The story has remained alive, and on Tuesday, first daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted a picture of herself holding a can of black beans with the caption, “If it’s Goya, it has to be good,” in both English and Spanish. The President, too, continued to defend Unanue's company, deeming the boycott the work of a “Radical Left smear machine,” and posing in the Oval Office on Wednesday in his own staged photo with Goya products.
We've been here before, especially in the Trump era. When corporate executives or companies take controversial political or cultural stances, activists across the political spectrum often respond by calling for a boycott. (Think of last August's boycott of Equinox and SoulCycle after news broke that investor Stephen Ross was hosting a fundraiser for Trump's reelection campaign or the right’s outrage at Nike over its support of Colin Kaepernick).
But the history of corporate boycotts run far deeper. It would be a mistake to sweep them aside as mere Twitter-fueled, partisan conflict or examples of “cancel culture,” as Sen. Ted Cruz has suggested of the anti-Goya effort. Instead, the Goya boycotters stand to join a rich tradition of American consumer activism. This is a tradition in which Mexican Americans and other Latinos have played crucial roles, demonstrating boycotts’ ability to change the lives of American workers, build solidarity and challenge big corporations.
Since the late 19th century, when the term “boycott” first made its way to American shores via Ireland, unionized and non-unionized workers have used the tactic as a companion to strikes. The boycott was an accessible, easy way of hitting employers in the “pocket nerve,” as 19th century consumer activists often called it.
It became so popular in the early-to-mid 20th century that unions published lengthy “Don’t Buy” lists of targeted employers. Civil Rights activists also used the boycott to combat Jim Crow segregation, through “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns in the 1930s and transit boycotts, as in Montgomery, Ala., from 1955 to 1956.
Yet boycotters also faced significant challenges, as business leaders secured injunctions and other restrictions on boycott activities. Most notably, the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act banned unions' use of the secondary boycott tactic (in which activists would target a business that engaged with a boycotted employer, such as a grocery store that carried a boycotted item).
In the 1960s, Latino workers and organizers — building on these legacies and skirting legal restrictions — helped to revive and reimagine the boycott. In the winter of 1965-1966, in California's Central Valley, the union that would become the United Farm Workers (UFW) added a boycott to its strike against local grape growers. They did so to intensify pressure on unyielding growers and keep organizers and strikers busy in the off season.
For half a decade, striking Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers, their family members and volunteers, many of whom were white college students, followed grape shipments as they headed to supermarkets and community meetings in over 30 major cities across North America. (Because of agricultural exemptions in labor law, the UFW was able to run effective secondary boycott campaigns, to growers' dismay.)
Their efforts reintroduced many American consumers to the boycott and shed light on the plight of those who labored to bring produce to the nation’s supermarkets and kitchen tables. The boycott of grapes became a national cause, drawing support from prominent labor leaders and politicians, such as Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. This pressure ultimately forced grape growers to sign union contracts in 1970. The UFW has continued to use the tool since then, launching boycotts on lettuce, melons, citrus and wine.
The success of the UFW's boycotts inspired other Latino labor and consumer activists. In the early 1970s, for example, Mexican American civil rights organizations, like the veteran-serving American GI Forum, combined public pressure and a boycott to get the Frito-Lay company to retire a racist “Frito Bandito” marketing campaign. The Bandito, who sported a large sombrero, buckteeth and a pair of gold revolvers, was often plastered on mock “wanted” ads for the crime of stealing corn chips, thus reducing Mexicans and Mexican Americans to a crude stereotype of a criminal.
Another promising — and largely successful — campaign flourished for decades because of the leadership, creativity and energy of radical Mexican American and Latino activists: a boycott on Coors beer. Between the late 1960s and late 1980s, these activists joined gay and lesbian, labor, black and feminist activists in a multiracial — and as Time remarked, “incongruous” — coalition. This coalition boycotted Coors beer to oppose the company’s alleged discriminatory hiring practices and anti-unionism, as well as the Coors family’s very public conservatism.
The Coors’s political leanings were well known: The youngest, Joseph (Joe), for example, gave $250,000 to help found the Heritage Foundation in 1973. He was also a prominent backer and close confidante of Ronald Reagan and an enthusiastic and deep-pocketed supporter of anti-communist (or Contra) forces in Nicaragua. After 1993, the family also funded the Castle Rock Foundation, a philanthropic organization committed to promoting free enterprise, “a limited role for government,” “personal responsibility” and “traditional Judeo-Christian values."
By rejecting Coors beer, boycotters signaled their opposition to what they called the company’s “racist, sexist, anti-gay” policies and the politics of its owners — and conservatives like them. This confrontational act of solidarity took on political meaning, in which “bashing Coors became a way of slugging the president.”
What William (Bill) Coors complained was “political persecution” was, for boycotters, a tool of political expression — of refusing to financially support policies that maligned and marginalized their communities and those of their allies. The Coors boycott was also an important means of coalition-building. Connections forged among labor, Latino and gay and lesbian activist organizations, for example, extended into other movements, such as the fights against U.S. involvement in Central America in the 1980s and anti-gay legislation in the 1990s.
The persistent boycott also paid off, changing the Coors Brewing Company. Under pressure from boycotters for decades, the company invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the black, Latino and LGBT communities and overhauled its hiring practices. (Though as many boycotters have pointed out, the family’s politics have remained largely unchanged.)
To be sure, not all boycotts deliver union contracts, pull corporate policies in the direction that activists desire or draw national attention. But as boycotters from these and many other boycott campaigns can attest, these actions are empowering and powerful. To picket a grocery store, theatrically dump out cans of beer or learn to make your own Adobo is to join a community of like-minded consumers and signal your own politics and beliefs. Alongside direct action in the streets and electoral politics, Latino consumer activism has an important and time-honored place in the American story.
Goya boycotters are thus poised to add to the history of a significant tool of protest — one that runs deeper than the simple rejection of beer, chips or beans and spices. As the late poet Abelardo Delgado wrote in the 1970s in the pages of El Zapatista, a Chicano journal in southern Colorado: “it is not really lettuce and onions/ and grapes and coors beer/ that Chicanos are boycotting/ but the racist attitudes/ and the oppression of the people.”