Origins

With close to 38,000 different varieties, beans are a staple food for about 400 million people in the tropics. They are affordable and easy to grow, require little water, and fix nitrogen in the soil. Besides all these bounties, they have one other overlooked quality: they are beautiful. Beans are the only food first domesticated not to be eaten, but to be used as body adornments or in ritual ceremonies. Throughout history, men and women have carefully selected the most alluring seeds, those with the most eye-catching shapes, patterns and colors, planting them again and again. The rainbow of kinds that exist today, from emerald-green Jade beans to ruby-red Scarlett beans, from pearly-white Corona beans to sapphire Sacred Blue beans, are living proof of the role beauty has played in conservation. 

A fiery sunset, cotton clouds over a baby-blue sky, a soothing, crystalline river, a sublime bird solo or a cicada orchestra. All these heavenly treasures captivate us, for one simple reason: for us to notice and take good care of them. Whatever calls our attention invites us to be mindful. In filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg’s words, “Beauty is nature’s tool of survival because we protect what we love”.

Our ingenuity has no limits. From virtual realities in the cloud, to all kinds of engines, from lie detectors to automated systems that identify our hands, eyes and faces, we’ve come up with countless inventions that do things faster, better and cheaper than us. But no man-made thing has, or will ever have, the power to see, hear or experience beauty; no artificial lens will ever be moved by a glowing moonrise, a starry night, a sparkling bean.

It was in 2016, while visiting a friend’s farm in Portugal, that I was first seduced by the  mystic aura of these wondrous seeds. Her collection captivated me in such a way that as soon as I arrived to my home in Medellín, I began sowing my own garden, as well as looking up every little thing about these ephemeral, living gems. I discovered revealing insights, each more wondrous than the next. Like the fact that only in Colombia there exist close to four thousand beans, the third country in the world after Peru and Mexico with most varieties. Or that the country is home to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a seed bank in charge of collecting, planting and protecting all of the world’s beans. Or that there exist guardians all around the planet, many in their teens and twenties, helping preserve these precious seeds. 

But not everything I learned was beautiful. Throughout history, the bounties of beans have been either unnoticed or unappreciated. Compared to potatoes or corn, which have been studied extensively, not much has been written about these frugal seeds. They are the ‘American underdogs’, so much that Latin-Americans, especially Mexicans living in the U.S., have often been referred to as ‘beaners’ (frijoleros), demeaning the act of getting one’s hands ‘dirty’ to grow one’s own food. In Yiddish, the word for beans is bupkes, which translates to horse droppings, to being worthless or useless; worse than nothing. Beans have also been identified to as “the meat of the poor”, becoming popular whenever disasters arise, but when things go back to normal, they’re quickly forgotten. 

In the midst of my explorations, COVID 19 struck. And what I was reading about in books, suddenly came alive. After years in the dark, trying to find out anything about beans without much luck, beans were in fashion. They started sprouting on millions of dinner tables, supermarkets and newspapers around the world. Unable to leave their homes and get their protein in fancy restaurants, people were hungry for beans. Companies like Goya or Rancho Gordo saw their sales rise, and these long forgotten underdogs began appearing in the covers of the New York Times and LA Times.

The time has come to elevate beans, give them the dignity and recognition they deserve. And to do so, helps looking at them with fresh eyes; dig into them, unearth their past, be humbled and dazzled by their infinite bounties, their ever-inspiring beauty. That innermost desire to get to know  what lies behind these seeds, see what they have to say, and bring it to the eyes of world is, in the end, what Frijolatorio and byXan are about.

The Voice of Beans, the Mother of Beans, Queen of Beans, Bean Guardian, Bean Whisperer…People have given me all kinds of names. In the end, I’m just a beaner, a frijolera de pura sepa, a bean-lover born and raised in Colombia who wants to reshape the way we look and treat these humble seeds by using beauty to evoke wonder and draw attention to the natural world. Their present popularity shouldn’t be one more passing trend. Once we get past the pandemic, beans will continue living in our gardens and on our plates, on our bodies, and in our living rooms and treasure chests. 

Xandra