Starting over… with chocolate.

BY JESSE MINTZ

On meeting, Thalia Mendoza is quick to offer hospitality: a seat in the shade, bananas fresh from the tree and a cool drink. A mother, cacao farmer and Jill-of-all-trades, Thalia introduces herself, explaining her name is like the singer.

Then, she laughs.

It’s the first of many fits of laughter that morning—bright, easy, carefree waves that carry through the nearby forest, mingling with the chirping birds to produce the soundtrack of her home. Those translating her rapid-fire Spanish explain over her breathless school-girl giggles that she’s referring to a Latin American pop star named Thalia.

Later, she lets slip that she also sings—not in front of adoring fans like her namesake, but amidst an audience of cacao trees.

Like the soap operas she watches at the end of long days tending to crops and looking after her son, Thalia’s life has been full of ups and downs.

Over the course of the day, she relays the difficult choice that ultimately brought her hereto rebuild her life amongst the cacao trees on Ecuador’s coast. It’s the story of a fierce mother, her struggle for independence, her quest for love and an unexpected helping hand from WE.

Thalia only recently returned to her childhood home of Playa Grande, a small community on Ecuador’s coast famous for its Fino de Aroma variety of cacao. She lives on land dotted with banana and plantain trees, accessible only by a long dirt road. It neighbours Chone, a community WE recently partnered with to build a new classroom for their overcrowded school.

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Just three years ago, Thalia lived 200 kilometers away from this bucolic spot, in a small town with her husband. It was a difficult marriage. She didn’t like her husband’s machista, leaving her with a difficult choice. She could stay with him to remain close to their children and steady work. Or she could leave him, abandoning the life she’d built to return to the peace and safety of the countryside. She decided “Basta”—enough, she says with finality.

The 52-year-old left her husband, grown children and steady work. Taking only her 10-year-old son, Ariel, she went to live in a home built from sugar-cane stalks next to her father’s and sister’s wooden houses on the land where she was born.

But an unfamiliar feeling waited for her in the shade of the tall plantain trees. Panic.

All those years during her marriage, she had work. She cooked, cleaned, washed in restaurants or for wealthy neighbours, did construction work when there were homes to build and harvested palm in the fields when the rains stopped. She made money to support her family.

But back in the countryside, she was reminded of what drove her to leave in the first place. “Finding work was difficult,” she says. “But I survived. And here I am surviving.”

Survival for Thalia means Ariel is in school, with enough food to eat and with more opportunity on the horizon than was available to her. Part of that success comes down to hard work. The same tenacity that led Thalia to construction sites in town has helped her piece together odd jobs in the fields that surround her home. But part of it, she’s quick to say, has felt like chance.

Looking to expand its mandate in Ecuador to support cacao farmers, WE partnered with Chone. WE Charity started to build a new classroom at Ariel’s school and the cacao Thalia helps grow has found a new market with ME to WE Chocolate.

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The relationship with WE “was like something that fell from heaven,” she explains. “These opportunities don’t just happen here, so I said ‘thank you Lord’ for sending them to help bring this improvement for our kids, for us, to help us get ahead.”

Thalia’s path forward is tied to the field of squat cacao trees budding with ripening green pods visible across the small river that passes in front of her home. They are the prize of Ecuador, known to chocolate makers around the world, and Thalia—and her new beau—help grow them.

A sheepish smile forms as she gestures to a man nearby in a bright yellow shirt swinging a machete to rhythmically split sugar cane stalks. She confides that she and Jose met as teenagers. “We disappeared from each other’s lives, but when I came back to visit,” she teases with music in her voice, “we finished what we started.”

The childhood sweethearts work in the cacao fields together, walking to the orchard hand-in-hand through the early morning mist. They weed the fields, harvest the pods and cut open their leathery rinds to separate the pulp from the large, linen-coloured seeds. The cacao they tend is part of a local farmer’s collective. Thalia and the farmers get a fair price while ME to WE gets the award-winning cacao that goes into every bar.

“Everything I do is to make sure Ariel goes to school,” Thalia says. That desire comes from her own stunted education. Thalia stopped going to school when was 10, spending her days hunting for shrimp in the river, harvesting bananas in the forest and helping her mom grow corn, coffee and vegetables to sell. Then, she became a mother herself.

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“I’ve always wanted the best for my children. Even though I didn’t have the opportunity to learn, I wanted them to learn, to be somebody, to be better,” she says. She adds with a shrug: “I don’t know how to read. I want Ariel to teach me.”

That desire led Thalia to the very first minga (Ecuador’s community call to action) to plan the new classroom in Chone. Shovel in hand, she joined other community members to help clear the land for the new construction. Thalia’s hopes for Ariel climbed ever higher as the walls of the classroom went up.

As it stands now, upper year students in Chone are forced to travel to the nearby city of Atacames to finish their studies. The added expense of bus fare means this 30-minute-journey is reach for most children in the area. But this new classroom brings the community one step closer to offering complete education.
The new classroom and her wages from cacao fill Thalia with hope that Ariel won’t be forced to drop out of school, enabling a new path for him carved by education.

She dreams of a future where Ariel is an engineer. Or maybe an architect. First, he must study—and Thalia knowns the cacao trees across the river from her home will provide.

With that, she offers a song, suggesting maybe a cumbia or marimba—both popular dance music with strong roots in the Afro-Ecuadorian communities throughout her province. Eventually, like the romantic she is, she settles on a ranchero: a love song.

She sits up straight and sings a few lines, the laughter disappearing from her voice. The notes dangle overhead, caught in the humid coastal air, until, in an instant, her eyes twinkle as her dimpled smile returns one more.

The melody carries over the cacao trees and towards the future she’s building for her son.


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