A widow's sweet visions for a troubled land

Optimism and a grandmother's chocolate recipe endure amid Colombia's violence.

Maria Vigida Gonzalez has never heard of the movie "Chocolat," in which a young woman changes life in a French village after she arrives and sets up a chocolate shop.

But, like the main character in the film, Mrs. Vigida likes to dream that some day her chocolate can sweeten life in her adopted village.

Home for this cheerful woman with braided salt-and-pepper hair is a plot of land with cacao trees. She also has an in-town shack with no electricity in San Jose de Apartado, a small tropical mountain community of families torn and beaten down by Colombia's four decades of civil strife.

"I would love to have a little workshop where I could prepare more chocolate than just what I make now for my family and friends," she says. "I think that could really help San Jose."

As she stands at an earthen wood-fired stove in a dirt-floor kitchen, toasting the cacao beans for her chocolate, Vigida tells a life tale not unlike millions of others in this country torn by violence. Like most of the victims of the fighting, she is a poor campesina, or small farmer.

She has been displaced by the war, as have an estimated 2 million of her compatriots. Perhaps because she is poor, she has never thought of emigrating, unlike the more than 3 million Colombians who have left in recent years. Perhaps 2 million Colombians now live legally or illegally in the United States - more than a half-million members of the entrepreneurial middle and upper classes having fled to the US.

Vigida says it is her children, her belief that no matter how bad off you are, you can always help people, and her chocolate, that keep her smiling.

It was five years ago that Vigida came to San Jose, an isolated village in the mountains above the banana-growing city of Apartado in Colombia's northeast Uraba region. Uraba has a long history of conflict: Here Colombia's leftist guerrillas have for decades battled armed organizations tied to large landowners for control of this strategic zone near the Panamanian border.

Her three younger brothers were killed by right-wing paramilitary gangs, then her husband died. The paramilitaries took over Vigida's neighborhood. She was ordered to leave her home and Apartado if she wanted to live.

"In the past I had participated in a human-rights group that helped people displaced by the violence, so that marked me," she says. "For them it's a crime to work for the good of other people."

Vigida cried the day she took the bus to San Jose. She had few belongings, but she did have one precious possession that no one could take from her: her grandmother's chocolate recipe.

The cacao now toasted, Vigida starts breaking the crisp shells between thumb and index finger, releasing the shiny-dark cacao bean inside, just as her grandmother taught her. Stick cinnamon and clove have already been toasted, ready to be mixed with the beans.

Vigida explains that she sells most of her cacao beans to a town cooperative that pays her about 40 cents a pound for her raw product. Many other Colombian cacao suppliers have abandoned their lands, after years of killings by the paramilitaries and guerrillas. What Vigida doesn't sell, she makes into a coarse, spicy bitter chocolate for mixing into hot milk.

The beans now shelled, Vigida drops them a few at a time into an old meat grinder.The beans go in whole and dry, but ooze out of the grinder like paste. She then mixes in sugar by hand, and finally forms small balls of the chocolate to harden over night.

The end product may not be Swiss quality, but Vigida's chocolate revives sweet memories - and makes a declaration that cherished traditions are stronger than forces that would destroy them.

"Nothing would make me happier than to some day see my chocolate with a label declaring, 'Chocolate of San Jose de Apartado,' " Vigida says. "That would tell the world that we exist, and that we have something to offer."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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