just hung up. In time, my son and I mended our rift, and to this day, we are extremely close.
In 2004, while I was living this new life in the air, I got a call from my mother. She asked me to consider taking over our abandoned family plantation–a finca— that grew coffee in eastern El Salvador. I had made a few short trips there before, but never gave it much thought beyond a nice vacation trip. Fortunately, my flying career allowed me to take a lot of time off and I made an exploratory trip to re-visit the finca with this new purpose in mind. Little did I know that before I boarded the plane, my mother had signed over the legal rights of the property to me. She is a pretty sentimental person but also very confident that her daughter will follow through with her request!
My maternal great-grandfather had owned this 200-acre coffee plantation (Finca Los Angeles) in El Salvador since 1890. When he died in 1942, his wife, Angela took over the operation, who in turn, left it to one of my uncles upon her death. At that point the country’s civil war broke out, the finca was abandoned, and used as a stronghold for the guerillas. Much of the coffee fields were cut down to plant sustenance crops such as corn and beans. The remaining coffee was left un-worked and became smothered in vines.
The moment I arrived on the finca, I found myself literally smitten with the plantation. My son felt the same magical effect that I did which cemented my decision to give it a try. The people of El Salvador are so warm, embracing, and helpful, that I just had to make the leap and take this chance of a lifetime. I felt this was possibly the answer to the question that I had been mulling over and over in my head for several years. This is where I was meant to be! This is what I was meant to do with my life. I truly felt guided to be here.
The people in the American Embassy encouraged me in my business venture. I applied for a six-month leave of absence from work and rented a small house in town. The hacienda at the time did not have water, electricity, and was inhabited by hundreds of bats, scorpions, and spiders.
Eventually, I quit my job and made the plantation my sole focus. Little by little, the house my great grandfather built was restored. Today, we even have high-speed internet, and the bats are gone (for the most part!). I don’t have dual citizenship yet, but am free to travel back and forth without a visa. Because my mother is Salvadoran, I was able to obtain a D.U.I., which is like citizenship and entitles me certain privileges. It also makes it much easier to wallow through the red tape of exporting coffee to the U.S.
Since I did not have time to research techniques on coffee growing, and didn’t know a word of Spanish; moving here to manage this property in a third-world country would be a preposterous decision. I would be undertaking a huge risk with many unknowns. I would be giving up a comfortable, glamorous lifestyle that few experience. But in retrospect, I’m not sure I even considered the negatives or did the plus/minus list for making the decision. I simply KNEW it was the right thing to do.
This has all been a learning process for me, and I’m enjoying the challenge. At first our coffee went into a local co-op, but we only netted 72 cents a pound. We are now working on obtaining organic certification, which is more expensive, but I feel it is the right thing to do for the environment. We use no chemical pesticides and pay special attention to responsible shade management, and maintain a tree nursery to repopulate the coffee that was cleared during the war. Sustainability is not an easy concept to sell around here where profit margins are miniscule. It is sometimes hard to explain why I insist on using only organic products to my employees when the finca next door reaps a larger yield with conventional chemical fertilizers.
From a business standpoint there is a great deal of red tape involved in exporting coffee. One needs to apply for many government permits. The CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) has helped me to a limited degree in that I no longer need to pay a duty on coffee exported to the United States. We have increased our production every year by building a coffee vivero (nursery). At present, we have 8,000 baby coffee plants who will spend a year in the nursery to be planted in May 2011. I have insisted that only the ripest coffee cherries are picked at harvest, another battle that was hard-won and required my paying a slightly higher rate to the pickers. During the drying period, the men take turns sleeping next the sun patio to guard over the beans. While theft is not prevalent, some of the people from the village of Tecapan have attempted to steal from time to time.
We experienced one entanglement soon after moving to the finca involving a squatter who had been there for some time and would not leave. He was undermining my operations by cutting down coffee and cacao trees. I learned that I was entitled to protection and for three days a unit from the rural police came to stay at the finca. Their purpose was to send a message that trouble would not be tolerated. It was all very civil and I was grateful for the assistance. I did have to hire an attorney and settle with the gentleman in court for $1800. This gratefully, put an end to the problem. These days, the finca is a peaceful place and aside from a few mischievous kids, the land is respected once again.
This year, we are taking on the dreaded Broca beetle, a coffee boring insect that wreaks havoc on coffee trees. The beetle bores into the red coffee cherry and bears her young inside. It is impossible to know how much damage the crop has suffered until the beans have been washed, dried, and the pergamino husk is removed. Eradication using purchased traps is extremely expensive considering we need about 500. Pro-Café, a Salvadoran coffee growers association, made me aware of equally effective traps made from 2-liter soda bottles. We have been paying the local boys from town a nickel a bottle and now have more than enough to complete the work. A by-product of this project is bringing to light the concept of recycling. We are also researching other ways to recycle from garbage that is tossed on the ground. I’ve always believed, it is not enough to talk about new ideas. You have to lead by example. The benefits and end result speak for themselves.
Like any farmer, I am learning to navigate the many pitfalls with the coffee business, including natural disasters such as Hurricane Ida in late November that brought extensive damage to the crop. I was close to giving up on the whole endeavor; however when I considered my options of returning to a traditional job in the U.S., I really could not think of anything I would rather be doing. I dug in and recommitted my efforts. From these hardships, spawned our branded coffee “Tecapa Blue.”
