Karla Quiñones on Building Visibility for Latino Coffee Professionals

Karla is sitting on a bar stool by a kitchen island in an empty room.

"We worked really, really hard and through every loophole to make it, and if we can support others to get there faster we will."

Cafe Comunion co-owner, Karla Quiñones, is an educator and student by nature and profession. From the History classroom to the coffee classroom, it is through her passion for teaching that led her on an expected journey with coffee and social advocacy. As her latest project, Karla is opening a Specialty Coffee Association certified training center in Puerto Rico that will be accessible in English and Spanish, with a goal of building visibility and education for Latino coffee professionals.

We recently had a chance to catch up with Karla digitally from Puerto Rico. She shares her defining moments along her coffee journey, how Hurricane Maria became a turning point in her career, and the epiphany that led to her life's purpose.

Brewista: Your career didn’t begin in coffee. Tell us about how your coffee journey began.

Quiñones: I'm a History teacher, and that’s what I did for almost ten years. Teaching is my passion and my purpose as well. My career in coffee has two starting points.

As a teacher, I used to take my students to coffee and cacao farms, as part of the history of PR as a producing country. And the second starting point was with my partner Abner Roldan. He competed for many years in national and global competitions, which allowed me to travel with him to World of Coffee Competitions, Specialty Coffee Expos, and many other events. In those events, as a teacher and forever student, I started to immerse myself in the coffee industry and culture. I was just so curious to learn that coffee wasn’t just about espressos and latte art. Through that experience, I started meeting other LATAM coffee professionals and created amazing relationships with them. One of the most common topics in our debates and discussions was the lack of Spanish resources and learning materials; representation and advocacy for Spanish speaking competitors in competition; and the lack of visibility for Latino coffee professionals.

So with that in mind, I reached out to a coffee publication that started translating their English articles into Spanish and asked them if they needed support with their translation. I volunteered as a translator, but also as an editor. After a while doing that, the magazine officially hired me as their Spanish Editor, and the edition started to gain more popularity because we were putting out relevant and up to date articles about coffee. The articles started to get shared with every LATAM producer and barista group. 

When that happened, coffee professionals started reaching out to me, asking for ways to contribute and the most common one they started asking me questions about the articles, my opinions and suggestions. For example, if we did an article about a processing method, my personal and professional inbox would get tons of requests. 

That’s when I realized that the community was perceiving the magazine, the team, and me as coffee experts, when in reality we were interviewing experts and sharing what they taught us. As an educator, I made the decision that I needed to learn in depth about coffee, specifically about quality analysis and production. I had a great relationship with Carlos Pineda, who at the time was in charge of IHCAFE’S Escuela de Catadores in Honduras, and I asked him if I could spend the summer with him to learn all about coffee and write articles. OMG it was life changing. He took me to almost all the coffee regions in Honduras, prepared classes for me, made me a part of that year's Catadores group, and allowed me to be part of his family while staying with them. 

I was just in awe, learning that coffee professionals didn’t only exist in the U.S. or Europe, but LATAM was full of them. Their only barrier was that they didn’t speak English and didn’t have “the floor” or the visibility as other English speaking professionals in global platforms. 

I had an epiphany as a Puerto Rican, I was in a really strategic position. I had the opportunity to position myself as a bridge between LATAM and the U.S. I decided I was going to learn everything I could (still doing that), become a “coffee expert” (impossible), and multiply all those lessons with the Latino community. With every trip, event, and producing country that I visited, I made sure to absorb everything and learn every name in those rooms that I was in. And I don't know, I just clicked with coffee people and organizations.

Meanwhile Abner and I were working together to open our own coffee shop in Puerto Rico— Cafe Comunion. I was still working for the magazine, so Abner was the main developer and ultimately the café was his dream. Even before he was a barista, he wanted his own café.

Sadly when we were ready to open, Hurricane Maria devastated the island and the living conditions. We didn’t have power for months. After my last trip with the magazine to Brazil, I decided that I needed to focus on that project with my partner. After a few months in the midst of uncertainty, we opened the cafe and had an amazing response from the community.

In 2018, I applied for the LEAD scholarship by the Specialty Coffee Association. I didn’t tell anyone, not even Abner. More than 100 candidates applied, so I didn't want to divulge anything in case I didn’t get it. But I did! LEAD aimed at increasing diversity of leadership within the global coffee community by enabling access to professional development resources to people from underrepresented or marginalized communities. Basically, they fully funded my coffee skills path (I chose to become a Sensory Professional) and my AST License, along with an origin trip, WOC, EXPO, and educational event. Just crazy. 

