The War on Rice

I work a day job at a major nationwide grocery chain. On a daily basis, I witness hundreds, if not thousands, of shoppers fill their carts with assorted varieties of boxed rice and canned beans, both items whose sales have sky-rocketed since the start of New York’s stay-at-home order four months ago. Until last week, I never once thought that something mundane as buying rice and beans could be considered even remotely political. As a political person but also a dedicated foodie, I strongly adhere to the belief that one’s right to enjoy good food should not be restricted by their politics. After all, relishing in a scrumptious meal is something that unites Democrats, Republicans, independents – well all of humanity together. However, this is not possible in the new 2020 reality in which we live – everything, like it or not, is either already politicized or inevitably will be.

Last Thursday, July 9, 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on the “White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative,” as part of a last ditch attempt to court Hispanic voters who are by and large strongly (and rightly) opposed to his presidency, particularly his divisive and inhumane immigration policy. Present at the event was Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods, Inc. who gave a speech praising Trump, stating that the country is “truly blessed…to have a leader like [him], who is a builder.” Not even a day after Unanue outed himself as a “Trump-supporter,” several prominent members of the Democratic Party, including Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and former Obama-era HUD Secretary Julián Castro, called for a boycott of his company’s products. Castro, who was also briefly a candidate for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination and the only Latino among the serious candidates, defended the boycott saying that the public must “think twice” before giving money to a company whose CEO spoke positively of a “president who villainizes and maliciously attacks Latinos for political gain.” A significant number of celebrities also joined the crusade to ditch the dry food giant, including supermodel Chrissy Teigen, who in a tweet to her thirteen million followers wrote, “don’t care how good the beans taste though. Bye bye.” Teigen continued to suggest that by her actions, she was somehow supporting Goya’s workers, a curious conclusion given that a nationwide boycott of a company causes it to lose millions in profit, thus inhibiting it from paying the well-earned salaries of its employees.

Goya is by no means small potatoes (no pun intended), but a leading distributor of Latin American-inspired products including rice, beans and seasoning mixes which maintain a ubiquitous presence in my store’s international food aisle. Prior to last week, Goya was seen as a pantry staple among Hispanic and Latino Americans, if not a part of their cultural identity. Therefore, this “star-studded” mass boycott was intended to send shockwaves throughout the nation – but it may have unleashed more chaos than anyone had expected.

Now, I am by no means a supporter of President Trump. In fact, I have been a staunch critic of the man ever since he infamously announced his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015. That day was in fact where he first publicly alleged that the nation of Mexico was “sending” criminals and “rapists” across the border. I did not vote for Trump in the following year’s presidential election (in case you were wondering, I proudly voted for Governor Gary Johnson) and I will certainly not vote for him in November. As a dedicated Catholic who keeps a consistent life ethic, I vehemently oppose the Trump administration’s draconian practice of separating families at the border. In my previous posts, I have also ripped the president for his horrendous and tone-deaf responses to America’s two ongoing pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. With all this out of the way though, I firmly believe that while well-intentioned, the left’s boycott of Goya ridiculous, completely unnecessary and serves only to further divide our already fractured nation. Progressives like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Secretary Castro or Ms. Teigen are using the exact same playbook they denounce Trump from using – and proving that at heart, they are no better than him.

The Goya boycott plays into the popular phenomenon dubbed “cancel culture.” This term is defined by McMillan publishers as “the practice of no longer supporting people, especially celebrities, or products that are regarded as unacceptable or problematic.” On the surface level, this to me does not seem like much of a bad thing. Of course, some people’s actions are so reprehensible that they might warrant being cancelled by the public en masse. For example, it was absolutely right for the once-beloved Bill Cosby to be denounced by pretty much the entire world’s population when it surfaced that he was a serial sex offender. People were correct to boycott Mel Gibson’s movies in the wake of the director’s horrific drunken anti-Semitic tirade fourteen years ago. Furthermore, it was justified for millions of consumers to boycott the restaurant chain Subway in 2015, after it came out that their spokesperson Jared Fogle was a vicious pedophile.

