Starbucks partners from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba and the U.S. share how they honor their culture and create ties that bind.
The apartment is quiet and dark when Natalie Ramirez wakes up. Sometimes, she’ll check on her baby nephew and hush him back to sleep. Most of the time, she heads straight to the kitchen and gathers the ingredients she’ll need for her morning ritual: a large clay cooking pot, water, ground coffee, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise and a hard-packed cone of cane sugar called a piloncillo.
She clicks on the gas stove, puts on her headphones (on a recent morning, Ángela Aguilar sings “La Llorona”) and waits for the water, sugar and spices to boil. A sweet, pungent smell fills the kitchen.
She takes the pot off the heat with an oven mitt and sprinkles in the coffee to steep. Five minutes later, she pours everything through a cheesecloth and a strainer into a large mug-shaped container called a pocillo. The coffee’s ready. The family is awake. She passes the first hot cup to her dad.
“My grandmother would make coffee for my grandfather. My mom made it for my father,” Ramirez says. “And now I’m making it for my family.”
In recognition of Latinx Heritage Month (from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15), Starbucks Stories asked Starbucks partners around the country how they honor their culture, and what comes to mind when they think of their heritage. What we heard were stories of celebration, family and, of course, coffee and music, but also stories of sacrifice, love and heartbreak, stories of homecomings and home leavings, stories that remind us that no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, in ways big and small, estamos unidos. We are united.
Ramirez, 17, is a Starbucks barista in Carlsbad, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Diego. Born and raised in nearby Vista, she says making café de olla (literally, coffee of the cooking pot) for her family is one of the best ways she can stay connected to her roots.
“The majority of my family lives in Mexico, and I didn’t get a traditional Mexican childhood because I grew up in the U.S.,” says Ramirez, a senior in high school. “Keeping my culture alive in the U.S. is super important to me and one of the ways I do that is by making that traditional coffee every morning.”
In 2016, for eight months, Ramirez lived in Chiapas, Mexico, where her grandfather and her uncle live and work on a coffee farm with 146 trees. She remembers the fresh air, the green berry smell and the steep inclines. She helped pick the coffee cherries and lugged them downhill.
“Just learning about all the work that was put into making this cup of liquid that’s in front of me, all the hands it has passed through just to be right here, that got me thinking,” Ramirez says. “I gained a huge appreciation for those who are doing this on the daily and have been doing this on the daily for decades.”
Ramirez took responsibility for her family’s morning coffee about two years ago because she wanted to help when her mother’s arthritis got worse. But now, it’s become something more: a symbol, a connection.
Dawn becomes day, and Ramirez hears her neighbors outside, starting their car engines, heading off to work. She gives coffee tumblers to her brothers as they walk out the door, pours a cup for her mom, another for herself. It’s delicious, she says—chocolate, cinnamon, spices, a bit of an earthy flavor from the clay pot, even better than lattes.
“Part of Latino culture is feeding everybody. This is my way of making sure my family doesn’t leave the house hungry or thirsty, that they leave the house with enough … I like to send them to work with a warm cup of coffee.”
Gory Rodriguez panicked.
When Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico two years ago—wiping out farms, buildings and livelihoods and taking thousands of lives—Rodriguez was in Doral, Fla., a suburb of Miami. A year earlier, she had left San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, where she was born and raised, to take a job as a Starbucks store manager on the mainland.
“I lived through not knowing where my family was,” she recalls. “My parents and siblings were out there. We didn’t know how they were doing, where they were.”
Her family was fine, thank goodness, but “they suffered without basic necessities.” Rodriguez was compelled to help everyone she could. She mobilized donations out of her store and sent them back home to be given to those in need, called family and friends who needed support and, for weeks at a time, hosted Puerto Ricans who had no place to live.
She returned to Puerto Rico last month, on the two-year anniversary of the storm, with about 150 other volunteers. In partnership with veterans from The Mission Continues, Starbucks partners like Rodriguez helped plant 4,500 coffee tree starts on three farms that had been devastated by Maria, which destroyed an estimated 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s coffee trees.
Now 50 years old, Rodriguez remembers how her parents took her all around the island as a child and told her to never forget where she came from. The trip home brought back a flood of memories: the food, the accents, the family house in the mountains, the way she’d celebrate Three Kings Day, a holiday akin to Christmas, as a kid by putting grass in a shoebox for the camel to eat.
Towards the end of her time at home, Rodriguez walked down a hill in Adjuntas, a small, mountainous municipality in central-midwest Puerto Rico. On each side of her, volunteers were planting tree starts on a coffee farm. All around, she saw bananas and plantains. She talked to a farmer who made her feel optimistic.
