How Buying Beans Became a Political Statement

For years, the Goya brand was synonymous with the Latino-American dream. The sheer number of products that lined the grocery store aisles — from refried pinto beans to sazón con azafran seasoning — spoke to the growing number of Hispanic immigrants who bought them. Goya, the nation’s largest Hispanic food company, has sponsored Dominican art shows, mariachi contests and soccer programs.

Advisers to President Trump considered it a victory when Goya’s chief executive, Robert Unanue, agreed to appear at the White House rollout of what it called the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, an executive order that promised better access to education and employment for Hispanics.

In the Rose Garden on July 9, Mr. Unanue praised Mr. Trump and compared him to his grandfather, who founded Goya.

“We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder,” Mr. Unanue said. “And that’s what my grandfather did.”

And just like that, a once-beloved brand became anathema in many Latino homes across the United States. People posted videos and photos of themselves clearing out their pantries and tossing cans of Goya beans into the trash. It became a symbol of political resistance to share recipes for Goya product substitutes. “Oh look, it’s the sound of me Googling ‘how to make your own Adobo,’” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York wrote on Twitter, referring to a popular seasoning that Goya sells.

Almost immediately, Trump loyalists pushed back — filling shopping carts full of Goya products and posting videos of themselves dutifully swallowing Goya beans.

By the time Ivanka Trump tweeted an endorsement of Goya, one thing had become clear: In a polarized country, at a polarized time, the buying of beans had become a political act.

Even as Mr. Trump’s support has cratered among many demographics, he has held on to a small but durable slice of Hispanic voters, many of them in Florida, a state full of Cuban Republicans that is known for razor-thin electoral margins.

Polls consistently show Mr. Trump with an approval rating among Hispanic voters hovering around 25 percent, within the lower end of the range that Republican presidents have attracted for decades. Before the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy, the Trump campaign repeatedly pointed to the low unemployment rate among Hispanics as an indication that the administration was delivering for the community, a group he has also offended with inflammatory remarks about immigration.

Now Goya has fallen into this boiling pot of politics and anger, a strange turn of events for a company that has prided itself on knowing its customers intimately.

With each wave of Hispanic immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, Goya has added new products to suit their cuisine, and over the years it has distributed millions of pounds of food to pantries after hurricanes and during the pandemic.

The company was founded in 1936 by Mr. Unanue’s grandparents, who moved from the Basque region of Spain to Puerto Rico, and then New York City, where they sold sardines and olive oil from a storefront on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan.

As the company expanded, it changed its name from Unanue & Sons to Goya Foods — reportedly buying rights to its new name for $1 because it was easier to pronounce than “oo-NA-new-way” — and branched into manufacturing. During the mid-1970s, Joseph Unanue, one of the founders’ four sons, took over as chief executive, and the company relocated to New Jersey. By the time he stepped down, the company had established relationships with Walmart and other big grocers and its annual revenue had grown to $1 billion from $20 million.

Some noted that Robert Unanue’s remarks at the White House showcased the glaring disconnect between the wealthy executive whose family hailed from Spain and the largely working-class Latinos who make up his customer base. The harshest critics questioned whether he considered himself Latino.

The speed and size of the boycott speak to “how raw people in the community feel about the president,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the deputy vice president for policy and advocacy for UnidosUS, a Latino civic engagement organization. She said many Latinos blamed Mr. Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants for inciting discrimination and violence against Latinos, particularly the massacre last summer in El Paso.

For the first time, she said, anxieties about racial discrimination have ranked in the top concerns among Latino voters in surveys. But Mr. Trump’s supporters are betting that this is a winning issue for them and that Americans won’t understand or empathize with the boycott.

The day after the Rose Garden ceremony, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, tweeted: “Goya is a staple of Cuban food. My grandparents ate Goya black beans twice a day for nearly 90 years. And now the Left is trying to cancel Hispanic culture and silence free speech. #BuyGoya.”

And suddenly, the once-beloved Hispanic brand became a cause célèbre on the right.

Mr. Cruz said in an interview that he saw the boycott as an example of “spirit of intolerance.”

