"SABOR" is a food & wine and lifestyle series that savors Latinos' zest for life and passion for home and family. 

Valentine's Day is upon us and lovebirds across the country are giving themselves a pass to indulge in large amounts of chocolate in the name of love. In the U.S. alone, more than 58 million pounds of chocolate candy are reportedly sold during Valentine's week, making up more than 5 percent of chocolate candy sales for the year.

At the same time, thousands of miles away in Latin America, award-winning Mexican-American Chocolatier Arcelia Gallardo is also taking her love and passion for chocolate to another level -- proving that it has the power to unify communities, empower women and ultimately change the world.

The South Central L.A.-born, Central California-raised chocolatier is bringing a whole new meaning to Valentine's Day by traveling through Latin America (Belize, Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Brazil as well as Puerto Rico) to work with cacao growers and chocolate makers and to teach indigenous women how to make chocolate.

Her ultimate goal is "to help create a healthy system where everyone involved profits from a high quality product - from grower to consumer," and in the process, honor Latin America's roots and rich cultural and religious origins. In addition to rightfully giving Latin Americans the tools to thrive from their country's own natural resources, she also hopes that those who are already hard at work cultivating cacao have the opportunity to celebrate the fruits of their labor and relish in their past.

"[The indigenous women] know the word chocolate, but they don't know what it is," she said to Latin Post. "It's a gift that they have given to the world -- and a lot of times they don't know this..."

"Cacao was used by the Aztecs and the Maya. They would request cacao from Ecuador and Venezuela because it was the best cacao that existed," she added. "Cacao is made from the Americas - all the way from southern Mexico to South America. The Latin American cacao remains the finest and the most delicious cacao in the world."

Gallardo aims to provide cacao-growing communities with the resources they need and want, ranging from teaching them how to make chocolate, connecting them to chocolate makers, and helping them grow and process high quality cacao. She also brings equipment, packaging, tools, and books.

Also a chocolate maker, chocolate consultant, and teacher, Gallardo shared the kickoff to her four-year journey with Latin Post in an exclusive interview from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she recently moved from San Francisco. Needless to say, her story was literally and symbolically one of the sweetest Valentine's Day messages we've seen.

While thriving in her craft, Gallardo has learned a great deal about people's relationship to chocolate during her Latin American journey.

"Every country that I have worked with has been fascinating ... Guatemala was also very interesting to me. I worked with an indigenous group who didn't speak Spanish or English, so our only form of communication was cooking. People in these communities really value and treasure cacao but on a different level. It's a source of nutrition, of religious ceremony, a wedding a funeral or a birth of a child." 

"I was in Colombia (working in the cacao fields) and it was one of the most amazing countries," she said. "It was still kind of an enigma to me why Colombians drink so much chocolate. ... It's actually a very good product to drink. Colombia is one of the very few countries that actually drink chocolate -- and it's real chocolate. Colombia was the most eye-opening country to me."

While Gallardo has had an incredible experience thus far, she has faced a few economic barriers in some villages.

"There was no electricity...What do you do when you want to make chocolate and you need refrigeration?" she asked. "That was one of the biggest hurdles I have faced."

"Mission Chocolate is what I am functioning under ... but the idea is to find these groups of women in every Latin American country and support them by helping them start a micro-business. My vison is for all of the chocolate makers to have something to give back to the community."

Once Gallardo finishes her teaching and forming partnerships with villages within Latin America, she hopes to return to San Francisco and open a chocolate museum where educational workshops can be held. She also seeks to open a shop where she can sell the products from Latin America, and she hopes to have at-risk youth travel with her to third-world countries and share in her mission.

While many of us have a love affair with chocolate, this gifted chocolate connoisseur had a truly organic introduction to her craft.

Gallardo recognized the importance of agriculture and the benefits of natural, organic foods while she was growing up in Central California with her father, who was a farmer. She also loved eating chocolate and drinking hot chocolate.

Besides being a chocolate lover, Gallardo realized that chocolate could open the door to endless possibilities -- from business, travel, exposure to other cultures and a way to help empower others.

"It's a long story, but I think in general the reason why I became a chocolatier and a chocolate maker is because chocolate is one of those things that transcends the industry," she explained. "For some people chocolate is something that is religious or cultural; for other people it's economics, a business, a passion, it's culinary, it's gastronomy."

For Gallardo, it was the latter and she went on to attend college in Northern California (UC Berkeley) and went on to work at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Los Angeles where she was exposed to the world of gastronomy and chocolate. She honed her chocolate skills with Ewald Notter, Andrew Shotts, and Shawn Williams.

Also in L.A., she became chef instructor at the Summer Cooking Academy, and in 2005 founded a confection workshop, which featured flavors of Latin America blended with chocolate.  In 2011, Gallardo moved back to Northern California and established her retail location in Berkeley, (Casa de Chocolate), which was featured as one of the best new sweet shops in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine.

In 2013, she was named the "Most Gifted Chocolatier" by the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon, and Silicon Valley Latino Magazine named her one of the "40 under 40 Latinos to Watch."

Gallardo is also a founding member of Well Tempered San Francisco, which brings together women-owned/women chef small businesses in the chocolate and confection industry. She noted that there has been a surge in Latina's interest in chocolate, which is a huge step in a European male-dominated industry.

Also in 2013, Gallardo sold the retail location to pursue a more intimate relationship with cacao growers and work with the celebrated bean-to-bar makers at Dandelion Chocolate.

"What I like to eat now is chocolate the comes from cacao beans and sugar (sans vanilla or additives) "just cacao butter and it's a natural chocolate that is a return to what chocolate was 100 to 200 years ago and then some," she added. "Chocolate has transformed a lot."

In the meantime, where will Gallardo's next stop be on her Latin American chocolate tour? "The Amazon, I can't wait!"