All that’s missing is dramatic guitar strumming and the smoky, Spanish-inflected commercial voice-over intoning, “One-hundred-percent Colombian coffee. It’s the richest coffee in the world — hand-picked by Juan Valdez.”
Instead, a different voice breaks in, 100 percent American, braying with excitement.
“Juan Valdez! My hero Juan Valdez! I’ve been looking for you for 20 years! I found Juan Valdez! Juan Valdez!”
Lou Quander, from Alexandria, a retired crew chief for Delta Airlines wearing a Colombia baseball cap, races to the coffee grove ahead of his Colombian-born wife, social worker Magda Leon. For the 20-plus years of their marriage, they’ve been visiting her family in Colombia, drinking Colombian coffee, and she’s been telling him about the mythical Juan Valdez, who, in the Colombian psyche, is no mere advertising mascot. He’s almost a national treasure.
The man in the white hat understands little of Quander’s English, but the American’s enthusiasm is universal.
“My 18-year-old daughter is vacationing in Fiji,” Quander says. “When she gets back, I’m going to tell her, ‘Your father shook the hand of Juan Valdez!’ ”
Juan Valdez — as personified by one Carlos Castaneda, 44, a real Colombian cafetero, or coffee grower — arrived in Washington in late June as part of Colombia’s display in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which continues Thursday through July 11. (Castaneda’s last day at the festival was Monday, though coffee-growing demonstrations continue.)
No legal export sums up Colombia’s world identity like coffee, nor is as important to its economy, social fabric and internal sense of self-worth. And nothing symbolizes Colombian coffee like Juan Valdez.
Americans are accustomed to reserving a measure of contempt for advertising icons, even as we eagerly consume the products. Juan Valdez — and Colombians’ affection for him — is different. He’s got a little bit of the Marlboro Man and the Jolly Green Giant in him. But also the stuff of legend and national character, like a Paul Bunyan or a Johnny Appleseed.
Since 1959, when the image was conceived on Madison Avenue, only three men have been entrusted with portraying Juan Valdez. The first was a Cuban American actor, Jose Duval. The second, Carlos Sanchez, was a Colombian painter and actor who had dabbled in coffee as a young man.
Castaneda took over the job in 2006 after an elaborate, top-secret search that he stumbled into by chance. The grandson and son of cafeteros, Castaneda started working in the coffee fields at about age 6. Now married with three children, he owns a finca of about 7.5 acres and 15,000 coffee trees on a hilly slope outside the town of Andes, about 80 miles from Medellin. Until he became Juan Valdez, he never had been to Bogota, nor on an airplane.