Matt Garcia is a professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies and history at Dartmouth College. Originally from California, he previously taught at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Oregon, Brown University, and Arizona State University. He is the author of A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (2001), which won the Oral History Association's best book award, and, most recently, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (2012), which won the Philip Taft Award for the best book in labor history. He is a coeditor, with E. Melanie DuPuis and Don Mitchell, of Food Across Borders: Production, Consumption, and Boundary Crossing in North America (2017). Garcia was also the outreach director and coprimary investigator for the Bracero Archive Project , which received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant as well as a Best Public History Award from the National Council for Public History.
In 2014 journalists identified deported gang members from Los Angeles as the culprits of violence and the forced migration of youths from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. While the drug wars created instability, this story hides a longer relationship between the United States and the region. A century of banana cultivation and capital extraction at the hands of US-based fruit companies contributed to the economic malaise that now passes for normalcy in these nations. Honduras suffered under the control of the United Fruit Company, whose business model depended on the complete submission of workers to the whims of corporate owners. During the 1960s, however, a glimmer of hope emerged when a new corporate executive, Eli Black, led a successful takeover of United Fruit. Black, an ordained rabbi and Polish immigrant, increased Honduran wages, provided free electricity to workers, and made it possible for employees to become homeowners. Seen as a precursor to the “socially conscious” capitalist of today, Black tried to reverse years of exploitation and change the image of the United States abroad. The experiment did not last as economic volatility, political turmoil, and environmental catastrophe doomed his reform efforts in the 1970s. What started as a noble dream ended in tragedy when Black took his own life. This overlooked chapter of a multinational corporation and the country it exploited reveals lessons about the limits of ethical business practices in an emerging era of free trade.