“Goya was one of the first words I learned. It’s so much a part of our childhood, and our story as immigrants, that someday we [hoped] we could achieve what they did here in America,” says chef Omayra Dakis of the Triple Threat Truck, owner of one of LA’s relatively small number of Puerto Rican restaurants. The Triple Threat Truck serves mofongo and loaded tostones (a nachos-inspired dish), but it’s perhaps best known for its monstrous tripleta sandwich, served on a sweet pan sobao (kneaded bread) then stuffed with three grilled meats, potato sticks, veggies, and mayo-ketchup. Dakis even serves a mofongleta, a tripleta wrapped in mofongo and molded like a burrito.
Before the infamous Rose Garden speech on July 9, when Goya CEO Bob Unanue praised President Donald Trump, Dakis estimated that she was spending about $ 15,000 to $ 20,000 a year on Goya Adobo, an all-purpose seasoning used by Puerto Ricans, and other products from their line. “We had taken a day trip to Big Sur,” she says, “and on the way back, a friend had sent me the link to the video, and I thought, oh my god!” Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans have traditionally been the most avid consumers of Goya products. But for Dakis, the call for a boycott wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction; it came out of years of offenses and of Goya forgetting the people who made it successful.
The betrayal by Goya’s CEO was personal to Dakis and her daughter, Maria Dakis, who has been a contestant on MasterChef Junior. “My daughter has just completed filming a series of Goya-sponsored videos with [media] partner LA Taco, and 1,000 percent I was in tears of joy while we were filming,” says Dakis, who was initially excited that her daughter could be a spokesperson for Goya. The brand has long been a part of Puerto Rican heritage, right alongside Roberto Clemente, reggaeton, and the longest navidad (Christmas) in the world. But the day after Unanue praised Trump, LA Taco announced it was ending its relationship with Goya Foods Inc.
Dakis has been cooking Puerto Rican food since she was 4 years old, helping her older sister make carne guisada (beef stew), arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas, usually with pork), and escabeche de guineo (pickled green bananas) for their working-class parents. “We would take turns cooking after school, because our parents came home late,” says Dakis. Her mother passed away when the daughters were young, so Dakis continued to cook for her father during her studies at Miami Dade College — and it was always Goya that came through. Goya’s rice, tomato sauce, gandules, and capers were the basis for arroz con gandules. Goya’s habichuelas and tomato sauce for habichuelas guisadas.
Later, Maria Dakis would use Goya’s tembleque mix as a benchmark to learn and master Puerto Rico’s prized coconut pudding. Like a can of El Pato “Mexican Hot Style” tomato sauce on fideos or Chung-jung-won Sun-chang gochujang in bibimbap sauce, the flavors of these provincial corporate brands connect immigrants to their home country.
Yet in the late ’90s, her father noticed that he felt bloated after eating Goya seasonings. “The packaging had changed, and when my dad took a look at the ingredients he saw MSG, and a bunch of other things he couldn’t even pronounce,” says Dakis. For his health, the daughters switched to salt and pepper until Goya came out with a no-MSG adobo. Still, Goya was growing as a company, and so were the number of additives and preservatives in its foods like soy-based fluffers, tartrazine, and sodium nitrate.
Before she became a standard bearer for Puerto Rican cuisine in Los Angeles, Dakis was an event promoter in Miami, where she was born, from 2008 to 2013, putting on food truck nights, concerts, and construction tours for her employer, the Adrienne Arsht Center. Outside of Puerto Rico, New York City and Miami are the centers of America’s Puerto Rican community, where Goya has counted a huge customer base.
Goya first raised eyebrows in 2013 when the company slapped its name on a statue dedicated to Puerto Rican baseball hall of famer Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash shortly after takeoff from Carolina, Puerto Rico, on his way to deliver aid to residents of Managua after the Nicaraguan capital was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. A petition to remove the logo was circulated by Latino Rebels, which also asked for a factual error regarding the date that Clemente achieved his three thousandth hit to be fixed. Other Puerto Ricans saw the move as a tacky branding opportunity, wondering why Goya would make a public statue commemorating a community hero an advertisement. Ultimately Goya was given the benefit of the doubt by customers who had grown up with the brand.