That same year I was invited as a speaker to attend a coffee event called Let’s Talk Coffee hosted by Sustainable Harvest Coffee Inc. After that, they hired me to become their Social Impact Initiative Coordinator. I was in charge of coordinating and helping to develop women and next-gen coffee programs, mainly in Colombia and Peru. That is what I’ve been doing for the last few years, traveling to many countries in LATAM, Africa and Europe.

Brewista: What do you love most about your work?

Quiñones: Honestly, and I know it is cliche, but people. Having friends everywhere, like actual friends. 

It’s funny because I studied history. I told my mom that I wanted to do missions work, but if I wanted to support communities I needed to learn about their politics, culture, history all of it.

I didn’t become a missionary, but I think having that professional background allows me to really connect with people, to have meaningful conversations and experiences. And funny enough through coffee, I'm doing the social work that has always been a part of my life and purpose. 

Brewista: I love your work in connecting people throughout the coffee supply chain. I learned that you created a group for women in coffee in Puerto Rico called Candela, which offers education and resources to help women stand out in the coffee industry. What inspired your work in advocating for women in the industry? 

Quiñones: Candela was created because the Latino coffee industry is really “macho” and mainly guided by men. No one can deny that, and we just needed a safe space. Candela is pretty recent. I haven’t really dived into developing the project completely, due to personal reasons and finishing all of my coffee professional education and licenses. But with Aula Escuela de Cafe, the goal is to provide scholarships, events and experiences for women in the industry.

I have supported and coordinated many international women coffee initiatives, and it’s time to do the work here in Puerto Rico.

Brewista: What have been some of the hardest moments in building your career? 

Quiñones: Coffee is a niche, and specialty coffee even more. I was (still am) with lack of representation I know it’s been a huge topic the last few years, but its not enough. 

You know why I apply to every scholarship or initiative that I could? Because as a POC, woman and Latina, my experience wasn’t enough. I would participate in coffee auctions and cupping events, and my voice was not taken seriously. Then you would have a man with less coffee experience than me, and his opinion mattered more. I had to get extra certified mainly because of me, but also as a way to show them, “Here, this is all my preparation. Any problem with my opinion?"

Brewista: If you had a magic wand and could make one change about the coffee industry, what would it be?

Quiñones: In the order of things, why do producers usually come last? Why are coffee experts in producing countries not in the center of competitions, events, and expos? They breathe and live coffee. 

Why are the voices of those coffee experts at origin only the last link to the chain? It’s bull that the supply chain is circular it’s hierarchical and we all know that. 

Brewista: What does your morning coffee ritual look like?

Quiñones: Oh, I need mi lechita in the morning. I drink a six ounce cap with whole milk. It's just a hug. 

Brewista: Our readers are really serious about coffee. For aspiring coffee pros, what is one single advice you would like to give them as they navigate the coffee industry?

Quiñones: The industry has so many lanes. People may think there's only a few ways to “make it” or contribute. But you would be amazed at how those other skills you have will be key to your success and development. Mine was education, and that skill supports my whole coffee career. Don’t neglect those skills and passions, only focusing on brew ratios, roasting, etc. Coffee is human-oriented. Listening and contributing with what you already know and have is key. 

Brewista: We would love to learn about your newest project, opening an SCA certified training center in Puerto Rico. Can you tell us a little more about it?

Quiñones: My project is called Aula Escuela de Cafe, and I have so many ambitions for it. I want Aula to be focused on quality coffee and entrepreneurship education— not just following what is given to us to teach as certified trainers. But to give a tailored experience to people and the community. 

Aula will not only offer SCA coffee skills education, but also provide experiences and sensory lessons for anyone who is passionate about coffee. From how to use a greca to more complex coffee skills. I'm also working with non-profit organizations to provide a career alternative to youth at risk of leaving school by teaching them about coffee and hospitality. 

The classes will be given to small groups, a max of 4, to be able to really attend to students with multiple or different learning intelligences. We will also offer consulting services to aspiring café and small business owners. In Puerto Rico, it’s really, really hard to start your own business, and Abner and I don't come from a wealthy background. We are both teachers that worked really hard and through every loophole to make it, and if we can support others to get there faster we will. 

Brewista: How can people find out more about you and follow your projects? 

Quiñones: They can follow us on Instagram at @cafecomunion, @aulaescueladecafe and @karlalyy

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