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An Author Comes Back: Julia Alvarez

October 25, 2010

We were happy to welcome How Tia Lola Learned to Teach author Julia Alvarez last week as part of her blog tour. This week she has come back to fill us in on more of her non-writing adventures, farming and opening schools and libraries in the Dominican Republic. She truly leads a fascinating life!

What Do I Do When I’m Not Writing?

part two

            You know how I said I’m always writing, even when I’m not actually writing on my computer or in my journal?  Well, Bill feels the same way about farming.  He has to farm wherever he finds himself.

            Like Tía Lola, I, too, come from the Dominican Republic.  Even after we emigrated to this country when I was ten, we often returned for the summers and other vacations to stay with our relatives.

            When Bill and I got married, we continued this tradition of frequent visits.  Mid January, Bill would glance around at the lush green fields and mountains and let out a huge sigh.  I knew what he was thinking: if I could only farm here, I’d have a year round growing season. 

            The opportunity came when I was asked to write a piece for the Nature Conservancy on one of their protected sites in the Dominican Republic.  Up in the mountains, Bill and I met with a group of small coffee farmers.  They were farming coffee the old way, organically (who could afford expensive pesticides or chemicals?), under shade trees (to protect the tender plants).  But big plantation-corporations had begun buying up the surrounding land, cutting down trees, growing coffee under full sun.  With no trees in the way, you can crowd in more coffee plants, but then you have to spray them with pesticides to protect them. 

            These small farmers asked if we would help them in their struggle against the big plantations.

Neighbor farmers.

            But we live in Vermont, I explained.  I could help them help by writing a book about their plight.  I kept my promise and wrote A Cafecito Story.

A Cafecito Story

            But Bill had that look in his eye I’d seen before.   That look that said year-round FARMING OPPORTUNITY.  Of course, we’ll help you, he offered.  Before I knew it, we were buying abandoned, deforested plots, planting trees that would protect the little coffee bushes, organizing the small farmers into a cooperative, bringing our coffee directly to customers in the United States.  Cafe Alta Gracia, we called the coffee, after the national Virgencita de la Alta Gracia, patron saint of the country who has a soft place in her heart for farmers.

Coffee plants under shade trees.


           Bill was happy, farming in Vermont and in the Dominican Republic!  At Alta Gracia, Bill didn’t need my help; he had a lot of farmers who needed extra work to get by.  What was I going to do while Bill farmed during our vacations in the Dominican Republic?

            The answer came when I visited the local school.  It was in shambles.  The poorly-paid “professor” showed up only when he could afford to buy gasoline for his motorcycle to make it up the mountain.  No wonder that none of the farmers and their families knew how to read and write. 

Local school

           And so we decided to start a school at the farm, where farmers and their families can learn to read and write.

            As we got more readers in the community, we realized we needed a library.  It just so happened that a group of teenagers from Wellesley, Massachusetts, wanted to come down and do a building project.  (The Virgencita de la Alta Gracia was watching out for us for sure!)  The Wellesley group built the first public library ever on the mountain. 

Wellesley group builds us a library.

            As for the teachers at our farm school, all but one have been graduates from Middlebury College.  They spend a volunteer year, living at Alta Gracia, teaching at the little school, running the library, and helping out in the community.

Julia with kids at the Alta Gracia library.

            When I write about Tía Lola, I often think of my neighbors at Alta Gracia.  I think of people like Doña Gloria, who never had much education, but like Tía Lola, Doña Gloria is a wonderful storyteller. 

Dona Gloria

I also think about the children at Alta Gracia, how they are learning to read, how someday they might write their own books about Dona Gloria, about coffee farming, about living on a small island full of magical stories.

Miguelina and Anameri at the window.


Photographs courtesy of Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner.

© 2010 by Julia Alvarez


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