Utila-tarians: Snapshots of Life on Utila, Honduras
This is the first part of a larger series that captures the voices of islanders in Utila, Honduras in a series of interviews. You probably don’t know where Utila is, and neither did I until this past summer when I spent a month on the tropical island learning to be a dive instructor. Between the classes and time in the water, I got a chance to talk to a few people along the way. Their stories speak for themselves.
Utila is an island off the coast of Honduras and is one of the three Bay Islands—Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja—that are a part of the western Caribbean.
Elwood Francisco Coleman, age 57
Elwood Francisco Coleman, or Franco, as most call him, runs ABC Bakery on the island. Although the ABC Bakery may not look like much from the exterior, the small shop’s glass windows allow the passerby to peek at the magic happening inside. On tables spread throughout the shop are loaves of fluffy white coconut bread, rows of cookies, baguettes studded with bright green parsley, cinnamon rolls hot from the oven, and other fresh baked goods. However, baking on an island comes with unprecedented challenges.
Tell me about your upbringing.
The Bay Islands of Honduras actually consist of three islands, Roatan, Utila, and Guanaja. I’m from Roatan, the biggest one. That's where I was born and where I grew up, and, for most of my life, where I worked. I just decided to come to Utila maybe about 5 years ago.
And how did you get into baking?
Nine of us brothers and sisters got a family bakery that we inherited from our father, which is where I learned most of my experience baking. By United States standards, he’d probably be in prison for child labor working us the way he did, but in our grown up lives it served us well. I played a major role of the bakery of my father. At a very young age I was
able to conduct the whole operation, you know? So it's not only baking that I know. When my father started baking, there wasn't many cars on the island, so our main transportation was what you call a motodore. And then we got a car, and we learned how to maintain the car; we learned how to maintain the tires. And the bakery itself was out of town so we didn't have any electricity in there. So at the time, we got a generator to provide us with electricity and we ended up learning to maintain the generator. So I know about electricity, a little bit about diesel engineering or mechanical, I know refrigeration--anything we’ve got in our homes that needed fixing.
Baking must have changed a lot since you started working with your father. What are some of the most notable changes?
We first had to do things by hand. My father had a big piece of tree trunk. I don't know if he witnessed some machinery or something and thought that that was the closest thing he could get, but we used to roll that on top of the flour. It wasn’t small like a rolling pin. After that, he was able to get a dough sheeter that we used to pass the flour through to break it down and refine it.
Now tell me about ABC Bakery. Why did you leave Roatan for Utila? And did you come to continue baking?
The market in Roatan is shrinking because we have more competition. When my father began, it was the oldest bakery on the island. Utila has good tourism. Last year was my first time to Utila, but I find Utila and people here—their hospitality—make me feel like I’m at home. I chose baking as a strategic thing because we already had that and we already had that a good customer base. Most of the island chooses our bread over any one of the others.
I would choose your bread too! What was the hardest thing about moving here and starting your business here?
Finances were my biggest problem. In Roatan, maybe for 30 years, I had a grocery store, then I took out a sizable loan from the bank and--I don't know if you heard—that’s when we had the overthrow of the president in 2009†. Then, because the economy of these islands is very much tied with the US economy and tourism, the US economy in 2009 was not very good°. All of that put together, with the changes in the development of the island like more cars and the big supermarkets, made it difficult for me and my store. I ran into trouble with the bank; I wasn’t able to pay my loans; I almost lost my property. I was trying for five years to make this move, but economically I was never prepared for it. Finally, I took a few sheet pans from Roatan and a friend helped me get here.
Where do you see your career going in the future?
My future plan is to get this to where it's self-sustaining. The same concept that I had coming to Utila from Roatan, I want to do to Guanaja and repeat the same process up there. I also had a plan to go to La Ceiba* to do what I'm doing, but over the years, it’s been taken over by the gang war and what we call the impuesto de guerra. That’s the path that some of the gangs take, going to the businesses and saying, “I want so much money every week or we make it miserable for you to operate”. So that’s taking root in a lot of La Ceiba and that's what discouraged me from going. Roatan, even, is much more dangerous than Utila. For instance, businesses operating in Roatan have a good chance that someone will come in and pull something over your face and pull a gun on you and say, “pass the money over”. It got to the point that most big businesses have house security all the times they’re operating. You never know when someone may come and try to hold you up.
Do you see yourself as successful?
I would say…yes. Some years ago, I got a student Visa for the US and sometimes, I look back and wonder if I had made that move, what my life would have been. But looking back, I’ve got a good taste of what I really want and what I really want to be in life and things.
At this age, my plan was to work because I love to work, not because I’m compelled to work. I was hoping that by the time some of my children wanted to marry, I would be able to build a house or something—provide economic support for them—but time has moved too fast and I find myself still struggling to get into that position. I'm not sure I’m ever going to reach that goal.
Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
*La Ceiba is a city on the Honduras mainland.
†President Manuel Zelaya. “’I am the president of Honduras,’ he insisted at the airport in San José, Costa Rica, still wearing his pajamas.” Read more here.
°The recession in the US that lasted from 2007-2009 was the “the longest and most severe in the post-war period”. Read more here.
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