Then, somewhere, the music started—Boricua en la Luna (“Puerto Rican on the Moon”)—a sad but hopeful song that tells the story of a boy born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, a working-class man and his wife, an aspiring singer, who left the island in search of better opportunities. They struggled and died after a life of sweat and tears, but the song ends with the boy declaring himself a Puerto Rican no matter what, even if he was born on the moon.
“My peers there, who didn’t even understand the words to the music, they were moving to the music,” Rodriguez says. “They were Puerto Ricans in the moment, and they felt that connection to my island.”
In 1986, Florestela Lopez was six months pregnant when she got into a car accident. She went into labor and gave birth to little Magnolia.
“My mom said I could fit in the palm of her hand,” says Magnolia Lopez, 33, now a Starbucks district manager in Baytown, Texas, where she grew up.
When she thinks about her heritage, she thinks about her mother’s sacrifice. Florestela Lopez was a single mother of three who worked two full-time minimum-wage jobs, cleaning rooms at a motel from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then coming home to make dinner and leaving again to clean offices at a Chevron refinery.
“She did that for more than 16 years; that was her day,” Magnolia Lopez says. “She would tell me that when she would lie down, her body would tremble because of how exhausted she was.”
Florestela Lopez had been a doctor and owned a pharmacy in Reynosa, Mexico, in the border state of Tamaulipas. But she left Mexico behind after separating from her husband. Also, the local drug cartels were starting to make the area feel dangerous, Magnolia Lopez says, so they left.
Florestela Lopez settled in Baytown, about 25 miles east of Houston, and paid a lawyer to start the amnesty process, eventually gaining citizenship and saving enough money to buy a house.
“By no means was it good,” Magnolia Lopez recalls. “It was on the poor side of town. It sat on cinder blocks. It had been burnt. Between her and my older brothers, they built the restrooms and the closets in there.”
Magnolia Lopez started working at a local coffee shop when she was in high school. It allowed her to help with the bills and her mother to quit her night job. After graduating, she joined Starbucks as a barista, a job that paid more than what her mother earned at the time.
As a child, “Starbucks wasn’t even anything I could afford,” Magnolia Lopez says. But the company made it possible for her to have health benefits for the first time in her life, helped pay for braces and sent her to college with financial aid from a tuition reimbursement program. She became a store manager in Crosby, Texas, in 2008, and three years ago, she was promoted to district manager.
In 2011, Magnolia and her brothers razed their mother’s first house and built another on the same piece of land. “It was such a proud moment. It was a brand-new home that we were able to give back to her. That’s the least we could do,” she says. “It’s so emotional. To those that feel like they’ve hit rock bottom or they feel like they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I tell my mom’s story from her perspective.”
As a child, Reinaldo Batista walked to school through the coffee trees on his family farm in Sierra Maestra, a rugged mountain region about eight hours southeast of Havana, where he was born. He remembers his grandfather teaching him to ride a bike between the same rows of coffee trees. And he remembers how each morning, he’d smell what his grandmother was brewing, and it was the cue to wake up, better than any alarm clock. Café con leche (coffee with milk) and toast with butter was usually breakfast.
Coffee was woven through nearly all aspects of his life. It was his family’s livelihood and the root of many of their traditions, the smell of it intricately linked to some of his best memories.
“Coffee gave me comfort,” says Batista, a Starbucks international supply chain analyst in Seattle.
He remembers how his grandmother would roast the hand-picked, hand-peeled coffee beans on the stove. When Cuba’s economy started struggling, people—including his grandmother—mixed in peas to make up for lost volume, Batista says.
“Now people in Cuba like to drink coffee that’s been roasted with green peas,” he said. “They’ll roast them together and grind it and that’s coffee. That came out of necessity.”
In the evenings, he’d sit with his grandfather as he drank coffee after dinner on the porch overlooking the farm—“me and him alone, I was maybe 6”—listening to stories about “things he’d done and things he’d wished he’d done.”
Batista left Cuba in 2006, when he was 19, and reunited in the U.S. with his family, who’d come earlier. He joined the Navy and eventually started working at the Starbucks roasting plant in Kent, Wash.
“Coffee equals life. Without those coffee fields, my family would not have made it,” Batista says. “When I think about coffee, coffee has meant everything to my family.”
Ruben Holguin was at home when he received the text:
Active shooter. Near one of the local Starbucks stores.
“Reports were all over the place,” recalls Holguin, a Starbucks district manager in El Paso, Texas. “Panic hit the entire city.”
