Robert Unanue
Uno de los dos Gran Mariscal de Desfile Puertorriqueno 2011, Robert Unanue -Presidente Goya Food (Primera Hora/Jesus Lopez Tejeda) (GDA via AP Images)

Goya CEO Robert Unanue pushed The Big Lie at the annual CPAC convention, calling Donald Trump, “the real, the legitimate, and still the actual president of the United States” because “the majority of the people in the United States voted for the president.” This prompted cries for a boycott of Goya products by two hosts of “The View,” Joy Behar and Sunny Hostin, as well as other social media users across the country. They weren’t alone. There have been calls to boycott the company so prominently featured in grocery stores and bodegas ever since Unanue emerged as a Trump backer.

There’s no doubt that the coordinated denial of the election results by Trump’s loyalists is deeply corrosive to  democracy and was at the heart of the 1/6 insurrection.  Should that compel us to boycott Goya?

My general attitude about boycotts was articulated by the fictional renegade demon Michael in NBC’s “The Good Place.” As Michael, played by an immaculately dressed Ted Danson, explained to The Judge about the systemic failure of the afterlife’s rigid point system, “Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.” Sure, I can boycott a company when I learn about a bad thing said by an executive, but are the alternative companies any better? Am I hurting the company’s executives with my boycott, or am I hurting the company’s workers?

These may be good questions for a professional philosopher or ethicist to contemplate, but like most people, I can’t expend the energy on these questions for every dollar I spend. And even if I could, I’m not convinced I will find clear answers.

Sometimes a targeted boycott holds out hope for a change in policy. One need only think of the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott where a 27-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. capitalized on the arrest of Rosa Parks and brought the Alabama city’s transit system to a halt. The “Boycott Grapes” effort of the 1960s helped Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers won the grape growers their first union contract. Boycotts, backed up by significant grassroots organizing, can work

Calls to boycott Goya do not seek a change in policy, but punishment for contemptible rhetoric. In theory, if Goya’s bottom line was damaged because the CEO pushed The Big Lie, that’s a warning to any other Trumpist business leaders of the danger in following suit. But then you have to worry about creating a martyr whom Trump and his propagandists can use to further their ends. Speech—even horrible speech, especially horrible speech—is never easily contained. It might encourage a #MAGA CEO to just find a less public form of support through campaign contributions or bundling.

The recent history of boycotting Goya reveals an additional political risk: exposing a cultural divide that weakens your position.

Last week’s comments were not the first time Unanue attracted criticism for boosting Trump. Last July he stood with Trump in the Rose Garden and said “We’re all truly blessed … to have a leader like President Trump.” The Washington Post headlined that, in response, “Latinos are now boycotting” Goya. The paper citied statements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, former presidential candidate Julián Castro and the Democratic PAC Latino Victory, along with boycott calls from non-Latino progressive activists and celebrities. As Goya bills itself as the biggest Hispanic-owned food company in the U.S., and has a huge Latino customer base, a boycott seemed an existential threat to the company, and, at the very least, damaging to Trump.

And yet, four months later in the presidential election, Trump increased his support among Latino voters. Politico reported, “[Sen. Marco] Rubio noted that progressives like Ocasio-Cortez even tried to persuade people to boycott Goya Foods—an iconic brand in almost every Latino household everywhere … The boycott failed as conservatives rallied to the company, including Trump and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who posted widely mocked photos of themselves plugging Goya’s products. Trump’s campaign also issued a string of social media posts and a Spanish-language TV ad attacking the boycott.”

The boycott exposed a gaping divide between how politicians and activists think and how most normal people live. The average family isn’t going to automatically give up a product it relies upon to make a political point, and may well resent anyone who insists it should.

The example of Chick-fil-A offers a mixed picture. Ever since its CEO Dan Cathy spoke against same-sex marriage in 2012, the fast food chain has been a target of progressive protest. In 2019, after Chick-fil-A faced increased resistance to the opening of new locations the restaurant’s philanthropic arm said it would no longer give money to organizations with anti-LGBT views. Cathy remains as CEO, after acknowledging in 2014 his comments were damaging to the brand (but he did not apologize or retract). The only reason why the pressure tactics worked at all was because they hurt the company’s expansion plans, particularly in bluer parts of the country. The attempted Goya boycott last year appears to have fell far short of hurting the company’s bottom line, and so, Unanue is undeterred.

Despite my own boycott hesitancies, sometimes I am compelled to steer my money away from certain businesses. I was once determined to boycott a local pet food store chain because not only did its owner testify on Capitol Hill in 2007 against raising the minimum wage, he portrayed himself as a humble small business owner in his argument. As I knew he had the market concerned in my city, I was offended at his styling himself a mom-and-pop store owner, and, even, more galling, using that phony image to suppress the wages of workers nationwide. After that I did not care to give him my money (though as the store was the closest place for me to get cat food, I can’t say to you my boycott was air-tight.)

And frankly, the spread of The Big Lie is so offensive to me that I probably won’t be buying Goya products so long as Unanue is still in charge. But as I haven’t been brand loyal when it comes to Spanish foods, such a personal boycott isn’t a big stretch for me. And as someone who would like to see Democrats reverse those Republican gains in the Latino community, I won’t be hectoring others to join me.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.