By Kelly Swan
Stephen Pitts and Christina Rossini were idealistic retreat leaders at the University of Oklahoma when they first forged a friendship. After graduation, she dove into a career in telecom sales; he entered the Society of Jesus. Years later, their shared commitment to social justice would lead them to find an innovative way to address the root causes of migration to improve the lives of indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico.
In 2014, while a student at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University (JST), Fr. Pitts assisted with planning the school’s 25th anniversary remembrance of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador. Inspired by the martyrs and their diverse areas of expertise, Pitts enrolled in the University of San Francisco’s international and economic development master’s degree program. It was an unconventional decision for a Jesuit in formation, but one encouraged by his Jesuit superiors. The knowledge he acquired would lead to opportunities for change in both the U.S. and rural Mexico.
Through Fr. Eduardo Fernández, SJ, an instructor at JST, Fr. Pitts encountered a longstanding Jesuit mission that was the foundation for Yomol A’Tel, a group of cooperatives made up of indigenous Tseltal families. Their work and its impact intrigued him, and he decided to make a comprehensive survey of Tseltal farmers the basis of his master’s thesis.
Two weeks after his ordination in 2017, Fr. Pitts headed to Chiapas for the summer. There he worked with the mission staff to plan his research. In addition, he served as associate pastor at the Jesuit mission there, doing sacramental work in the main church and in several villages.
Father Pitts returned to JST for the 2017-18 school year to finish his two master’s degrees (international development and theology). During that year, he remained in contact with his Mexican colleagues as they supervised 600 surveys in 60 villages over nine months. He also solidified important relationship within the U.S. Jesuit network. At the end of the school year, he reported to his new assignment at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas, where he now serves as director of religious formation.
“My experience here on the northern border of Mexico allows me to continue to make connections in Chiapas, which is in the far south of Mexico,” Fr. Pitts said. “Here, we deal with people who migrate. There, we do something in communities prone to forced migration, so the people have the choice not to migrate.”
Father Pitts’ research, the first quantitative study of its type in the region, tried to measure whether membership in a cooperative impacted the economy of indigenous coffee producers in the state of Chiapas. One of the surprising findings is that social capital matters more than individual capital in terms of whether people join the cooperative. (Social capital refers to the value of social relationships and networks.)
Father Pitts’ research also found that coffee growers in Chiapas don’t aspire to buy more land and grow more coffee to expand. Instead, they place a premium on price stability: to be able to sell their crop at a predictable and fair price so they don’t have to migrate or look for other sources of income. The study measured “market access” as an outcome (% of the coffee crop they could sell) and found a 25% increase for the people after joining the cooperative.
In brief, indigenous farmers joined the cooperative looking not for immediate personal economic gain so much as for economic stability for their communities. And they found it in the cooperatives.
The Jesuits have been living and working alongside indigenous people in Chiapas for more than 60 years. The region borders Guatemala and is the poorest in Mexico — a rural, isolated farming region, with most residents growing coffee to sell and corn to eat.
Historically, indigenous farmers have tended their coffee crops on small plots of 5-7 acres and have sold raw, green coffee beans to a local coffee broker, or coyote. Three issues have arisen from this arrangement. First, the farmers were at the mercy of an incredibly volatile global coffee market. Second, farmers had no direct market access: a premium crop might have the potential to increase earnings from a single harvest, but without market access, this potential was lost. Finally, a lack of stable and consistent income from harvest to harvest resulted in many farmers falling victim to predatory lending schemes, taking out loans at interest rates ranging from 150-300% — often from the same coyote who was purchasing their coffee. This led to generational debt and poverty, and, in many cases, forced migration and displacement*, particularly when compounded by a poor harvest due to crop loss from parasites or other issues. [*The United Nations defines displacement as the forced movement of people from their locality or environment and occupational activities.]
Almost two decades ago, the community of smallholder indigenous farmers approached the Jesuits for assistance to end displacement from the region. Many in the region were seasonal migrants, traveling to Cancun and other locales during tourist season, but returning for the harvest. The local community recognized the toll this was taking on family ties, which are highly valued in Tseltal culture.
The Jesuits recognized that “indigenous people are the victims of free trade,” Pitts said, suffering due to lack of power as sellers and the volatility of the coffee market.
“They realized that these farmers are never going to win, so instead, they changed the game.”
The result of the farmers’ request is Bats’il Maya — a coffee cooperative, self-governed and sustained by local farmers without private or government funding. The cooperative, founded with the support of the Jesuits Province of Mexico, has received financial assistance from the Spain Province and private donors. At present, it is financially self-sufficient.
The cooperative aims to reduce forced migration by creating stability for farmers through fair, consistent pricing — as much as two times what the local coyote was paying — and greater market access, resulting in farmers’ ability to sell 25% more of their harvested coffee.
Today, 400 farmers are members of the coffee cooperative. There are two criteria for membership: farmers must be Mexican and must agree to use organic practices within three years of joining. All members are indigenous Tseltal, and the vast majority have civic and church responsibilities in their village.
