Cortando Café, Atitlán
(Picking Coffee at Santiago Atitlán)
20" x 24", oil on canvas.
Matias Gonzalez Chavajay
The area of the Guatemala highlands around Lake Atitlán is one of the world’s best climates for growing coffee. Coffee is the main cash crop every year for many Mayan families who are fortunate enough to have some land. This influx of money has raised the quality of life for many families above a subsistence level. The money earned from coffee does not come easily, however. Besides owing the land, they must raise the coffee plants from seedlings and after about seven years the plants begin bearing coffee. When the coffee berries are ripe, they are picked, carried over the mountains to town where, depending on the current price for coffee, fluxuating in the range of 10 cents a pound, they earn about $10 for a hundred pound bag of coffee, coffee which sells for $6 a pound in the United States.
In Matías Gonzalez Chavajay’s painting seven people—five men and two women probably from one, perhaps two families all dressed in the traje of Santiago Atitlán—harvest the ripe red coffee berries. One woman seated on her legs near the fire has two pitchers in her hands. If it is a cold morning perhaps she has come from the house bringing atol or arroz con leche to warm and nourish the workers. The men probably got up before sunrise so they start working in their fields right at sunrise and finish before the midday heat. The workers pick the berries putting them in the baskets strapped around their waists. This painting represents an earlier era because these baskets and the cloth sacks are no longer used, they have been replaced with woven plastic rice sacks. While most of the berries are red we see one pile of unripe green berries sitting on top of a sack. The companies which buy the coffee berries won’t accept green berries, so these have been separated, and possibly will be dried to make a very coffee sweetened with sugar for the family. A man on the right with an empty basket is leaning against a banana tree, drinking alcohol out of a bottle. It is impossible to know from this painting if this man has already gotten paid for this day’s harvest and has spent his money on drink, or if he started drinking early and this is going to keep him earning any money today.
Coffee plants don’t grow in an especially attractive manner, the word gangly might be used to describe them. The Mayan artists, perhaps drawing on the sensibility exhibited in the Mayan textiles, transform the coffee plants into something beautiful. Here on a dark ground Matías depicts the coffee branches, green leaves, and red and green berries in detail. The coffee plants are painted in one plane as if the whole plant has been flattened in a botanical press, with no branch and almost no leaf in front of another. Matías paints only three coffee plants but this flattening makes them look like a coffee plantation. These stylized coffee plants give the background an effect not unlike a wallpaper by William Morris.