Martha sees herself as a warrior.
“We are fighters,” she says of herself and her husband, Frank. “You try to think that nothing is going to bring you down. As immigrants, we feel it’s a privilege to be here and we want to prove we can make it.”
Martha immigrated from Colombia in 1998 and is now the owner of Latin Organics Inc., a fair trade, organic coffee company that sells specialty coffee beans in several Vancouver area stores. She and her husband came to Canada as landed immigrants – now known as permanent residents – in a bid to find a better life for their family.
Earlier that year, kidnappers had taken them and their young daughter captive, and held Frank until he was rescued by a military convoy. Their decision was also influenced by a robbery at Frank’s restaurant in which a person died and others were injured.
Concluding that Canada was a country where they could raise their children in safety, Martha and her husband followed a suggestion from her mother to visit Vancouver. They spent three weeks there, mostly doing research at the Vancouver Public Library.
After travelling back to Colombia to retrieve their children, they rented a small house in North Vancouver, a community they felt was affordable and also suitable for children.
“When we moved into the house and our furniture and personal belongings arrived, we opened up an antique trunk with all our family photos,” she says. “As we looked through the family albums, I felt as though we had just made a big and irreversible mistake and we cried about it. We were facing an ocean of uncertainty.”
It was an ocean, however, that they learned to navigate.
While her husband travelled back to Colombia to wrap up business interests there, Martha’s parents visited to help her settle in. After finding work at the Hotel Vancouver, she moved on to be a manager with Capers Community Market, a local speciality and organic food retailer– owned by an American corporation.
“I never knew I had the potential to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “My husband had always said I could do it but I had to change my mindset. In Colombia, I thought that you were successful if you went to work for a large corporation and moved up the ladder.”
Partly to find work closer to her children, Martha drew on her experience observing how organic food products were sold and marketed to food retailers. Obtaining a list of coffee producers in her homeland, she discovered that coffee was being produced by the Arhuaco Indians, people there with whom her grandfather had done business.
“I went to Colombia, met with the farmers and got all the information I could. Once back in Vancouver, I spent every day I had off from work, to write a business plan.”
With a loan from the federal Business Development Bank of Canada, Martha launched operations for Latin Organics in November, 2005. While the business has grown, it was not an easy start.
“I had my daughter just as I was marketing my first coffee beans. That was a huge challenge. My belly was growing and I was visiting vendors to find accounts.”
Until Latin Organics grows enough to hire him as part of its team, Martha’s husband Frank works as a car salesman. Martha also imports and sells hand-woven placemats and baskets made by Colombia’s Kankuamo Indians at a local gallery in West Vancouver.
As well, Martha, her husband and children are now all Canadian citizens, something in which she takes pride.
“This is one of the only decent countries left in the world,” she says of Canada’s healthcare, education, environment and the safety for its citizens. “I hope the government understands this and is careful with the process it uses to select who can come here.”
“We believe citizenship is a privilege and we don't take it for granted. We honour it through our hard work.”
That hard work will include another new venture for Martha in 2008, when she plans to open a new cafe and coffee roaster.
It will be called Latin Organics Café Tienda & Roastery.