When it was finally over, police had apprehended Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old man from Allen, Texas. Twenty-two people were dead at a local Walmart and 24 others were injured. The FBI is investigating the Aug. 3 shooting as a hate crime; Crusius allegedly posted anti-immigrant messages online before the rampage and told authorities he was targeting Mexicans.
Which leaves Holguin, who was born in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, wrestling with a difficult question: how do you celebrate your heritage when it’s literally under attack?
The El Paso Starbucks store, less than a mile away from the shooting, became a gathering point for the community.
“People were in shock, everything from customers inside the Walmart to news reporters in the area,” Holguin says. “(Margaret Bustillos, the store manager) opened her doors, truly representing the third place, offering comfort to anyone and everyone. She remained open for people in need and not for business need.”
In the days that passed, Holguin and Starbucks leadership visited stores throughout the city, facilitated counseling sessions and took coffee and pastries to law enforcement officers and local blood banks. He encountered sadness, anger, fear, confusion, resentment.
For Holguin, the shooting brought to the forefront his own story. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 7 and moved to Iowa, where his parents separated. He attended a Catholic school, where he and his sisters were the only Mexicans. He struggled to learn English.
Some of his happy memories were the weekends, when, to make ends meet, his mother took extra work on farms—beans, corn, tomatoes.
“The thing that made me feel happy and connected was the gathering of immigrants working together to tend the crops,” Holguin says.
“We would arrive at dawn half asleep preparing for the days with the smell of morning dew accompanied by the smell of coffee.”
He moved back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, where his grandfather became a father figure and helped raise him. He eventually returned to El Paso as a young adult and started college before settling into a career at Starbucks.
Two months after the shooting, as Holguin works through the anger and tries to find forgiveness, he’s thankful for the blessings in his family story: a fearless, hard-working mother and his grandfather, a doctor who helped raise 18 children and “was relentless when it came to his children becoming more than the status quo.”
“I was fortunate enough to be enriched by both American and Mexican culture,” Holguin says. “Growing up as a teenager then adult in Mexico while studying in the U.S. gave me a different perspective of the culture on the border. Hispanics, especially Mexicans, are brought up with a purpose in mind, to provide for their families and raise their kids to be better than they are.”
Families like his, he says, came “to this nation … for the dream of a better life, the same dream the Pilgrims had when they came across the sea.”
He’s still grappling with the impact of the shooting and what it means in the larger context of honoring his heritage. But he does know that while the shooting was intended to divide people, he says he’s seen the opposite as people have come together. He’s trying to channel his energy into getting more young people and immigrants to vote, and building community networks to influence local leaders and politics.
“It served to show the nation what our true colors are in El Paso, a city filled with people that love and respect others,” Holguin says. “That when in a time of need or dire crisis, no matter the situation, we come together to support others and lift them up at all costs.”
For a long time, Rosa Grajeda felt like she didn’t belong. A particular saying resonated with her: “Me sentía ni de aquí ni de allá.”
“I felt neither from here nor there,” Grajeda translates. “That’s the best way I can say it. I didn’t feel like I was from Guatemala or America. My identity is pretty blended.”
Born in Antigua, Guatemala, Grajeda immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 9, not speaking a word of English. She bounced through different neighborhoods in New York City before settling on Long Island.
She took a job as a Starbucks barista in 1998 because she wanted benefits. “When I realized we sold coffee from Guatemala in our stores, that was a critical moment for me when I found purpose,” she says. “I knew I was going to be helping farmers … who are working just as hard as any of us. That was my turning point, where I realized this is bigger, way bigger than I could have ever imagined.”
In 2009, Grajeda returned to Guatemala with her father Edwin, who’d worked there as an agronomist, and her daughter Stefani, to visit the farms where Starbucks sources coffee. As she walked the fields and talked with the farmers, she learned about the best ways to work the soil, how to recycle coffee cherries, how water is most efficiently used.
Grajeda remembers an important moment from her trip, when she visited a local health clinic. One of the farmers told her that a doctor comes in once a week. Only 50 tickets are given out; 50 patients are seen. Patient 51 had to come back next week. It was humbling. It made her not want to take any opportunity for granted.
A few years later, Grajeda visited Hacienda Alsacia, the Starbucks coffee farm in Costa Rica. The farmers treated her like family and hosted visitors in their homes. She remembers how one of them stood up at lunch and told her, “While we’re all gathered here, never forget that coffee is in our blood, and now it’s in your hands.”
“That was like wow, amazing,” Grajeda says. “It gave me a renewed sense of commitment to not letting them down in any way.”