Impacting A Global Change For Women
BLANCA CASTRO, Chapter Relations Manager of the International Women's Coffee Association
By: Krysta Kearney
“It’s important to be seen and be heard, you just need to take care of how and when. To make things count, not count more, not count less. Never stop trying to be heard or seen.”
Pride...what’s a life worth living if it’s not worth living for? What’s a life without passion, commitment and a desire to contribute to a greater cause; a purpose. Pride means being satisfied with one’s own achievements or the successes of those with whom you are associated with, such as a team or your country. Blanca Castro is a strong woman who has devoted her life to just this. Her admiration for something greater has come with her ability to look at the bigger picture. The dignity and pride that she has for her country of Guatemala and the world for that matter is unparalleled to most. From a very young age, she has stood committed to working for the better of her country. The work that she has accomplished both for herself and others has already put an imprint on the way our world acts amongst each other, amongst countries.
Blanca Castro is currently the Chapter Relations Manager of the International Women’s Coffee Association (IWCA). IWCA is the primary and largest women’s coffee association in the world. Their website states, “The mission of the International Women's Coffee Alliance (IWCA) is to empower women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives; and to encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry.” What started as a volunteer position eventually led to the first paid position within the nonprofit. Prior to 2016, the association was volunteer run only. As one could imagine, this was such an honor. Castro was no stranger to holding such a powerful and demanding role. She was raised to know what her morals were and why pride is so important.
Growing up in Guatemala City, she was raised under the harsh conditions of civil war. All around her were bombings, shootings, murders, kidnappings; all the horrific characteristics of civil unrest. Being a child in this environment was scary, as there was so much exposure to terror and horrific acts. Along with the whole country, her family was in poverty. Everybody was doing what they could for the safety of their families, and getting by as much as they could; day by day. Her parents struggled but did what they could for her and her four siblings. At the time, there was a pilot grade school called Instituto Austriaco Guatemalteco that her parents had all the kids attend. Since it was a new program, it was very affordable. It enrolls students to teach them in all German, to become trilingual, and is still a school to this day. Castro recalls everything being in German and at the beginning she didn’t understand why, but quickly learned the benefits. This really shaped her in understanding the value of education and knowing there was more for her, in ways that she could help her country beyond its own borders.
Even with the war, her father pushed and encouraged her and her siblings to see their country, which contributed to her worldly views at such a young age. He always said, “If you don’t owe anything to no-one, you shouldn’t be afraid of anything,” and would load all the kids in the VW Van and take trips up and down the countryside despite all of the civil unrest. Knowing that he had nothing anyone could take, no possessions or wealth, he gave them the opportunity to see a glimpse of life through other people’s lenses, see the rich culture of Guatemala and understand what commitment to a country means. To see the different ways that people put care to their lives. Guatemala is rich in ethnic diversity with a strong cultural heritage due from it’s blend of many cultures. There are 21 different linguistic groups! The travels with her father and growing up in the political climate that she did, taught her to live in the now, in the moment, take actions with integrity and carry herself with pride.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow, you never know, especially growing up in a conflict situation. In a war ambiance, you don’t know! There were many days in my family where I said goodbye to my father in the morning...we didn’t know if he was coming back. In a way it makes you resilient AND very aware of the today and the now...and that's what counts!”
Castro went on to study at a university, Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City, as a political science major. She ended up leaving just shy of her graduation ceremony, as she was granted a spot working for the Guatemalan government, in the department of foreign affairs at their international location in Geneva, Switzerland. This was the perfect opportunity, as she wanted to work for an organization that gathers all countries, where she could represent her own. Very intimidated, at the young age of 22, she had primed herself well for the position as she was both adept and competent. Here, she represented Guatemala in the human rights commission, at the international labor office. Working for her country on an international level broadened her outlook on how her country was positioned in the world and what she could do to help. Eventually this position was terminated and she was hired by the Liaison Latin-American Office of the United Nations Conference for trade and development where she worked on multinational (international) scenarios. Six years later she moved back to Guatemala.
