Dolla Store Platanos

Lulu Matute Dollla Store Platanos

I was standing in the checkout line at the 99 Cents Store in Berkeley cradling an arm full of platanos from Guatemala. 2/$1 no way I was passing them up. I had two thoughts at the same time; “I'm having comfort food - platano frito - every morning for the rest of the week” and “how the hell did these platanos end up in this dollar store?" Reading Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World only added another layer of conflict to my love/hate relationship with the dollar store platanos.

Before the proliferation of bananas/platanos in US stores and United Fruit Company's presence throughout Latinoamerica, bananas were exoticized commodities of wealth that gained popularity in World Fairs (Chapman, 45). They signaled wealth because access to them was limited since the technology, infrastructure and political contracts necessary for their abundance had yet to materialize. When all these pieces did materialize, they worked in congruence to reassert a sociopolitical structure rooted in colonialism. Instead of a Spanish king, the throne belonged to a US corporation and like the Spanish crown, it - and all its investors - benefited from the extractive economies of the isthmus. And like life under the Spanish crown, Indigenous and Black people were absorbed and trapped as plantation laborers. There was a two-part strategy to the corporate coop of the post-independent isthmus, 1. The Monroe Doctrine and 2. the land grabs in exchange for infrastructural development.

The former, as Chapman put it, set a "boundary rope around the Americas." It was more of a noose and it strategically positioned the U.S. as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. With the US as the power player in a hemisphere of economically exhausted nation-states, corporate investors were able to lure newly independent nations into neo-colonial dynamics. For example,  Costa Rica gave into foreign investors taking land in exchange for the building of railways (44), the same is true for the so-called banana republics of the northern triangle. Foreign investors were/are strategic in developing only what was/is needed for their industries to flourish long-term and not necessarily for the development of the people or the countries, they operate in, as autonomous nations. Chapman says that the banana commerce was perceived to be a profound triumph over nature (51). This is the relationship with nature that the colonial imaginary holds, the need to tame the natural and to extract wealth from it.

United Fruit Company is a representation of US "exceptionalism" and capital dominance in the Western Hemisphere. With self-aggrandizing game rules like the Monroe Doctrine as well as insidious and extractive investments focused solely on industry efficiency and profit, the company was able to gain a stronghold in the isthmus. United Fruit commodified and made the "exotic" bananas/platanos readily accessible for white American consumption. The proliferation of the company in Latinoamerica and thus of bananas/platanos in the U.S., reduced the once exotic symbol of wealth into just another ordinary fruit. As ordinary as 2/$1 at the 99 Cent Store in Berkeley, California.

Lulu Matute