It was Feb. 19, the day of our Elevating Stories and chocolate tasting with Karla McNeill-Rueda and Eddie Houston of CRU Chocolate, and my chocolate had not arrived. Knowing I was going to blog about this event, I wondered if I would be missing something elemental during this talk. As it turns out, the experience was as rich and rewarding as the chocolate I later received and enjoyed.
Caution: border crossing
Karla is from Honduras, a part of the Latin American world that is rich in oral storytelling. My partner has similar skills. He is descended from the pre-Aztec indigenous people who have lived beneath the volcanoes of Citlaltépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and Popocatépetl in the state of Puebla, Mexico, for centuries, and who speak Nahuatl, an ancient language spoken by Mexicans and Central Americans. Everyone I’ve met from his village of San Miguel are amazing storytellers. My partner’s account of the harrowing trip he took to arrive in the U.S. is a beautiful tale of adventure, suspense, quick wits, and survival. As Karla kept us enraptured with the story of cacao, it dawned on me that it was about crossing borders, too.
We learned that cacao originated in the upper Amazon basin in the Andes; however, it didn’t stay there for long. Just as ancient Andeans left the area that is now Peru to move northward and as ancient people also made their way to the Andes, so did cacao. It was grown and adopted by ancient peoples from Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Honduras, and other Latin American countries. Karla explained that, over time, cacao and the drinks they made with it came to have special meaning to the indigenous people. For some it was ceremonial; for others, it was a way to share a treat with friends and family.
So how did cacao and chocolate get to the U.S. and Canada? Karla said that the conquistadors fell in love with cacao while ravaging and pillaging Mesoamerica, so they took it back to Spain with them. Spain is where they began adding sugar to cacao to make it sweeter, and that was the predecessor for cocoa and, eventually, bar chocolate. When Spanish settlers traveled from Spain to their settlements in the U.S. and Canada, they brought their beloved chocolate.
As I watched everyone on the call try the drinks, I had an epiphany. The story of chocolate is the story of the Americas—one of crossing borders and sharing. Most interesting of all, however, is that the story hasn’t ended.
Coming full circle
I live outside of Clinton, N.C. (population 8,600), a place that for centuries has been dominated by a white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, tobacco-growing culture. Once perceived as dying, it is now thriving, thanks to Latin American wanderers. On our rural road dotted with family farms, our neighbors on one side are Puerto Rican, and our neighbors on the other side are El Salvadoran.
If you visit El Mercadito Hispano in Clinton, you’ll meet shoppers from Honduras and the Dominican Republic who came here under protected status to work and raise their families. The doctor who performed life-saving surgery on my partner in 2015 is part of a growing Venezuelan community. My partner’s masonry apprentices are Guatemalan. Mexicans from Chiapas and Michoacán work in construction and in the sweet potato fields. They have enriched this area with new traditions and new attitudes.
We are all chocolate
I think more people should get to know the story of cacao. It’s a great example of how our expanding cultural diversity is not a threat but a promise. It’s our nature to wander, no matter our origins, and chocolate reflects that. Think what would have happened if no one had migrated in and out of the Andes. We never would have gotten to experience the joy, wonder, and deliciousness that is chocolate. So, let’s hear it for the wanderers—past and present—who have given so much to this world, and for CRU Chocolate, which uses the history of cacao to shape our experience with chocolate.