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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Jitzy Ruíz Centeno, Producer of organic coffee
Estelí, Nicaragua (interviewed at Mermaid Café, 1929 Winnebago St.)
'We're helping the environment, raising consciousness, educating our families.'
Centeno: 'We're helping the environment, raising consciousness, educating our families.'
Credit:Susan Kepecs

Why you should go: The Mermaid's always fragrant with the heady aroma of Just Coffee's Goddess Blend, produced by Ruíz's co-op.

What brought you to Madison? I belong to La FEM, an organic feminist coffee co-op in Estelí. Madison's Just Coffee buys, roasts and carries our beans. They brought me here for two weeks to share the experience of our co-op. Last week I went to a lot of churches, schools and markets - we were at a Spanish-speaking school [Nuestro Mundo] and a cafe in Verona. We even drove up to Tomahawk - a really long trip. We were at the Farmers' Market on the Square on Saturday, sharing information and meeting consumers. This week at the Mermaid I've been learning to be a barista, because our co-op wants to open a coffee shop in Estelí. We don't have a place for it yet, or even an espresso machine. It's a project we're still figuring out - a new challenge for us.

This trip's been an unusual experience. I've never done anything like it before. We're rural women, and producing our coffee is a lot of hard work, so I'm glad to know that there are so many people helping small producers like us commercialize our product in a fair market. Just Coffee told me I'd learn to be a barista, but I'd never been in a coffee shop like the Mermaid before, and I couldn't imagine what it would be like. It's been great.

Tell me about your co-op. Rural women in Nicaragua are very marginalized. Most don't even know how to read and write. They're exploited by their husbands and don't know their rights. My mother was one of the first women to start a rural co-op, and she saw to it that I graduated from high school. I'd been teaching in our community, so when a group of feminists from Estelí came out to the countryside to help us organize for organic agriculture, I decided to get involved. I liked learning about organic production.

I especially liked learning about coffee. It's very traditional in our community. I remember my grandfather growing it. Everybody has a few plants on their land. Some families produce it in abundance, but they don't have access to markets. And there are big producers, but they use chemicals, and compensation for labor is terrible.

So little by little I learned - what kind of light the plants need, how to harvest, how to make organic fertilizers. I'm still an educator, too. Every month I visit other women's groups and teach them how to grow organic coffee. We're helping the environment, raising consciousness, educating our families. Even the husbands are more supportive now! We're trying some new value-added products - we're making hibiscus tea, marmalades and wine. We're not exporting that line yet, but it sells really well in Estelí.

I'm proud of the transformation in myself and in my compañeras in the co-op. At first it seemed like this idea didn't have a future, and it's been a challenge, but every day more women are getting involved in organic agriculture. It benefits the whole community, and it's good for consumers everywhere.

Now that you've learned to be a barista, which coffee drink do you like best? They're all good, but I love cappuccino! I'd never had one before. In Nicaragua we make café con leche - we put the milk in straight from the cow. It's nothing like how you do it here.

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