Labor organizer Fred Ross Jr. (left) leads a rally in support of a boycott of Salvadoran coffee at San Francisco City Hall in 1990. The boycott targeted Folgers Coffee for purchasing Salvadoran coffee beans — activists argued that the money was helping to fund El Salvador's military regime during the country's ongoing civil war. (Courtesy of Dennis Hearne / The Fred Ross Project)
When you spot the red Folgers tin in the coffee aisle at your local supermarket, you might think of the iconic tagline that says, “The best part of wakin’ up is Folgers in your cup.” But what many coffee lovers might not remember is the time in the early ‘90s when Folgers Coffee was the target of a nation-wide boycott that started right here in San Francisco. The goal? To help stop a civil war in El Salvador.
With all of the newer, trendier coffee brands that now dominate the Bay Area, it’s easy to forget that Folgers has a long history in San Francisco. It was one of the “Big Three” coffee companies, along with Hills Brothers and MJB, that was founded in San Francisco in the late 19th century. These days, the company is probably best known for the convenience of its instant coffee and ground coffee blends. But in the beginning, Folgers built up its reputation as one of America’s leading coffee brands on the basis of quality.
“Good quality beans, roasted properly, produce good quality coffee — and that was the name of the game,” says Monika Trobits, a coffee historian and the author of Bay Area Coffee.
In those early years, the highest-quality green, unroasted coffee beans arriving at the Port of San Francisco came from Central America — including a large quantity that was imported from El Salvador.
Around the same time, in the late 19th century, coffee had become one of the main sources of income for El Salvador’s wealthy landowner class. These coffee plantation owners were oligarchs who, over the course of the next 100 years, took more and more land from the country’s indigenous people, got rich off the crop and used that wealth to exert influence over the country’s politics and military. By the 1970s, socioeconomic inequality in El Salvador had become even more stark, and the country began to experience widespread civil unrest.
“Salvadorans needed agrarian reform, immediate education and healthcare,” explains Felix Kury, a retired San Francisco State lecturer who taught mental health courses in the Latin American Studies Department.
Young Salvadorans like Kury began to leave their country to organize abroad, sending aid home or participating in direct protest actions such as occupying their local Salvadoran consulate. Back in El Salvador, left-leaning guerillas took to arms.
The 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was popular for denouncing violence and criticizing the Salvadoran military, proved to be the last straw that plunged the country into civil war.
“[A soldier] shot him right as he was lifting the hostia (communion bread)…en el momento más sagrada” — the most sacred moment, Kury recalls. “The murder of the bishop gave a signal to anyone that no one will be safe.”
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Kury says, “All of us began to say, ‘What do we do? We have to go beyond working with Salvadorans to develop a movement.’”
Here in the Bay Area, Salvadorans like Kury joined other like-minded supporters to form the East Bay Interfaith Task Force on El Salvador. One day in November 1980, he recalls, Salvadoran port workers informed the task force that the U.S. government was bringing tanks and heavy artillery to the ports in Oakland — and that they planned to send those arms to support the military regime in El Salvador.
With the help of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the task force sprang into action, organizing a blockade that prevented ports all over the West Coast from sending arms to El Salvador. Similar to the United Farm Workers’ organizing efforts in the ‘60s, Salvadoran activists had begun to seek broad support for their movement. It was no longer just Salvadorans protesting the civil war — Chicanos and Americans showed up at the port too.
The blockade also set the stage for an even more ambitious protest action to hit El Salvador where it would hurt the most — the coffee industry that enabled the military regime’s most powerful members to build up their wealth.
A Grassroots Movement
Around this time, a media organization called the Central American Television Project was working to spread awareness about U.S. policy in Central America. In 1985, it hired Fred Ross Jr., a San Francisco-based labor organizer — who passed away last year — as its new executive director. The organization’s name changed to Neighbor to Neighbor, and under Ross’ direction, it took a grassroots approach to stopping U.S. aid to Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“This organization had people all over the country,” Ross’ widow, the labor attorney Margo Feinberg, recalls. “They impacted many congressional races to try to change the numbers in the legislature to cut back on the funding to El Salvador.”
According to Feinberg, her late husband first witnessed the connection between what was happening to Salvadoran refugees and the U.S. role in the war when he worked as a public defender in San Francisco. Ross and his fellow organizers had already begun contemplating the idea of a coffee boycott when the murders of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter in 1989 propelled Neighbor to Neighbor to take immediate action. The boycott’s main target was Folgers Coffee, for selling Salvadoran coffee beans.
At the time, around 60% of Salvadoran coffee harvests were shipped to the United States, the biggest buyer on the market. Neighbor to Neighbor argued that those coffee earnings were part of a vicious cycle of violence through which the wealthy plantation owners continued to finance the Salvadoran government and its death squads.
“Folgers claimed it only purchased 2% of its beans from El Salvador,” says Trobits, the coffee historian. “But Neighbor to Neighbor wanted them to not purchase any.”
Trobits says once the news came out that a freighter carrying 34 tons of Salvadoran coffee beans was due to dock in San Francisco in February 1990, about a hundred Neighbor to Neighbor protesters gathered at Pier 96 in the Bayview to establish a picket line, with the support of the longshoremen’s union. Agents of the shipping company convinced the terminal operators to offload all of the Colombian and Costa Rican coffee – but nothing from El Salvador.
“So the captain decided to move on, sailed up to Vancouver and met the same kind of resistance,” Trobits says, detailing the ship’s journey up and down the Pacific coast. “This freighter — and every one of those beans — ended up going back to El Salvador.”
Neighbor to Neighbor kept its picket lines going for the next two years. Around the same time, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors also voted to boycott Salvadoran coffee beans, and the California state legislature formally protested the human rights violations against civilians by the Salvadoran military.
As a direct result of the boycotts, one of the grandsons from the Gamble family, which founded Procter & Gamble — Folgers’ parent company — pushed for the company to stop buying Salvadoran coffee. P&G, Nestlé and Kraft even took out ads in Salvadoran newspapers urging the government to negotiate a peace settlement.
All of this pressure eventually paid off: Hours before the New Year rang in for 1992, the Salvadoran president and the rebels signed a United Nations–sponsored peace accord. The 12-year war in which 75,000 civilians died finally came to an end. Months later, Neighbor to Neighbor ended its two-year boycott.
A Legacy of Coffee Activism
It’s been 30 years since the last shots were fired, but the Salvadoran coffee protest’s legacy hasn’t lost its relevance. Feinberg says the boycott’s success made it a model for all types of organizing that have taken place since then.
Today, coffee accounts for a much smaller portion of the Salvadoran economy, and the industry is no longer exclusively dominated by huge plantations — there are also smaller, more sustainability-focused farms that now supply beans to some of the Bay Area’s trendier third-wave coffee shops. At least one of those shops specifically identifies as Salvadoran — Abanico Coffee Roasters in San Francisco’s Mission District.
And, just like during the Salvadoran coffee boycott, the ethics of where a coffee company sources its beans continues to be an important issue. In fact, Trobits says there’s a sort of “fourth wave” of coffee happening right now that’s defined by ethical sourcing, how coffee growers respond to climate change, and baristas and other workers organizing to better their working conditions.
“We’re not at the end,” Trobits says of the movement to make the coffee world more just. “It will probably not ever be over because I don’t see the coffee is going away.”
Trobits says we’re all in this game, those of us who buy, sell or even just appreciate coffee. Like it or not, we all are.
Correction: The article originally stated that Archbishop Romero was assassinated in 1979 instead of 1980; it has been updated to clarify the timeline of El Salvador’s left-wing guerrilla movement.
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