The Black Nectar and the Legend of the Peasant’s Coffee

Cuban Coffee

Of an evident Arab origin and known as “the black nectar of the white gods”, coffee has always been the typical, stimulating and cheerful welcoming at Cuban homes, whether it is amidst the saddest opacity misfortune, in times of scarcities, insolvencies or famine, it was almost a tradition to provide the visitors with the generous “sip of coffee”. With so many perky properties, for centuries it set into the daily lives of the most diverse groups in Cuban society, the day arrived in which the joyful drink had its own legend, which someone engraved in the popular memory.

It has long been said that coffee should be taken according to the same letters with which it is written—following the Spanish spelling: hot, bitter, strong and in a small portion. The latter is a reminder and a warning that anything in excess is beneficial. There have been critics who claim adverse health effects, when in fact, the truth is the opposite, whenever new evidence of its benefits are discovered, as long as it is taken in the right measure. A moderate consumption is considered among two to three cups daily, as long as it is not very strong. In the western provinces, especially in Havana, it is taken mixed with something else and thick; in the easternmost provinces of the island, they make it softer, but there you can get a more genuine and free of unpopular mixtures coffee powder. Although it is said that coffee is a product of natural mixture of thousand of substances, among which caffeine stands out, it also contains quite a few antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

In its homeland, it was called Kaffa or kahwaf. It reaches American continent around 1723 to the former French colony of Martinique, from where it spread to the New Continent, to the island now known as Haiti. In Cuba, many historians assume the introduction of the grain to Mr. Jose Antonio Gelabert, who is known to have planted the first coffee trees in the town of El Wajay, very close to the city of Havana.  But according to historians, also the true proliferation of its cultivation and industry, takes place in the late 18th century due to the immigration of French colonists who came fleeing from the Haitian revolution and settled in the easternmost provinces of the Cuban island, like Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba.

In Cuba, during the colonial times, the lucumíes black slaves called it Obimotigwa or Iggi Kan and the black slaves known as congos called it Kuandia. It is said that they used the green leaves in a sip (infusion), to relief toothache; the seeds were used as laxative and the roots chopped to lower fever. It is also said that they threw ground coffee inside the coffins of their dead to slow the corruption of the corpse, although others believe that they used coffee grounds for such duties. Not a few of these applications as green medicine were widely used by the Mambi army during the war against the Spanish colonial power” (1) 248-50.

The legend of the peasant’s coffee

It has long been said that centuries ago, at the beginning of times, when Cuban peasant—most known as guajiro—was still learning how to climb mountains, understand animals and learn the secrets of the forests, he came across a rare bush, which he did not know that was full of small round red fruits. The first thing he did was to try one, but just after a bite he realized it was not edible. But something in his inner experience told him that plant was not there by choice. He had the certainty that nature did not place its works without a definite purpose, so he kept returning to the place, again and again, day after day, to stay there watching, intrigued by the mystery. The spirits of the forest, seeing his persistence for knowledge, sent him a message with a guinea fowl of white and black plumage, which whispered him “toast”. The peasant suddenly understood what the guinea fowl said, and picked up his first crop to take it to the hut where on a slow burn and with great patience, he toasted the grain.

But he did not know what to do afterwards. The guardians of the forest ordered the guinea to go singing the man and the bird approached him, playing its characteristic sound: “stacked”. Immediately, the peasant took a thick piece of wood in his hands, he improvised a mortar (2), and made a fine powder of those grains. Then, he waited for signs to see what to do next. But nothing happened, and he already knew how to speak with animals from the mountain, so he asked a turkey that apparently was passing by what to do with those seeds the guinea had told him to toast and to grind. That winged animal moved its eyes from one side to the other and joyfully stammered: “filter”. It was enough. The intelligent peasant add some more water to boil and soon a charming, gossipy and indiscreet scent spread all over the mountain, flooding the world for the first time, with that delicious aroma of the first filtered coffee.

The peasant smelled this gift from the gods and his mouth watered. He knew that something very important was missing, he felt certain temptations, but still he did not realize the next step to take. It was a big yellow goat that seemed to be accidentally walking around, and whose presence had not been noticed so far, who rightfully indicated him what to do, when with all its intentions bellowed: “drink”. So, without thinking twice, and excited by the indication, the peasant poured the steaming black nectar into his mouth and felt refreshed as never before in his life. Since then, every day early in the morning before starting his day in the arable fields; in the afternoon, when he comes back to his hut; and on Sundays when receiving the visit of a neighbor, he joyfully performed the ritual he had been taught by the mountain spirits and gives himself a small cup of the magic black nectar (1) 248-50.