However, like any good thing, “cancelling” must be done in moderation – it should be reserved for the utter worst of the worst. What we’re seeing now is people, specifically young people like myself, feeling to need to “cancel” any person or company who has the audacity to disagree with them. Although opposition to so-called “cancel culture” has been framed as a “conservative” position, the right is not alone in this belief. Last week, just days before Unanue’s comments, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter aptly entitled “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which was signed by over 150 distinguished writers, journalists and academic who all undisputedly oppose Trump, and predominantly lean to the hard left. Among the letter’s signatories were Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie Malcolm Gladwell and J.K. Rowling. The letter rejected what it rightfully recognized as “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” It went on to confirm the signatories’ denouncement of Trump, while stating that they must reinforcement their “resistance” by refusing to use Trump’s divisive “brand of dogma [and] coercion – which right wing demagogues are already exploiting.”

The Goya boycott literally came to pass because their CEO simply accepted Trump’s invitation to speak at the White House and said a few positive things about him – it is not like he said anything blatantly racist, bigoted or offensive targeted toward any person or group of people. Also, did this really surprise anyone? Last time I checked, most wealthy businesspeople (a community of which Mr. Unanue is certainly a member) vote Republican – the party to which Trump belongs – and even if Unanue is a Republican, he is not unwilling to work with Democrats, as evidenced by his support for then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign in 2011. Also, let’s not forget all the good things Goya has done under Unanue’s leadership, including giving substantial aid to victims of the Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

Goya, being nearly unanimously “cancelled” by progressives has sparked a ripple effect in which conservatives and Trump supporters, many of whom who never used Goya products before, are buying the iconic flavored rice and beans in record numbers. Yesterday, Trump’s own daughter Ivanka tweeted a photo of her holding up a can of Goya black beans with the caption, “If it’s Goya it has to be good.” In less than twenty-four hours, the tweet amassed 135 thousand likes and 65 thousand retweets. Ms. Trump did not send that tweet to innocently cover for Unanue and defend her father – she sent it to spark a rallying cry among the right to raid supermarket shelves for Goya products to counteract the left’s sweeping boycott. The great physicist Sir Isaac Newton once said that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In layman’s terms, we have entered a literal political food fight.

The polarization of the United States is everywhere. It is in our neighborhoods. Americans have “self-segregat[ed]” into “like-minded communities,” as many people on both the left and the right refuse to befriend or even associate with people from the other side. It is in the news media as well. Now, it is in our pantries.

I will admit that this is not the first time buying canned beans has been politicized. I remember the run-up to the 2004 Presidential Election – I was eight years old. My mother and I lived with my grandparents at the time, and my entire family were strong supporters of then-President George W. Bush in his re-election bid over John Kerry. My grandparents were of Italian, Sicilian and Albanian descent so baked beans were not really a part of their preferred cuisine. Nevertheless, they would bring home dozens of cans of Bush’s Baked Beans to show loyalty to President Bush, even though he is not related to the family which founded the canned good conglomerate. They told me that it was important to buy Bush’s beans at the time, as a few of their Kerry-supporting friends were instead buying cans of Heinz Baked Beans (Kerry’s wife Teresa was in fact previously married to an heir of the Heinz family). However, unlike the 2004 “baked bean war,” which was for the most part, all in good fun, the 2020 politicization of Goya has been fueled by intense animosity on both sides of the aisle.

By the recasting of Goya as a “Republican” or “pro-Trump” food company, the millions of progressives, Democrats and Never Trumpers, like myself, who enjoy the brand are hurt the most. We are faced with an unsavory choice: we must either denounce a food that we like for the sake of politics or continue to buy and eat Goya and be falsely called a “Trump supporter,” while in reality we detest him and his presidency. What about the millions of Latinos who rely on Goya as a pantry staple but now risk being deemed insufficiently loyal to their heritage if they continue to consume their products?

A boxed-rice boycott is the last thing we need in today’s hyper-partisan society. Instead of listening to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ivanka Trump, we should instead heed the words of journalist S.E. Cupp who tweeted Saturday, “maybe a third option is to treat @GoyaFoods as food, and not play into either side’s attempt at culture warring food.???” I wholeheartedly agree with her. Just like we have the separation of church and state, we need to have the separation of food and state. Food should be apolitical. End of story. Now I’m heading off to Taco Bell before either side tries to say anything political about it…


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