This is an article I felt compelled to write.
I recently had the opportunity to interview influential São Paulo coffee professional Isabela Raposeiras for Sprudge. Our conversation discussed a wide number of topics—business development, the growth of Brazil’s coffee scene, where the country’s coffee culture might be headed next—but I was particularly moved by Raposeiras’ experience and perspective dealing with “machismo”: the deeply ingrained culture of sexism and toxic masculinity that pervades all aspects of Brazilian culture.
Machismo is still prevalent in Brazilian coffee, and as a journalist and coffee roaster, it’s something I’ve experienced myself many times. It’s not just Brazil; machismo is entangled in society across South America, and many other places around the world. But one thing Raposeiras said in our interview spoke to me profoundly: that when she travels for work outside of Brazil, she feels like she is treated more as a professional, regardless of her gender. That outside of Brazil people care about what she does, not about whether she’s a man or a woman.
Intersectionality demands that we look at society from all angles. Are issues of sexism and toxic masculinity important topics for those living in places like the United States? Of course. But as a Brazilian woman and coffee professional, my experiences abroad have been far more positive and equitable than what women like me experience every day back home. If you’re doing the hard work of unpacking sexism and discrimination at home, I applaud you, but in the same breath I must ask: don’t forget about us here in Brazil. In your fight to change the society you live in, don’t limit yourself from considering the experiences of others outside your own culture and country. Intersectionality asks this of us all.
When I leave Brazil and introduce myself as a coffee roaster, I’m treated rather fine—I’m talked to in technical terms and afforded the chance to exchange professional knowledge with men and women alike. Sadly I can’t say the same about my experience here. Coffee folks in Brazil have praised a few of the coffees that I roasted, but when these people come and talk to me in person, they ask: “But who actually roasts your coffee?” And when I answer—”Me”—they ask again: “Just you?… Isn’t there someone else working with you?”
As if it were impossible for a woman to do all this on her own.
It’s a sentiment to which many women, minority, and gender non-conforming small business owners and professionals can relate, unfortunately. That should feel like an insult to me, but I think I’ve gotten used to it by now, so I answer with a smile: “Yes, just me. I inherited it from my father.” I guess it would be too much for them to know that yes, I actually have been getting help in the last few weeks…from a fellow colleague and expert roaster who happens to also identify as female.
This patronizing attitude extends to green coffee buying as well. The younger producers I work with find it fascinating that I, a young woman, am buying their coffee. The seniors, though, find it “cute”, which to me feels extremely offensive. They won’t take me seriously, will often crack a sexist joke or two—something along the lines of, “Did they send you here to charm us so they could get a better price in our coffees?” Who is “they” in that sentence? I guess any man on Earth would fit that. Then, I have to go the extra mile and prove myself many times—more than a lot of men out there—so I can be taken seriously. It’s a tiring process, and one that female-identified and gender non-conforming persons around the world can relate to.
The saddest thing is that when I take a friend who presents as male to go and buy coffee with me, the farmers will choose to only address him. It does not matter that he has never heard of coffee, that he has only come here to accompany me—it is assumed that he is responsible for the transaction, simply because he’s a man.
These are stories that many share, but in an agricultural society, and consequently in the coffee environment, my experience is that such attitudes are extremely common, with very little help or recourse available. Brazil was a colonized country, and land was never fairly shared amongst the colony dwellers at the time. Landlords have always been predominantly men. Coffee was brought to Brazil in the eighteenth century by an official of the Portuguese crown, who is said to have seduced the wife of the governor of our neighbor French Guiana so that she would give him coffee seeds. Not such a great start, I guess—sexism and machismo are part of the very root of coffee in this country.
From there, the coffee crop spread throughout the southeast of Brazil thanks to cheap European male labor who looked to settle in the farms. Over the last few decades, it has become very common to see women working in the field at harvest time, but they are typically wives and daughters of rural workers. Farm owners say that women are more careful when picking, and therefore they hire them temporarily to work during harvest only.
Despite the frightening normalcy of these issues, things are changing in Brazil, if slowly. There are women managing many small farms, albeit a minority. There are female-identified persons—Raposeiras, myself, and many others—who are roasters, Q-graders, green buyers, baristas, and coffee shop owners. But still, we are the minority. Just look at a photo of a coffee-related event, a cupping, a producers workshop here in Brazil—how many women are there in that photo? How many women are even mentioned in the press briefings? I’ve been doing this exercise and it makes me feel sad not to see roughly half the population being properly recognized for their part in the coffee chain.
When I look at photos of modern events in America, they feel different to me. The recent intersectionality panel at the 2017 SCA Event in Seattle is one beautiful example of this. We have not yet had a moment like this in Brazil—not even close.
I don’t want this article to read like a complaint, or to make Sprudge readers feel sorry for the situation in Latin America. Here we are, discussing issues related to machismo and prejudice in Brazil on an international coffee website–this is something that would have been totally unimaginable only a few short years ago. But we are far from resolving these issues here in Brazil, and we continue to find “machista” examples in our families, in the professional environment, and everywhere in-between.
This article is more about perspective. I just want Sprudge readers to be aware that the issues female-identified and gender non-conforming persons face on a daily basis around the world are magnified in producing countries. In countries like Brazil, our historical narrative of colonialism and poverty and agricultural hierarchies serves to magnify, and deeply entrench, a society where machismo and toxic masculinity are just a normal part of daily life.
Things are changing here in Brazil, but slowly. People like Isabela Raposeiras are out in front of that change and are enormously inspiring for other Brazilians—really, for people everywhere.
Juliana Ganan is a Brazilian coffee professional and journalist. Read more Juliana Ganan on Sprudge.