The metaphors behind the peasant

This legend is presented in a simple, familiar and pleasant language. There are no proper names that might put the reader away from the beauty’s sleep and prevent him to fill of loving trust that sacred mystery that daily reality fails to alter. The mountain, which is for many the house of gods and a generous pharmacy, was not either placed by accident as scenario. But be careful. To be accepted by the owners of the mystic and lush thick vegetation, you have to go with the soul naked of meanness. That is the mountain of wisdom and only those who have a pure soul can penetrate it. Therefore, it cannot be other than a Cuban peasant the hero of this story, who as we know only has as possessions a hut and a lot of perseverance. Hidden and secret in the red little berries of the first coffee tree lays the motivation for the pursuit of knowledge, which is usually acid, for whom tastes it for the first time. The magic of this search is the will that is learned in the round of ages and the boundaries of time. It is suggested in this legend that, to reach the joy of every creation, there is a proper procedure. Constancy is the supreme teaching by which we reach the achievement of something new. And when the peasant is warned to boil the coffee that action contains the logos of certain philosophical alchemy that tends to filter the knowledge, so the hero can assimilate it. The charming, gossipy and indiscreet scent that goes beyond the borders of the mountain and spreads over the world sounds like the spreading of triumph. Silent scandal and the celebration of arriving at the end of a search that only later will be understood as the beginning of a new one to come. Then, after possessing the knowledge, the hero meets the obligation to share it, as our peasant does when he has visitors on Sundays.

Actually, it is very difficult there is someone who can assimilate all these deep things at once, without being provided by means of a legend through animals talking to the man as species, so well represented by our early riser, persistent and walker hero. But ... what about these forest animals? What role do these forest animals play in these alleged metaphors of the peasant’s coffee?

It is taken for granted that in those primitive times, no peasant—no matter how noble—was allowed to speak directly to the gods of the mountain, so that those availed themselves of the selfless service of the animals of the forest to establish the communication with humans. It is even known they kept on doing it for a long time after that. So we would see a couple of the forest animals in totemic wanderings and taboo adventures, while the gods were trying by all means to instill in humans the respect for the laws governing the secret realms of Nature, which apparently they achieved for a while, until man lost in the darkest night of the times, forgot the language of animals, broke with all covenants, uprooted totems and taboos to then begin the horrendous habit of hunting them.

Dagmara, the Peasant’s Coffee and his animal altarpiece

The events that are now going to be narrated are real. They occurred in 2008, in the nursery “Hormiguitas Laboriosa” located in the municipality of Marianao, in Havana, Cuba. There is documentary evidence of what is told here.

The educator Dagmara Zamora Jeréz, excited by the legend of the peasant’s coffee, decided to tell it to the children in her preschool group (3-4 years old), for which he designed and built an altar of cardboard, in which she recreated the characters with the idea of ​​the infants’ greater involvement in learning. The result was immediate and surprising: a rapid assimilation of the whole story; the encouragement to the participation was generalized; and an achievement of continuity in the attention of the one hundred percent of the children too. But she did more.

After that, Dagmara wanted to work with a child’s game as a resource to help the perception of sequence and continuity of children, using as a resource the Legend of the Peasant’s Coffee. To this aim, she decided to draw the protagonists of this story in each of the faces of a large-size dice, made of polystyrene foam. The game begins when one of the infants is selected to throw the dice that, falling in the middle of a large circle formed by the children themselves, shows one of the characters on the upper side. Who throws the dice is entrusted to tell the legend, from the appearance of the protagonist. When someone makes a mistake, the other participants rectify it in the middle of divertimento and hubbub.

It was truly admirable and amazing to observe the way in which a large part of the group made up by those children could tell this legend, whether from the end with the yellow goat or from the half, from the appearance of guareao; or with the guinea fowl, forward, or backward; achieving full consistency in the narrative. It seemed as if this legend had been part of each of them, for centuries, when in fact it was the first time they listened to it. Guided by Dagmara in her die, those forest animals, with the passing of time, returned to restore the magic of the communication with humans. And it would not be surprising that many of these children recall the legend of the coffee’s guajiro in his teens, and even tell it in their maturity to their children and grandchildren in old age; with which they would also be transmitting those hidden metaphors in the innocent little acidic, round and red strawberry.

Cultural imagination and phylogenetic experience

Some anthropologists have reached the conclusion that the cultural imagination, as a repository of all phylogenetic experience of the human group that creates it, is affirmed and confirmed from the moment it converses with the immanent transcendence undertaking the task of poetically founding the being.

On the other hand, the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, refers to the cultural imaginary stating that, “the creative imagination has the primitive spirit, forgotten and buried for a long time, with its strange images that are expressed in the mythologies of all peoples and times. The set of these images make up a collective unconscious, inherited in potential by every individual”; from which usually an idea is discarded, in which a kind of archetypal patrimonial inheritance of social self-representation survives intact in timelessness, always alive in this phylogenetic memory, regardless of time and the accumulative history. That is how scholars speak of such matters and for those who are not learned or erudites, are serious words that made us think, between shot and shot of the black nectar, in all those metaphors hidden behind the legend; in Dagmara and those in preschool; with its altarpiece and game of the giant die, loaded with the characters from the Legend of the coffee’s peasant.


  1. Catauro de seres míticos y legendarios en Cuba. M. R. Glean and G. E. Chavez Spinola. Edited By the Center for Research and Development of Cuban Culture Juan Marinello. Havana Cuba. 2005. ISBN 959-242-107-2.
  2. Mortar made with a hollowed trunk of a thick tree wood, which is used to grind grain. It is traditionally used in the eastern most rural areas of Cuba


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