Of Tin Cans and Bronze Statues

A Spanish-language version of this article appeared in El País Semanal, on Sunday, August 9, 2020.

A few weeks ago, at the White House launch of Donald Trump’s “Hispanic Prosperity Project,” the CEO and grandson of the founder of the largest hispanic family business in the US —Robert Unanue of Goya Foods—praised the US president with these words: “All of us are truly blessed to have President Trump as our leader.”

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Unanue emigrated first to Puerto Rico, where he lived for ten years, and met his future wife, Carolina Casal Valdés, herself a Spanish immigrant from Caldas de Reyes, in Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain. He 1919 he re-emigrated to New York, where Carolina soon joined him. A customs broker, and later head of Unanue imports in NY, it wasn’t until 1936 that Unanue began to market products with the “Goya” label and brand.

After the broadcast of these flattering comments, with their religious and almost messianic overtones, it didn’t take long for social media to light up with calls to boycott Goya products. Prominent latinos and progressives –among them, the politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julián Castro—quickly announced that they intended to go without the beans, olives, condiments, spices and other products in the vast line of food items distributed by this company founded in New York in 1936 by an immigrant from Burgos Spain, who arrived to NY via Puerto Rico.

The figure and history of Prudencio Unanue Ortiz (Villasana de Mena, Burgos, 1886 – Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1976) has always intrigued those of us who study the phenomonon of Spanish emigration to the US in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- centuries. What remains of the labor and lives of the tens of thousands of Spaniards, who boarded packed steamships, alongside Italians, Irish and Polish bound for the land of opportunity that the US once was? The truth is that the visible, tangible traces of those brave men and women are few and far between. In New York or in Tampa, in St. Louis or in San Francisco, only history buffs might be able to point out the few standing buildings and markers of the once vibrant Spanish colonies in those cities.

These days, when the statues of Christopher Columbus, Juan de Oñate and Junípero Serra are all over the headlines, for most Americans –and for most Spaniards as well—this more recent chapter of our shared history remains invisible.

And yet, in hundreds of thousands of American homes we can find concrete evidence of the Spanish diaspora to the US of just about a century ago. Although the average citizen may not be aware of this, anyone who has in her pantry or fridge products of the Goya brand, or of the brand founded by Unanue’s compatriot and contemporary, Gregorio Bustelo, what she has, in the sanctum santorum of her home, is the most visible and reliable evidence of the story of Spain’s invisible immigrants. The traces of the phenomenon that allowed figures like Unanue and Bustelo to emerge is evident not so much in the public squares or museums of the United States, but rather, in kitchens and pantries all across the country. Few bronze statues: lots of tin cans.

Both Bustelo and Unanue ended up in New York after formative experiences in the Antilles: the coffee baron in Cuba, the founder of Goya Foods, in Puerto Rico.   In the Big Apple they started up modest businesses that would end up becoming commercial empires that still exist today. But both owed their business success not only to their unquestionable and impressive intelligence, cleverness and hard work, nor to the presence of a small colony of Spanish immigrants in New York, but also, most importantly, to the arrival to the city, in the first half of the twentieth century, of hundreds of thousands of avid consumers of the tastes of home: non-Spanish hispanos –mostly, though not exclusively, from Puerto Rico. With time, the Goya and Bustelo brands would become beloved icons of the burgeoning and ever more diverse latino community throughout the US. Until now.

Robert Unanue and those who share his appreciation for President Trump –including some other prominent latinos like Ted Cruz—denounce the boycott as yet another example of cancel culture, and as an attempt to limit freedom of speech. The businessman at the White House said what he felt and thinks; he doesn’t intend to retract his comments, much less to apologize for making them. His actions seem wholly respectable to me, though it perhaps would have been better had he clarified who he had in mind when he spoke about “all of us”. Because I’m pretty sure that those who plan to boycott Goya do not consider themselves part of that supposedly blessed “us.” And in the end, that’s what this is all about; who fits in those two letters.

A brand, many times, is the only thing that distinguishes one can of garbanzos from another: the chickpeas in one tin are practically identical to those in another from a competing brand. But the label is what invites the consumer to take part in a story, to form part of community. This is something that marketing experts know perfectly well. In the case of Goya: what is that history, and which is that community evoked by the iconic blue label? As long as a brand conjures in the minds of consumers, consciously or not, their own family history, or the great history of the great community of latin immigrants in the US, past and present, that brand will likely occupy a privileged place in the kitchens of those of us who identify with that collective story. And if it doesn’t conjure up those things, it probably won’t. Perhaps, with time, other people, like the supporters of the “buycott” –who are purchasing Goya products to show their support of Unanue’s praise of Trump—will become Goya’s primary consumers; that would constitute a pretty radical re-branding of the company.

The CEO of a company has complete liberty to say whatever she or he desires. Asking her or him for an apology over sincere words seems pointless, or even worse, an invitation to duplicity, dishonesty. But consumers will decide, also with complete liberty, what values and stories they choose to celebrate and commemorate when they go to the supermarket or bodega, and whenever they sit down, in the intimacy of their own homes, to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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James D. Fernández is Collegiate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, and the Director of NYU Madrid. He is the co-curator, with the Spanish journalist and filmmaker, Luis Argeo, of the exhibition “Invisible Emigrants: Spaniards in the US, 1868-1945” currently on view in Madrid’s Centro Cultural Conde Duque.

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