Ironically enough, the most famous Colombian in the world wasn’t even born in Colombia: he was ‘born’ in New York City in 1958. When we say ‘born’ what we really mean is ‘created’ – the character Juan Valdez was dreamt up in the offices of the New York ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). Charged with coming up with a branding campaign for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia in order to distinguish 100%-Colombian coffee from other blended coffee brands, DDB created Juan Valdez, a typical Colombian coffee farmer, dressed in the classic outfit of the Colombian Coffee Region – sombrero, poncho, carriel bag, and a simple sky-blue shirt. Usually accompanied by his mule, Conchita, Juan Valdez quickly became a globally recognised symbol of quality Colombian coffee.
Many people have heard of Juan Valdez, but fewer know that there actually is a Juan Valdez and that three different men have portrayed the iconic coffee farmer over the years: the first was José F. Duval, a Cuban opera singer and actor who was Juan Valdez until 1969. Then came Carlos Sánchez – who in fact grew up in the coffee-producing town of Fredonia in Colombia’s Antioquia region – who played Juan Valdez right up until 2006 (although the character was voiced by famous narrator Norman Rose, a.k.a. “The Voice of God,” in TV ads). Since Sánchez retired, Juan Valdez has been played by Carlos Castañeda, an actual coffee grower from the small town of Andes in Colombia.
It was the longest serving Juan Valdez, Carlos Sánchez, who was responsible for the character’s most famous appearance, a cameo in the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy film Bruce Almighty. Valdez – with Conchita the mule in tow – arrives at Carrey’s character’s window to pour him a fresh cup of Colombian coffee to start his day. Carrey’s resulting line – “Ahh, now that’s fresh mountain-grown coffee from the hills of Colombia” – might just be the funniest and most bald-faced piece of product-placement in film history. Carlos Sánchez even attended the premiere of the film with his mule.
Since 2002, Juan Valdez has also been both the name and face of the Juan Valdez Café chain, which now counts around 300 branches in 13 different countries, including Spain, the USA, Peru, and Chile. Juan Valdez Cafés sell 100% Colombian coffee, and the famous farmer appears on their cups, coffee bags, and signs.
Juan Valdez might not be a real man, strictly speaking, but the character has become globally famous as a symbol of not only Colombian coffee, but coffee in general. Calling him the most famous Colombian of all time may be a tad tongue-in-cheek, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many other Colombians who have had such a far-reaching and sustained global impact. Not bad for a coffee farmer from the hills of Colombia!