On Goya Foods and Hispanic Food Marketing

The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people. -Cesar Chavez

As someone of Spanish descent and from a white, Mexican-born family, I feel I am uniquely qualified to state this controversial fact: Hailing from Spain is just not the same as being born in Mexico. Or El Salvador. Or Guatemala, or any of the other Western Hemisphere Latin countries.

Speaking Spanish may unite Spain with Central and South America, but being white and a Spanish speaker in the ever-racist United States is worlds different than being brown and speaking Spanish in the U.S. You might as well be Irish.

Simply put, it’s the difference between being descended from the colonizers versus being descended from the colonized.

So it was with great interest that I learned that Goya Foods, a company that markets itself as a “for-us-by-us” Hispanic operation, was founded by Spanish (as in the Iberian peninsula) immigrants who made a pit stop in Puerto Rico before settling in New York City. Its founders’ children still run the company to this day. 

The company got into hot water last week when CEO Robert Unanue went to the White House for an initiative on Hispanic job creation and praised Donald Trump as a great leader. 

His words ran counter to the very explicit position Trump has taken against Mexican and Central American migrants, both those currently in the U.S. and those coming to the U.S. to seek asylum. 

The history of Spain’s colonialism, and the conflation of being Spanish with being Latinx, makes the Goya origin story - and how the company showed up at the White House - feel awfully different. And, this conflation of being Spanish with being Latinx, provides the foundation for Goya Foods’ problematic positioning today. 

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I want to talk about being Hispanic in America and how it differs to be a white Hispanic person versus a brown Hispanic person.

In Los Angeles, at the time when my paternal grandparents moved here from Spain and Mexico, respectively, Mexican restaurants actively marketed themselves as Spanish restaurants, solely to avoid discrimination. 

Colorism runs rampant in the Hispanic world, and even in my own family.

My great-grandmother is quoted as saying - as a point of pride, no less - “no tenemos Indio en nuestra sangre.” We don’t have Indian in our blood. 23andme says otherwise, but that has no bearing on my lived experience.

Oftentimes in Spanish-speaking countries, light-skinned people are the landowners, not the help. On Spanish-language television here in the United States, newscasters are nearly all light-skinned Latinxs. 

At first blush, it was weird to me that Spaniards would shirk that pale-skinned privilege. 

Why would a Spanish-founded company market themselves as Latinx, I wondered.

Money. 

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Goya Foods started out their operation on New York’s Lower East Side by selling classically Spanish ingredients such as olive oil, anchovies and cured meats, the company evolved as waves of migration from Central and South America increased and migration from Spain and Portugal slowed. 

Demand for more typically Central and South American ingredients from these immigrant communities increased; spice mixes such as adobo, marinades with a culantro base, dried beans and rice, plantains and Sazon. The leadership team at Goya saw demand for foods not from Spain as a natural link to their then-current offerings, and with a colonial link between Spain and Latin America already in existence since 1492, fair game to expand into. 

With a huge customer base of Latinx people in the U.S. and little understanding by the broad American public that Spanish food is in fact quite different from Mexican or Puerto Rican food, it was easy enough - and simply better business - to merge these cuisines together into a pan-Hispanic offering. 

But don’t be fooled. The company is still run by white people. 

Goya Foods put on brownface to win the trust of Latinx supermarket shoppers, and they took off the brownface when they got invited to the White House. 

They wear a nice-fitting suit, prepare remarks, and lean into decorum. They talk of their Hispanic heritage and their job creation, as opposed to those other Latinos, taking Americans’ jobs. They speak English with a flat American accent. They assimilate. They are a model minority. 

Of course, a company that would expand into selling foods, not of their own culture, exploit the trust of Latinx home cooks, and exaggerate their Latinx origin story would throw their customers under the bus when offered an opportunity by Trump to get visibility. They were never Latinx to begin with; always white, always colonizers, always willing to climb the ladder then take that ladder with them. 

Boycotting a company that aligns itself with an anti-Latinx, anti-immigration, anti-diversity figure is just fine. This is not cancel culture, it’s accountability.

Goya Foods can’t donate to charity their way out of this. They need to take real accountability for how their business strategy has taken advantage of traditional ingredients not from their own culture for too long. They must understand that they can’t have it both ways - they can’t segment US Latinxs as their core market and then support politicians who would rather this audience didn’t exist. 

I’d love to see the company make peace with their history -- own it, and make a plan for better representing their customer base with their positioning. 

Until then, I’ll be making my own Sazon.