Oh Boya: If it’s Goya, it has to be no good

5 mins read

In the news for its CEO’s excessive groveling, Goya Foods finds itself in a pickle. 

At a net worth of over one-billion dollars, the Unanue clan is one of the richest Spanish-speaking families in the US.  They made most of their money selling Caribbean foods and spices to the world—an example of white Latinx profiting off the backs of Blacks.

In the so-called New World, the last countries to abolish the institution of slavery were Puerto Rico (1873), Cuba (1886), and Brasil (1888).  Many of the Goya products originated from the creativity of enslaved Blacks in the region.  Born out of necessity, these African descendants took the influences of Indigenous, European, and West African staples such as adobo, alcapurrias, arroz con gandules, black beans, bacalaítos, congrí, pasteles, pastelillos, papas rellenas, sazón/sofrito, and mofongo that ultimately propped-up a Goya empire.  Today, Black and Brown consumers are looking for new ways to avoid this popular brand and its cultural commodification.


Top photo is of pasteles. Bottom collage shows how Goya has a history of using images of Black celebrities to market its brand.

Along with the accumulated Unanue large$$e, the privately-held company has also benefitted from US government subsidies, tax-breaks, and abatements over the years. This includes $80-million in tax credits from the state of New Jersey to move its Secaucus headquarters one-mile in 2011.  Goya is an example of how corporations siphon away much-needed government dollars that could fund social and racial justice programs in Black communities from Santurce and Canóvanas, Puerto Rico to Ward F and Greenville in Jersey City.

At the White House, Robert Unanue was quick to invoke his Spanish lineage, and thus his whiteness.  This is a nod-and-wink to white supremacists in the US and those in Latin American countries where Goya products are sold.  There are many white Latinx who aspire to US-style whiteness.  For Black Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans, this is insulting.  The Spaniards were conquistadors, church officials, and elites who exploited and enslaved the Asante, Bantu, Dahomean, Fanti, Kongolese, and Yorùbá; and nearly exterminated the Arawak, Carib, and Taíno peoples.

Post-emancipation white supremacist societies continued to ravage Black communities as seen with the 1912 massacre of Afro-Cubans in Oriente; the 1937 Parsley Massacre in Ayiti and the Dominican Republic; the 1989 El Chorrillo, Panama invasion; 1994 Zapatistas revolt in Chiapas, México; the indiscriminate killings of Indigenous and Afro-descendants in Nicaragua; and the Genocide of Afro-Brazilians just to name a few.

Driven by racism, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, formally colonized countries in the western hemisphere encouraged European migration in a desperate attempt to whiten their nations.  Goya founder, Prudencio Unanue y Ortiz, benefited from these attitudes.

Unanue y Ortiz  arrived into San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico in 1904 from the Basque region of northern Spain.  In 1916, he moved to New York City, living at 2 E. 10th Street in the Prospect Park South section of Brooklyn.  Unanue y Ortiz became a Manhattan grocer who catered to the marketcitas and bodegas that were popular among Caribbean migrants.  He frequently returns to Puerto Rico, having his son Ulpiano born on the island in 1922. Ultimately, Unanue y Ortiz dies in his Río Piedras home in 1976, and buried in Bayamón.

European immigrants getting processed at Ellis Island.

These Puerto Rican ties did not prevent Robert Unanue’s embrace of Trump.  It is doubtful Unanue forgot that in 1989 Trump called for the death of Puerto Rican teen Raymond Santana and the other Exonerated Five: Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson.  Unanue overlooked that Trump called white supremacists “very fine people” in August 2017 and the following month claimed Puerto Ricans were lazy “ingrates.”  Also, federal assistance was slow or denied after devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters in which nearly 5,000 Boricuas died.

Additionally, Trump caged children at the southern border, unleashed ICE to purge immigrants, is determined to expel DACA recipients, called Mexicans rapist, ended TPS for holders from Haiti, Nicaragua, and El Salvador; instituted a travel ban on multiple countries including Nigeria, Venezuela, and Nicaragua; and referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations as “shithole countries.”  Ironically, Goya’s expanded market-share is due mostly to the increase in US immigration and natural growth of the Latinx community.  So one would think that Unanue would be a champion of immigrant rights and not coddle to the likes of Trump.


First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a Let’s Move! Initiative event with Aimee Busquet and Bob Unanue, CEO of Goya Foods at National Supermarket in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Besides the above history (and Goya’s tacit approval through its silence), there were other hints to Unanue’s political worldview. First, the Unanue family’s Catholic, conservative, and Republican ties and donations go back at least two decades; particularly in New Jersey where Andy Unanue briefly attempted a Senate run.

Second, despite earning the Bronze Star while in Vietnam (unlike Trump’s dodge), Puerto Rican Oscar López Rivera received the ire of Goya Foods since he was an unapologetic political nationalist, independentista, member of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, and a 36-year political prisoner.  In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, López Rivera received a commutation on his 70-year sentence and released in May 2017.

Immediately,  López Rivera was honored as the first-ever (and only) Puerto Rican Day Parade “National Freedom Hero.” In response, corporate sponsors such as the New York Yankees, AT&T, Coca-Cola, JetBlue, and Goya balked then withdrew their support of the annual celebration.

Lastly, Goya’s philanthropy is commendable, but not impressive considering the size of their tax cuts, wealth, and sales. We need action, not charity; justice, not alms.

We must all ask the tough questions of Goya and other large multi-national corporations:

  • Does Goya Foods endorse the Black Lives Matter movement?
  • How many African American and Afro-Latinx executives are employed within the company’s corporate suite?
  • In a workforce of over 4,000, how many are African American and Afro-Latinx?
  • How many Blacks are currently on the company’s board of directors?
  • What is Goya’s position on Affirmative Action?
  • Is Goya Foods prepared to convert itself to an employee-stock owned company?
  • Does Goya have a strong labor union and a living wage in all of its domestic and international facilities?
  • Does Goya Foods have formal paid internship agreements and endowed chairs of Black Studies at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Prairie View A&M and Florida A&M Universities?
  • Did Goya Foods take advantage of the one-time “repatriation holiday” that allowed companies to bring back to the US earnings previously hoarded overseas (Anguilla, Andorra, Bermuda, Dominica, or Panama)? If so, how much?
  • What other corporate welfare, subsidies, and tax evasions is GOYA engaged in?
  • What are Goya lobbyists advocating for?
  • Is Goya Foods good stewards of the environment?

In an act of white solidarity, Unanue and the Trumps further deepened their ties with the right-wing.  Unfortunately, many whites, Republicans, and conservatives are racist and anti-Black.  For global white supremacy to be dismantled, particularly here in the US and in Latin America, whites will need to engage in economic and political power-sharing with Blacks.  Are whites willing to relinquish their wealth? Doubtful.  Sadly, history says they have not, cannot, and will not.

Will Guzmán is a professor of history at Prairie View A&M University.

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