The program boasts a closed-loop economy. Recognizing that most of coffee’s value resides in the market-ready product, the beans are now roasted locally, making the cooperative the only coffee production operation in the region that roasts at the origin of the beans.
The finished product, Capeltic coffee, is made with 100% Arabica beans from the region. The coffee is bagged for sale onsite, and a truck arrives every Thursday for global distribution, an arrangement that allows maximum profit to stay in the community via the cooperative, while also providing a fresh product to consumers.
Bats’il Maya and Capeltic fall under the umbrella of Yomol A’Tel, a group of cooperatives including honey, soapmaking and embroidery companies. Yomol A’Tel’s roasting facility is one of the largest employers in the region and serves as a model for other cooperatives.
There are five Capeltic-branded coffee shops in Mexico, which cross-sell other Yomol A’Tel products: two on the campus of the Jesuit university in Mexico City, one in Guadalajara, one in Puebla, and one at the roasting facility. The shops’ profits are reinvested back into Yomol A’Tel, primarily to the cooperative’s microloan program, which allows any farmer in the cooperative to take out a low-risk, low-interest-rate loan for unexpected living or medical expenses or to invest in local business startups.
Growing up in Dallas, Christina Rossini was taught by Ursuline sisters who emphasized Catholic social teaching. She returned to Dallas after graduating from college. During Pitts’ years of formation, he spent three years as a teacher at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, and he and Rossini reconnected over their shared commitment to social justice.
Rossini learned about Pitts’ work with the Tseltal when she attended his ordination in 2017. She accepted his invitation to visit Chiapas during his time there. Her visit was transformational. It would be the catalyst for a relationship between the Jesuit network in the United States and Yomol A’Tel, connecting coffee and economic justice in an innovative approach to addressing the root causes of migration from the Chiapas region.
During Rossini’s visit to Chiapas in 2017, she and Pitts were approached by the embroidery and coffee cooperatives for help in bringing their products to the United States. They agreed, despite having no experience with international commerce.
They started small, selling products at a holiday bazaar at Jesuit Dallas in 2017 and beginning a word-of-mouth campaign within the Jesuit network.
Rossini formed a company to bring coffee to the United States and distributed it out of her own home. The response was so robust that she was quickly spending more time on coffee sales than on her commission- based telecom sales job. In July 2018, she began working at the coffee business full time. Growth since then has been exponential.
“I’m grateful to deliver U.S. market access to Capeltic, as well as introduce people to a socially conscious brand they want to support that aligns with their own values,” Rossini said.
It is hard to quantify the scope of transformation brought about by the Jesuit mission in Chiapas, Fr. Pitts’ research with indigenous families and Rossini’s distribution of the cooperatives’ products.
Father Pitts is making the data from his research available to the cooperative through a database. He is working with the staffs of the Jesuit mission and the cooperative and a local professor to use the database for future projects, such as teaching the Tseltales to grow other crops like avocados and peaches. But the potential reach extends beyond Chiapas: Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has shown interest in development projects that help rural agricultural communities in Chiapas and greater southern Mexico.
Since January 2018, 25 Jesuit institutions and partners have supported Capeltic by purchasing coffee, including the coffee shops on the campus of the University of San Francisco. Business schools at two Jesuit universities have used Capeltic as a case study in classes. A documentary about the project, A Six Dollar Cup of Coffee, won “official selection” at two international film festivals last year and has been screened at two locations in the U.S. The Ignatian Solidarity Network has partnered to sell the coffee on their online store and socialize the message within the Jesuit community.
Each new connection is a bridge connecting the justice work of the cooperative and the justice potential of institutions and communities in the U.S.
Fair Trade certification has brought significant benefits to many communities throughout the world. However, Fr. Pitts describes the work in Chiapas as a “next step,” one that eliminates economic barriers that Fair Trade certification costs can bring, particularly when a farmer cannot sell an entire harvest at a fair trade price.
The closed-loop economy of the Yomol A’Tel cooperative overcomes another significant barrier. “Developing nations don’t typically produce finished products, and that’s where the value is, along with technical know-how,” Fr. Pitts says.
“Should the son of a Chiapas coffee farmer learn technical skills and access educational opportunities, or serve margaritas to American tourists as a seasonal migrant worker? This model empowers the entire community and upholds human dignity. We are selling quality, not charity.”
Father Pitts credits the witness of the Jesuit martyrs as motivation for both himself and Rossini to use their unique gifts in service to the poor and oppressed. Their work to be the voice for the people of Chiapas by building relationships in the United States addresses the global migration crisis at its root, empowering communities pushed to the margins by global systems to find economic security.
“We don’t need a wall,” Fr. Pitts said about the flawed approach to the issue of migration in the U.S. and beyond. “We need investment in development projects in communities that send migrants to the U.S. This work is relational, the opposite of consumerism. We’re building a culture of encounter, and coffee is the vehicle.”
You can purchase Capeltic coffee online at www.capeltic.org/home.
Kelly Swan is communications director for the Ignatian Solidarity Network. She is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University.
Father Stephen Pitts’ thesis will be published this year in a collection called “Entrepreneurship and Development in the 21st Century.”