July 12, 2023

Why is Latino representation so important in specialty coffee?


The specialty coffee industry prides itself on being inclusive of a diverse range of people – and so it should. Coffee professionals from around the world come from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, and all deserve equal respect and representation.

Unfortunately, however, this isn’t always the case. Today, there are still ongoing implications of the coffee industry’s colonial history. These disproportionately affect certain demographics, including Spanish-speaking Latin Americans.

In turn – whether inadvertently or not – there is often underrepresentation of Latino people in some areas of the coffee industry. This is especially apparent in specialty coffee, which is often marketed towards consumers in the Global North rather than people in producing countries.

So, given how important inclusivity in coffee is, how can specialty coffee strive to be more representative of Latino culture? To learn more, I spoke to Eduardo Choza, Director of Coffee at Mayorga Coffee.

You may also like our article on why relationships are about more than just paying a good price for specialty coffee.

A coffee farmer harvests ripe cherries on a farm.

The colonial history of coffee

To understand why Latino coffee professionals are often underrepresented in specialty coffee, we must first acknowledge the role colonialism has played.

Although coffee now grows in many different countries – and can be bought almost anywhere in the world – it’s believed to have originated from East Africa. But in order for coffee to become so mass-produced and consumed, it had to be traded on a global scale.

This was largely orchestrated by European colonial powers in the late 1700s. These people took coffee seeds and plants from Africa and established themselves in coffee-producing countries in the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America.

As coffee consumption increased dramatically during the 1800s, many European colonisers established their own coffee-growing estates. To minimise production costs and maximise profits, many of these estates imported slaves from Africa to work on coffee plantations.

Indigenous communities in the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America were also forced to work on these estates. In turn, they were often forcibly evicted from their own lands, too.

It goes without saying that this was very much to the detriment of these communities. These people typically had no choice but to work on coffee plantations. To add this, many indigenous people were treated unfairly by European colonisers, and it was not uncommon to be subjected to physical and sexual violence.

Understanding the lingering effects

Even though these former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America are now independent countries, the effects of colonialism can still be felt today by many local communities.

After slavery ended and coffee-growing land was returned to native producers, many were only left with small parcels of land. In turn, coupled with a lack of access to resources and finance, producers were unable to sustainably scale their coffee production.

As a result, many smallholder producers in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia continue to live below the poverty line.

Moreover, how coffee is priced today – and therefore the income that farmers receive – also stems from a colonial history.

For example, in 1940, the US and a number of coffee-producing countries in Latin America signed the Inter-American Coffee Agreement. This agreement determined quotas for coffee production, as well as prices for green coffee in the US market at the time.

As demand for coffee skyrocketed over the following decades, several large multinational companies gained a monopoly of the global coffee market. This, among other reasons, drove down the prices that Latin American producers received for their coffee.

“The price of coffee is set by people in consuming countries who rarely step foot in the places where coffee is grown,” Eduardo says. “If that’s not colonial then I don’t know what is.”

Latino coffee workers on a farm wearing Mayorga Coffee sweatshirts.

Why is underrepresentation of Latino people in coffee harmful?

Alongside issues related to low coffee prices and systemic poverty, there is often a serious under or misrepresentation of certain demographics in the industry. This includes Latin Americans.

This is happens in a number of ways, such as:

  • Marketing and branding campaigns for specialty coffee companies, which largely focus on US and European coffee consumers and their preferences
  • A fetishisation of coffee farmers, which represent false and “exotic” misconceptions about these communities and their livelihoods
  • An ignorance towards traditional Latin American brewing methods, which have been used for years in these countries

“Sometimes consumers simply aren’t aware of these underrepresentations, or maybe they don’t care and just want to drink their coffee,” Eduardo says. “It’s all too easy to ignore, disconnect, and not acknowledge the human element behind the coffee.”

However, it’s essential that we recognise the key role Latinos play in the global coffee market.

Latin Americans as producers and consumers

Latin America is the most prolific coffee-producing region in the world. According to data from the ICO, countries in Central and South America collectively produced over 107,745 60kg bags of coffee in 2020. This is more than Africa and Asia combined in the same year.

There are more than 2.3 million coffee producing families in Latin America and the Caribbean. Recognising this becomes even more important when we consider that the region is responsible for some 84% of the world’s arabica supply.

So, the role that Latin America plays in coffee production is clear. But what about consumption?

“There is ignorance of Latino coffee culture and traditions,” Eduardo explains. “But Latin American coffee culture has tremendous influence over specialty coffee. This is especially apparent at coffee competitions when baristas and brewers try to ‘recreate’ experiences they had on coffee farms.

“What’s more, many industry professionals have taken countless trips to Latin America that have ‘inspired’ them to start a coffee business,” he adds.

According to the 2022 US census, Latinos account for around 19.1% of the US population. Given this percentage, they have significant consumer buying power.

Moreover, the National Coffee Association’s most recent report found 63% of Latinos had consumed specialty coffee in the past week, compared to 54% for Caucasian Americans and 43% for African-Americans.

A group of Mayorga Coffee employees.

How can we improve representation in specialty coffee?

In order for us to have a truly sustainable and equitable specialty coffee industry, fair and accurate representation of all groups of people – including Latinos – is essential. Ultimately, this serves to improve inclusivity and equity. Moreover, it ensures people of different demographics feel welcome and appreciated in the industry.

This is especially important for smallholder producers in Latin America, who are still underpaid and live below the poverty line.

“Systems of oppression have existed to exploit a larger number of people, and only benefit a select few,” Eduardo says. “These systems steal the resources of others. 

Mayorga Coffee creates space to have these conversations, and we strive to be intentional with every decision we make that affects our brothers and sisters in Latin America,” he adds.

However, these issues go beyond just paying a higher price for coffee. A large part of underrepresentation stems from misconceptions about Latino coffee brands.

“My assumption of the misconceptions is that people think the coffee is cheap and low quality, or that it isn’t traceable and we don’t care about sourcing,” Eduardo says.

“When Martin Mayorga (founder of Mayorga Coffee) first started the brand as Café Mayorga, he said people perceived the quality to be inferior simply because the name was in Spanish,” he adds. “I would like to think this has changed and that people are looking for quality coffee that has value.

“With that said, it’s harder to reach a wider audience when people can’t pronounce the names of the products,” Eduardo continues.

Latinos must be at the forefront of the conversation

To increase representation of Latin Americans in coffee, Latinos need to be leading these conversations and movements.

For instance, according to Zippia, nearly 70% of coffee roasters in the US are white, while just 13% are Latino. In order to make the sector more diverse and representative, listening to Latin Americans and their perspectives – as well as hiring more Latino people and leveraging their expertise and skills – is vital.

“We encourage others by celebrating who we are,” Eduardo says. “This can be through our merchandise that people can wear and be proud of, or through leading by example and shining a positive light on Latin America.

Mayorga Coffee also sponsors Producer Roaster Forum (PRF) – the largest producer-focused event in the global coffee industry,” he adds.

A group of Mayorga Coffee employees.

We can’t ignore the role colonialism has played in creating inequity in the global coffee industry. This makes it all the more important to listen to marginalised communities and understand how we can best support them. 

There are many ways that we can improve representation across the coffee supply chain. But one of the most important is to support Latinos to feel empowered, and ensure they are included in conversations about where the industry is going and how we get there.

Want to learn more about Mayorga Coffee? Read about Mayorga’s PRF El Salvador Diamond Sponsorship here.

Photo credits: Mayorga Coffee

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Mayorga Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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