From here she took a bit of a dive into the underwater world, moved to San Salvador, El Salvador and got her PADI Divemaster certificate. She started, owned and operated a commercial diving school with her (at the time) husband. She married a widow who had three children, who she helped raise and have become her own. Castro says she loves the silence of the water, the intimacy. Nobody talks, you literally can’t talk! It’s just you, and the beautiful aquatic landscape. Now, it is run by her three kids and is known as one of the most successful diving companies in all of Central America. It has expanded into Nicaragua and Honduras. She said the diving company survived and the marriage didn't and the kids were grown so she ended up moving back to her roots, to Guatemala City, where she once again started working for the government, this time at the Tourism Board of Guatemala. Here she worked in the communication department specializing in the international promotion of Guatemala where much of her work was done abroad. This led her to being offered a position at Anacafé as their marketing director. Anacafé is the national coffee association of Guatemala. At the time she knew nothing about coffee! Of course, she learned quickly and with her pride in the country, it was great to be working for the exact product that fuels Guatemala. Coffee is part of the human, social and economical development of her country. Guatemala has some of the world’s most extraordinary coffee, it’s one of their leading exports and they have been producing it since at least the early 1800’s.
“I love to put my boots on and my hat, go to the farms and learn more about coffee growers, from the agronomists to the technicians...so I can pass a message abroad.”
She learned from all the best mentors, was educated at the grassroots level, and was able to translate this in her travels abroad while representing her country. Working abroad comes with much sacrifice and commitment, it definitely takes a certain person to do it, and to continue to do it for years. Castro is a strong woman who exhibits that with pride while representing her country. Her successes are through her stature, knowledge and confidence of herself. Being in these well respected, high profile positions she cultivates a reputation for Guatemala on the international circuits she represents.
“During the 5 years that I served the coffee growers of my country, it was mainly educational material for coffee roasters, coffee keepers, and people who were involved in the value chain to buy or appreciate our coffee. I had a lot of luck, I was really blessed to be in many international events and conventions representing Guatemala, not trying only to promote the coffee of Guatemala, (not only because of the quality of the good profile of the cup of the Guatemalan coffees) but also for what it represents in my country. The handpicking, the more than 300 microclimates in this BEAUTIFUL country; we have so many natural resources, the water resource, the involvement of so many families, the social changes...that Guatemalan coffee transitioned from one scenario to another one.”
During her time at Anacafé they created a book known as, The green book. This book was to educate people from around the world about the Guatemalan coffee trade from bean to cup; everyone from the coffee consumers, traders, roasters and lovers. It covers a variety of topics such as the biodiversity of shade to the characteristics of climate. It was and still is to this day a very unique and a one of a kind piece of literature that is well well sought after.
"I was so pleased and also educated from the industry itself on how much coffee could reach people, not only to share a cup of coffee but also learn about the culture, the natural resources, about the economical aspect of it all. So I was really lucky and I learned from the best.”
At the time Castro knew very little about IWCA, as they were a very small organization. Anacafé had donated space at their facility for IWCA to be able to work and Castro decided, as it was the right thing to do, to help as much as she could and offer any expertise she may have. She recalls at the time it was a bit of ‘noise’ to her. She thought, ‘But why is it that women need to have a separate organization just to be heard?’ Quickly, she began to realize in the space of the coffee community, it was much needed. Women were very undermined in the industry. In Guatemalan culture, women are the backbone of society, holding up the weight of families. They needed their voices to be heard and shared in the same space as men. Women have large shoes to fill as providers. By being directly involved and noticed in the trade, it would help women be able to reach their own economic goals and also create a stronger community. As Castro got involved, she decided to volunteer her time more and more. During this time, she left Anacafé, which opened her doors to independent work and she became a freelancer. Thankfully from all of her past experiences she had very strong relationships with organizations from all around the world. She was fortunate enough to land a contract with the International Trade Center (ITC) where she got a job helping women coffee producers in Africa. Here, she felt at home as a lot of the conditions were the same, the climate, economic status, the people. Being there hands on, working with the women, developing programs and teaching, led to Castro feeling empowered. She could see the direct impact of her work, it made her want to do more and bring some of her teachings and awareness to more countries as well.
“It opened the door to see other farms and coffee growers. No matter the race, language...the problems for women were exactly the same.”
As she continued this position she was also increasing her involvement with IWCA and it’s Latin American chapters. She went all over the world and represented Africa in a variety of coffee-related events, workshops and cuppings. Eventually she managed to get the Latinos noticed as well. Little by little she was able to pull more countries in, to be represented. In 2016 Castro started working officially for IWCA. As the association continued to grow they were able to raise enough funds to hire her for the first ever position of Chapter Relationships Manager.
