Jefferson residents Marvin and Beth Rasmussen (center and right) are pictured last month at ancient Mayan ruins near Chalchuapa, El Salvador, with their son-in-law’s mother, Maria Mendoza. It was an unlikely vacation destination: El Salvador’s murder rate is among the highest in the world, sending migrants fleeing for the U.S. border. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOSThe Rasmussens pose with ripened coffee cherries in El Salvador on the family coffee farm of Mario and Maria Mendoza, their son-in-law’s parents.Marvin Rasmussen stops and smells a flowering coffee plant on a coffee farm in El Salvador. Marvin and wife Beth also met the workers who pick coffee cherries by hand and encountered a young mother who, at the age of 17, lost her husband this past summer to gang violence. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Destination: El Salvador

Local couple vacations in a place people are dying to leave

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

The pictures show a vacation that will be talked about for years: standing in front of ancient Mayan ruins, sitting together near a scenic lake formed in a volcanic crater, posing next to ripened coffee cherries about to begin the long journey from Central America to tomorrow morning’s K-Cup.

In another picture, Beth Rasmussen holds a young mother’s new baby.

But some pictures don’t tell the whole story.

The mother is already a widow at 17.

“Her husband,” Beth explained, “was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he was executed.”

Savage gang violence is a fact of life in El Salvador, an unlikely vacation destination in December for longtime Jefferson residents Beth and Marvin Rasmussen.

Their recent flight into the capital of San Salvador likely took them right over the heads of migrants fleeing the violence, each hoping to start life anew 1,400 miles to the north in the United States.

The young mother in the Rasmussens’ picture, fearing for her child’s safety and tired of picking coffee by hand for $4 a day, may one day be among them.

As with seemingly everything these days, even a slideshow of vacation photos can stray into politics.

Silence fell over the Rasmussens’ rural Jefferson home one night last week when the conversation gave way to a hypothetical question: If that young mother and her baby were standing at the Texas border right now, should they be allowed to cross over?

“I don’t know,” Beth, 63, finally conceded.

The Trump administration recently determined that migrants fleeing gang or domestic violence no longer qualify for asylum.

There seems to be so many of them, explained Marvin, 62, that the system will be overwhelmed.

“We need to do something,” he said. 

“I don’t know what that something is,” he added, a sense of helplessness evident in his voice.

Surely, they hope, there’s a commonsense solution to the problem, like new and better technology that could keep watch at the nation’s southern border.

“A full wall, I’m not in favor of that,” Beth said.

One thing they do know after visiting El Salvador is why Salvadorans would risk everything for a shot at sneaking across the border.

“We live in luxury here,” Marvin said.

Most of the illegal immigrants being caught at the border are from El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala.

The two migrant caravans that dominated the news seemingly all of October originated in Honduras and El Salvador, respectively.

Neither are what could be considered vacation hotspots.

“You hear how dangerous it is,” said Beth, a hospice aide. “Why would we want to go?”

The truth is, they have a vested interest in El Salvador — daughter Miriam, a 2007 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, married a Salvadoran man she met at college in Texas.

They gave the Rasmussens their first grandchild, a girl named Isabella Maria Mendoza, three and a half years ago.

The family now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., where Miriam is a data analyst and husband Pedro is a freelance photographer.

In December, Marvin and Beth Rasmussen finally accepted a standing invitation to visit El Salvador from their son-in-law’s parents, Mario and Maria Mendoza, who live in Chalchuapa, El Salvador.

During a visit to Jefferson a couple of years ago during the Bell Tower Festival, Mario Mendoza had piqued the interest of the Iowa farm boy in Marvin Rasmussen.

Marvin, a hobby organic farmer and antique tractor enthusiast who works in the lab at the local ethanol plant, became fascinated with seeing how coffee is grown.

“We knew he was in the coffee business,” Marvin said of Mario. “We didn’t really know exactly what he did.”

Ironically, the Rasmussens don’t even drink coffee, but the promise of visiting Mario’s family coffee farm was an experience they didn’t want to pass up.

“I would never have gone if we didn’t have an invitation,” Marvin said.

Coffee cherries are harvested between mid-November and February, he said, explaining why those chose to visit in December.

But it wasn’t until they touched down in El Salvador that they finally learned that Mario Mendoza is also CEO of the country’s fifth-largest exporter of coffee, J. Hill, a 123-year-old company based in the city of Santa Ana.

They not only toured his family coffee farm, where steep, volcanic slopes make mechanization virtually impossible, but they visited J. Hill’s coffee mill, where the coffee cherries and their two seeds are separated.

The seeds — what the world calls coffee beans — are then dried to a moisture content of 12 percent, much like soybeans in Iowa. In fact, as Marvin explained, a good farmer in either place can determine the moisture content of their beans by simply biting into one.

And just as a farmer in Iowa is never without a pocket knife, a coffee grower in El Salvador is rarely without a machete.

But unlike an American farming operation, in which fewer people are needed to manage bigger farms, mechanization isn’t the prevailing mindset in El Salvador, according to Marvin.

“They’re trying to preserve jobs,” he said.

Coffee pickers are paid by the weight of their harvest, with a good picker earning as much as $13 to $15 per day, Marvin said. Workers are guaranteed at least $4 a day.

A healthy coffee plant will produce enough beans for 200 cups of coffee, he said.

To millions of people every morning, coffee may seem like the equivalent of black gold, and they’re not wrong — coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world behind oil.

It’s probably no coincidence that both are produced in some of the most volatile places on Earth.

In El Salvador, a 12-year civil war ended in 1992, leaving the densely populated country awash in weapons. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the United States had backed the Salvadoran government against leftist guerillas.

With the country already militarized, worsening inequality — due in part to U.S.-backed privatization of public services, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute — created fertile ground for drug cartels and gangs such as MS-13.

Homicides are technically down for a third year in a row — from a high in 2015 of 103 murders per 100,000 people — but El Salvador is still an awfully dangerous place, according to the U.S. State Department, which tells potential visitors to “reconsider travel.”

While they never felt threatened, “Our experience in El Salvador could be very different than someone else’s,” Marvin said.

Their hosts live behind a gate with at least five locks, Marvin noted.

“Yes, that’s a guy with a gun,” Marvin said about the security detail in a picture taken as they walked the grounds of the J. Hill coffee mill. “And there was a guy behind us with a gun.”

Security, Marvin said, is one of the company’s largest expenses.

Their future son-in-law, Pedro, benefitted from having parents with resources. Beginning at age 11, he was sent to summer camp every year in the U.S. to avoid being enticed into a gang. 

At 16, he was sent to boarding school in the United States.

The rest is history.

The Rasmussens loved their time in El Salvador, but returned home thankful to be Americans.

As Beth implored, “Don’t take it for granted.”

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