“The offense is he dared to say he supported the president,” Mr. Cruz said, adding that “anytime anyone dares disagree from their rigid orthodoxy, they seek to punish, cancel or destroy to the dissenter.”

Mr. Unanue, who has contributed to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans and worked with Michelle Obama on an anti-obesity initiative, appeared unprepared for the firestorm. Neither he nor Goya officials responded to requests for comment. But Mr. Unanue defended his remarks at the White House, telling The Wall Street Journal that he went there out of respect. “I remain strong in my convictions that I feel blessed with the leadership of our president,” he told the newspaper.

Trump supporters filmed themselves filling shopping carts full of Goya products, relishing in the opportunity to defend a Hispanic businessman and accuse Democrats of being anti-Latino. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative political commentator, shared a video of himself swallowing beans, which he admitted he rarely ate.

A few days later, Mr. Trump circulated a photo of himself sitting in the Oval Office, smiling widely and with his thumbs up, in front of several Goya products, including a package of chocolate wafers and coconut milk.

Responding to questions about whether Ms. Trump’s tweet violated federal law forbidding government employees from using their positions to endorse products, Carolina Hurley, a White House spokeswoman, said the president’s daughter “has every right to express her personal support” for the company.

“Only the media and the cancel culture movement would criticize Ivanka for showing her personal support for a company that has been unfairly mocked, boycotted and ridiculed for supporting this administration — one that has consistently fought for and delivered for the Hispanic community,” Ms. Hurley said.

Some political scientists said Mr. Trump appeared eager for the free publicity that came by associating himself with a beloved Hispanic brand.

“It’s the Republican version of ‘Hispandering,’” said Geraldo Cadava, a history professor at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican.” “He’s pandering to Hispanics the same way that politicians have peppered their stump speeches with a few words in Spanish. It’s the same kind of signal.”

Mr. Trump has occasionally made visible efforts to reach Hispanic voters. The Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, which included few details, came during a week in which he also met with Venezuelans who had fled socialism and held an interview with Telemundo, a Spanish-language television station. Mr. Trump spoke in the interview about a “road to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, even as his administration has pledged to fight a Supreme Court decision upholding the Obama-era program that protected them.

It remains to be seen whether Hispanics who do not already support Trump will be swayed by his sudden association with Goya or his attempt to bring Hispanics onto the conservative side of the nation’s long-simmering culture war.

But for a few Latinos, the message resonated.

Alexander Otaola, a Cuban-American in Florida with 105,000 followers on Instagram, issued a video in Spanish that likened the Goya boycott to the destruction of statues and other cultural icons.

“What is Goya in the Latino community? It’s an icon, a statue,” he said in the YouTube video. “The left wants to destroy all icons.”

It is not clear how deeply the boycott has cut into Goya’s bottom line, or whether the impact of the “buycott” has canceled it out. Goya is a privately held company, so its records are not public.

In Jerry’s Supermarket in the predominantly Latino Oak Cliff community in Dallas, Goya products lined the shelves, as usual, and were bought by a steady stream of customers last weekend. In San Antonio’s Alamo Heights community, one cashier said managers of La Michoacana Supermarket have not said they would quit carrying Goya products. Guava paste and Salvadoran pickled salad, among other items, remained on the shelves.

But in Tucson, Ariz., Patrick Robles, a 19-year-old student at the University of Arizona, said his whole family was boycotting Goya products even though the company’s chickpeas had always been perfect for cocido, or Mexican stew.

“It was a punch in the stomach for us,” Mr. Robles said of Mr. Unanue’s comments praising a president who Mr. Robles felt has routinely devalued Latinos. Now, they are going to turn to brands like La Costeña or Rosarita.

But Pamela Ramirez, a 48-year-old Mexican-American small-business consultant in East Los Angeles, said she strongly opposed the Goya boycott. Since there is a large number of Latinos employed by the company, she thinks that boycotting the product could harm her own community. For every one of her Facebook friends who has posted about boycotting the product, Ms. Ramirez bought $10 worth of Goya products and donated them to a food bank, she said.

“You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” she said. “If you don’t, then you’re just part of the problem.”

Contributing reporting were Elda Lizzia Cantú, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Marina Trahan Martinez, Erin Coulehan and David Montgomery. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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