“Voluntary work is very honorable but if you want an organization to succeed and move forward, you need a staff.”
IWCA is now 17 years old. It originated in Central America with just five countries, with its main goal having been to help producers by having their coffee be shown with an IWCA logo, so it could be recognized as a woman-produced product. Then the visions and ideas continued to grow. Now 17 years later, there are 27 chapters from countries all over the world. Not long ago, the United States joined and they recently signed a letter of intent with Italy.
The key objectives of the IWCA is leadership development, strategic alliance and to give chapters a better understanding and closeness to the market. Castro describes the largest benefit of IWCA as giving chapters a sense of belonging to something, an opportunity to share experiences. Having a support structure and knowing that people care is empowering. The membership is not only for women but for men too. The IWCA is a place to benefit women, the young population and family, no one is excluded.
“People will ask me, well how many women? And I say, well, count how many men, there is always a woman there! And the other way around, right!?”
The coffee industry is constantly changing so IWCA is consistently updating their policies and reformatting their structure as they move with the waxes and wanes of the coffee industry. Since Castro worked with the women in Africa it was very apparent that they needed help with marketing and accounting. They needed guidance on how to approach coffee buyers. There is so much more than being on the farm and growing coffee, you must promote yourself. Some things that may come naturally to some, others aren’t even aware they exist. Such as simple business practices, like how to introduce yourself and carry a conversation, business cards and product development, giving samples and following up. This is a foreign language to many. Castro works hard to develop a well rounded support structure to help women obtain these goals and learn these business practices.
“Since I worked with ICT for the African ladies it was very clear that they needed a lot of training towards empowerment and not only to promote the coffee but the coffee was secondary, they needed to promote themselves as well. That kind of conversation, for many, as coffee growers, they are not used to that. You know, to approach strangers and sell, (they need to learn how to) sell themselves first.”
Castro is proud to have both coffee producing and coffee consuming countries in the association. There are countries even like Yemen, with all it’s unrest, they have a chapter and are active. IWCA is such a strong force for women across the globe. For Castro, as much as she loves what she does, it’s a very challenging position to be in. She is speaking with people across so many different countries. Everyone has different demeanors, styles of business and just different views on the world. She says you can be talking to one person from North Germany and then another from South Germany and they conduct literally everything in different ways. There are so many cultural barriers. She has to be tolerant and flexible.
“Business is business and we need to up the level of everybody so we can talk coffee language in a proper way. This is part of the empowerment we also encourage the ladies to have. So this is the shift that I've been seeing throughout the years. Ladies are improving their image, their approach, their knowledge, and the last is improving their coffee which is KEY. I mean, one thing goes with the other. You can't do one without the other. It's a package and people should understand that if it is coffee grown or taken care of by a woman IT IMPLIES A WHOLE UNIVERSE.”
Within minutes, literally, of sitting down with Castro she said, “I am very proud of being Guatemalan and really would like to support more on the future of my country.” Her pride is unparalleled. Her life is her work. All the international jobs she has had, her business she created, motherhood...her contributions and sacrifices she has given for her country, it all is the makeup of her. She never stops learning, is always excelling and pushing forward, in the least selfish way, it’s selfless. Her generosity and compassion is abundant. She wouldn’t be able to do all she does without self respect and self discipline. She said, “I always see the opportunities to move forward and make it happen.” Her understanding of herself and what she is capable of gives her the power to project the same energy to the world.
“With self care comes the respect that people will show you.”
Growing up she needed to have a strong sense of self. As much turmoil as she and her family went through, it showed her the strength she needed to live a fulfilled life and also the importance of helping people. She couldn’t be a better representation of herself, country and of IWCA. She never stops moving, growing and we can’t imagine what she may do next!
“Women, we are the center; if we have that virtue, (because it's a virtue to take care of others, as mothers, as daughters, whatever.) We need to take care of ourselves first, we cannot neglect ourselves. And we need to open up our eyes and ears to our own benefit, first, that doesn’t mean you need to forget about the others.”
These words hold so much truth and wisdom for all women. Castro says the most important thing for women to do is to take care of themselves. Be true to yourself and listen to your own feelings. Women naturally take on roles of helping others and putting other people's ideals before their own. You can’t fully help people if you aren’t confident with who you are. Us here at Moxxi salut Castro, as she helps women all over the globe see this light and gain courage to be the best version of themselves.