Another important project on the finca is our Cacao (chocolate) crop. When I first arrived, I purchased and planted 5,000 Cacao trees. I had had an ongoing interest in the chocolate industry and discovered that cacao is indigenous to El Salvador as one of the major crops duirng the Mayan period, but had since been replaced by coffee and sugar cane. It seemed only fitting to bring it back. Cacao is rich in antioxidants with high levels of Theobromine (the natural chemical that makes us happy!).
I was able to acquire Criollo Cacao stock, which is considered the premium chocolate in the world marketplace. The growing conditions are very similar to coffee, so incorporating the cacao was not a difficult task. The plants have been genetically tested, and we have buyers in the U.S. waiting in the wings to purchase our beans when production gets up to speed. It will be an memorable day when we export our first raw cacao beans.
It is important to diversify in farming which we are trying to do here on the finca. I recently germinated 300 Paulownia trees which are fast-growing shade trees–growing 15 feet a year– a species native to China. Besides being good for re-forestation purposes, the wood is excellent for construction lumber, musical instruments, and has a high carbon exchange in the atmosphere. They will be planted in a showcase field so we may show other farmers the benefits of these magical trees. In 2011, we are planning to cultivate butterflies for both collectors and educational institutions. Butterflies are abundant here on the finca, so we are very excited to learn as much as we can about them and share these beautiful creatures. There are days when there are hundreds of iridescent blue and yellow butterflies swarming in the air. It is a sight to behold.
Another long-term dream is to turn the finca into a destination for eco-tourism. I can see having some cabins for overnight guests, providing hiking trails in the mountains, and arranging educational demonstrations of the various crops we produce. Being an artist myself, I look around at all the possibilities the finca offers an artist. I would welcome giving artists opportunities to visit for inspiration and creativity.
We have a small operation on this finca with only seven full-time workers. With that kind of intimate group, we get to know one another very well and become like a second family to each other. Recently, my major domo (i.e. foreman) was hit by a truck and killed on his way to work. Over the years he and I had our disagreements as any employer/employee do, but we relied on each other and settled our differences. He had a very large family to support – twenty-six children – who relied on him. The shock was devastating to all of them and to our work family. I needed to first get over my guilt of our on/off relationship before I could help the others deal with the realities of the situation and loss.
Although this is a small finca, it provides homes and security to thirty families, 175 people who would otherwise not have employment. They are loyal workers who work long, hard hours. Hauling heavy bags of coffee beans is not easy work, but many women do it in El Salvador. The average daily wage for a coffee picker is $4.00. But it is also a happy time, as the children are off for the Christmas holidays and often join their mothers. There is much laughter in the air during this busy time.
Have I looked back at my former lifestyle and regretted my move? Not for a minute. As I would move back and forth between the U.S. and El Salvador, the two divergent lifestyles became more of a moral dilemma for me to resolve. I chose the latter with no regrets. This is not an easy lifestyle. There are illnesses here that are not in the States and scorpion bites. Also El Salvador has unfair social class separation which disturbs me because I was taught to treat all people equally no matter what their situation. But how could I turn my back on such a hidden gem knowing that however small, I could effect a few changes?
I feel it is important to support the local community, and I help the local school with proceeds from selling my products. I also am a member of a non-for-profit organization which builds homes for families in need; it is called The Women’s Coffee Alliance. We have also just launched our own program called, “Tecapa Kids,” a day camp for orphanages. A few months ago, I was contacted by an orphanage in San Salvador asking if their kids could come and spend the day on our finca as the kids have few chances for outdoor activities. We ran with the idea and are in the process of constructing an obstacle course, nature trails, and an art center to make this a permanent event throughout the year for orphanages around the country. We will hold our first event in August 2010.
When I told my friends back in 2004 that I was moving to El Salvador, they typically raised one of three questions: 1) Where is El Salvador? 2) Aren’t they fighting a war? 3) What about the gangs? I see myself as being an ambassador for El Salvador trying to dispel those misconceptions about the country. I plan to continue down this path of promoting tourism here to show not only WHERE it is, but also the positive aspects of the country, including the natural beauty and warmth of its people. I tell people the civil war ended nearly twenty years ago! For those persons who once lived here and left, I want them to be able to re-connect with their families here. Regarding gangs, when one is traveling anywhere, it is important to be vigilant in terms of your surroundings, and when in doubt, hire a reliable guide or taxi driver. I would like to see El Salvador move towards eco-tourism in a responsible way that protects the natural beauty. Tourism would generate jobs for the people and give visitors a authentic experience, unlike some of the more exploited tourist destinations with grand-scale hotels that seem to overtake beachfront property. The coastline in El Salvador offers grand vistas with 84 degree water year-round.
In terms of my faith, I was baptized a Roman Catholic which was my mother’s faith; my father was a Protestant. I spent my elementary years at the Notre Dame School, and my son attended a Lutheran school in Chicago. I have always been loosely affiliated with formal religion, but never really followed religion in a traditional sense, even though the foundation was there waiting. I never really explored my spirituality until I got to the finca. It is on this little piece of land on the side of a volcano, that I feel a strong guiding hand.
[It appears Stephanie is actively exploring her faith now by being a good steward of the land; serving those less fortunate; being a role model and good neighbor; providing positive attention and hope for a country that is generally underestimated and misunderstood. One cannot help but wonder if Stephanie felt God guiding her to be in this magical place ]
“What Am I Going to Do With My Life?” Stephanie works extremely long physical hours; her mind seems to continue to work endlessly on developing additional crops for the finca and creative ways to incorporate the local people to make her dreams a reality. In her spare time she shares her dreams for the gentle Salvadoran people with whom she shares a kindred spirit.]
FIRST DAY HARVEST ON THE FINCA