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UFCo Words

The photograph of Cálix Herrera and the memo to which it was attached were discovered in an archive that had somehow escaped destruction. During the early 1980s, cultural anthropologist Philippe Bourgois was conducting fieldwork on the United Fruit Company’s plantations spanning the borders of Costa Rica and Panamá. Years earlier, headquarters had sent orders to all division managers that the historical archives be destroyed. Yet, Bourgois writes:

By a quirk of disorganization—or perhaps because of a subversive appreciation of history by an unsung lower management hero—this did not occur on the plantation subsidiary where I was conducting fieldwork. By sheer dumb luck, I had befriended an aging warehouse foreman who one day led me to the damp, steaming attic of his semi-abandoned warehouse and told me, “You might find these old papers interesting, because you like to ask so many questions about the old days.”[1]

Bourgois salvaged nearly 2,000 pages from the tens of thousands of letters and memoranda that filled fifty-sixty “unnumbered, mildewed, and rodent-eaten cardboard boxes.”[2] About twenty-five years later, as I was conducting field research in the banana company town of El Progreso, I was reading Bourgois’s chapter on this archive and saw the picture of Cálix Herrera. I then contacted Bourgois and asked if I could access his archive. In 2010, Bourgois generously shipped me the entire archive in two separate boxes. I digitized it and returned it to him a week later. This rich archive provides a rare view of internal company operations.

[1] Philippe Bourgois, “One Hundred Years of United Fruit Company Letters,” in Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas, ed. Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg (Duke University Press, 2003), 106-107.

[2] Ibid., 107.

Manuel Cálix Herrera, mugshots. Honduras. United Fruit Company.

1929The photo of Cálix Herrera existed but was never intended to be an object of public culture. This image of an early twentieth-century labor activist was the private property of the company. But if we take seriously Ariella Azoulay’s argument about the civil contract of photography, then we are obligated to adopt a new hermeneutic toward these images. First, nobody owns photographs. Private individuals or institutions can care for photos but ultimately they belong to everyone who engages with these images, to every citizen in the citizenry of photography. Second, as spectators, we have a duty to interpret these images. Third, we must think about the photographs not taken and about the photographs not seen.[1] Reading the image of Cálix Herrera in combination with the internal letters and memoranda that it accompanied, we can infer that there were many other images just like this one. But we—as researchers, as viewers of images, as field hands tending to the banana plants—will never see most of those photographs. Yet, just because we will never see these images, that does not mean that they never existed. In fact, we have important examples of the kinds of images that the company used. We can infer—from the ample and concrete evidence that the company used photographs to repress labor—that there were, in fact, many more similar photos that we will never see. The company likely destroyed most of these images.

[1] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 85-136; 137-186; 413-471.


North Americans often went to Latin America to find the “exotic” and “picturesque.” As reflected in this internal memo, the fruit company often facilitated photographing and film “the tropics” for audiences back in the United States.

Willard pictures, taking photos for UFCo, race-- 1948

The fruit company worked hand in glove with local police and military officials to regulate the freedoms of speech, movement, and assembly, as reflected in this internal memo from January 1956.


The Honduran Left frequently portrayed the United Fruit Company as an octopus strangling the globe. In this cartoon from Vanguardia, each sucker-bearing arm bears a grievance: malnutrition, parasitism, malaria, syphilis, tuberculosis, and the lack of education and sanitation.

Octopus--Periódico Vanguardia 1946001