Goya continued its march away from the Puerto Rican community in 2017, and the year was a turning point for boricuas (a name that Puerto Ricans use for themselves). In May 2017, Goya pulled out abruptly as a major sponsor of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, after a 60-year partnership, over the inclusion of the popular Puerto Rican activist Oscar Lopez Rivera. Rivera was an anti-colonial political prisoner, jailed for seditious conspiracy, whose sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama the same year Goya exited the parade.
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, leading to 3,000 deaths in its aftermath due to a universally criticized response by the Trump administration, which included a humiliating scene where the president threw rolls of paper towels to desperate Puerto Ricans. “It’s horrible: Puerto Rico has been destroyed, many of the restaurants are gone; it’s so sad to see what has happened to my island since Maria,” says Dakis, who visited her family’s hometown of Trujillo Alto shortly before the pandemic. Once Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Goya’s departure from the parade was no longer a primary concern. “Of course, we are still upset with Trump and the government over their response to Maria,” says Dakis. “People don’t know what it’s like to be part of a commonwealth, to not have been able to fly your own flag [the Puerto Rican flag was banned from 1948 to 1957], and then this happens.”
When Goya CEO Bob Unanue doubled down on his praise for Trump on Fox News, he showed a side of Goya some of its most loyal supporters, like Dakis and other Puerto Ricans, have suspected for a long time. And while Mexican Americans, Latinx people, and other Latino groups were swift to join the #goyaway and #BoycottGoya hashtags on social media, Dakis says Puerto Ricans were the ones who “made Goya rich enough to share the stage with U.S. presidents.” Trump is already unpopular with Latino groups for promoting anti-immigrant policies, putting children in cages, and demonizing Mexicans and Central Americans. Yet for Dakis, the betrayal by Goya is personal, because the wounds of Hurricane Maria remain untreated. “When I realized how much money I was spending on Goya, we began to use our days off to find substitutes, but everyone in my community was right there, sharing recipes and links on Twitter for Goya replacements,” says Dakis.
Goya’s adobo was a major convenience, all nostalgia aside, for the Triple Threat Truck, named in honor of the tripleta sandwich. Now, Dakis makes her own adobo, which requires a full day of prep. Many other Puerto Ricans are sharing recipes for Goya products, like mojos (marinades), sazon (seasoning), and adobos (spice blends), on social media; recommending competing brands like Badia; and flocking to BrandsofPuertoRico.com. “A lot of us have been sharing [BrandsofPuertoRico.com] back and forth, and they’re so busy now the site is sometimes running out of products,” says Dakis.
Despite the cries to boycott Goya, not all of its longtime customers are willing to go that far. At Catalina’s Market in Hollywood, which serves a diverse but older Latino crowd, the demand for Goya, and the labels it distributes, like El Jibarito and Pan, have not wavered.
“Oh, you mean because the owner was kissing up to Trump? No, they’re buying the same [amount],” said a Catalina’s Market clerk who wished to remain anonymous. The timing of Unanue’s Rose Garden speech may reflect an attempt to quash a deal to sell part of the company that would have required Unanue having to step down as CEO. It’s also a sign that Goya leadership wants to distance the brand from its traditional customer base and instead position itself to a larger crossover market, much in the way that Mexico’s Topo Chico mineral water is now more likely to be on the shelf of a Gelson’s than a tiendita (Mexican market).
Older Goya customers are less likely to be swayed by politics, and Trump has strong support among some Cubans and Venezuelans who identify as anti-Communists and Republicans, but the Goya boycott includes a broad swath of Latino people. “Many Latinx, Gen Xers like myself, millennials, and others have had enough of corporations using us for our buying power,” says Dakis, “and I asked workers at El Mambi Mercado in Glendale, and they said that not many people are buying Goya since the boycott.”
Dakis shops at El Mambi and other Latino markets, like El Camaguey in Palms, to find alternatives for gandules (pigeon peas) and habichuelas (cranberry beans) from competing brands such as Iberia and Faraon Foods. She’s also supporting mom-and-pop businesses on the Brands of Puerto Rico website, as well as importing her own ingredients. As much as Dakis and her daughter were disappointed about losing the opportunity to promote their culture in the LA Taco video series, they agree with ending the partnership. “We don’t have to buy Goya if we don’t want to, and now we can make our food sin-racismo [without racism],” she says.
The Triple Threat Truck is LA’s only Puerto Rican food truck and stops in places like Highland Park, North Hollywood, and Culver City.