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Tropicalization: American Attitudes and the Entrance of the Banana

Banana Tree at the Centennial Exposition

In 1876, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, many Americans tasted a banana for the first time.[1] Wrapped in tinfoil, eaten with a fork and knife, and sold for a dime, the banana represented a luxury tropical item.[2]In attendance at the Exposition were representatives of Guatemala and Honduras, with their respective governments agreeing in 1874 to the request of the United States. Up until this point, Americans had little interaction with the Central American economy. The Centennial in part led to the mass importation of the banana, as more than 10 million Americans visited the exposition, which means about 20% of the American population attended over the six-month period. One of the onlypermanent buildings at the location was the Horticultural Hall, within which was a 40-acre display of exotic fruit trees, including the banana tree. A guard had to be stationed next to the tree to ensure that no bananas were stolen, showing how the fruit quickly captured the American imagination. This encounter prompted greater trade between the United States and Central America, leading down the path of American tropicalization of the region.

In the 1940s, “Chiquita Banana” ran a commercial campaign to increase American consumption of

Horticultural Hall, Centennial Exhibition

the fruit. This also coincided with the Carmen Miranda’s performance of “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” with both representing clear forms of hegemonic tropicalization. It is easiest to understand this term by breaking it down into its component parts. Tropicalization refers to creating certain set of ideals that pertain a people and/or culture which is coined by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chavez-Silverman in their introduction to Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad. They define tropicalism specifically as “the system of ideological fictions with which the dominant cultures trope Latin American and U.S Latino/a identities and cultures.”[3]Hegemony refers to the domination of one country or social group by another, and serves to disempower those who do not take part in the dominant social group. The tropes that are then subverted onto Central America and Central Americans include savagery, violence, laziness, and the promiscuity of Central American women. While these stereotypes were not yet prevalent with the introduction of the banana to the American populous in the 1870s, they are vividly displayed by the 1940s in Chiquita Banana commercials, and in Miranda’s performance.

The Chiquita Banana commercials display how American media thought about Central America, and how Americans understood Central Americans. The main character of this campaign was Chiquita Banana, a highly sexualized, feminine fruit, who taught Americans how to choose and consume bananas. In one commercial, “Chiquita Banana and the Cannibals,” Chiquita goes to Central America and interrupts a Black Central American man cooking a white explorer ina large cast iron pot. She chastises the cannibal, singing “you really shouldn’t treat a fellow man this way” and remarks that it is not the most “civilized” way to exist. This is a clear example of hegemonic tropicalization, as it leads the viewer to believe that cannibalism was commonplace in Central America, or at least more so than in America, especially among Black people. Chiquita then goes on to teach the two men about how to choose the correct bananas and cook them. Because this is where bananas are native, and the native inhabitant does not know how to consume this food without an anthropomorphized banana telling him how, the commercial perpetuates the idea that native people are lazy or unintelligent, in need of teaching by white society. There is an absurd level of condescension when Chiquita Banana condemn cannibalism to a group that certainly knows what a banana is, and then teaches them how to eat a banana, which would make her a cannibal. The physical representation of the Black man is also racist, obviously minstrel-like in appearance, which makes racist connotations even more prevalent to this text. However, this is how American society sought to maintain cultural dominance over Central America by means of hegemonic tropicalization.

Carmen Miranda’s performance of “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” utilizes a similar method of

From the Miranda video, women with large banana props

hegemonic tropicalization as the Chiquita Banana commercials, with both prominently featuring the increasingly popular fruit. The video of Miranda’s performance opens with white people sitting at tables, then pans to identically dressed sleeping women under palm trees, which references the laziness stereotype of Latinx people. Their lack of differentiation points to what the performance seeks to demonstrate to white audiences, that Central America is a land of abundance. The performers are almost innumerable as they weave between the trees in revealing outfits, and the bananas they carry signify commodities ripe and ready to be consumed by American markets. The phallic connotation of the banana props cannot be understated. Miranda is the only differentiated woman, who sings of women who have a “different kind of time” when “the tropical moon is in the sky” and that she kissed a “Johnny Smith,” a reference to an American suitor. These lyrics illustrate a promiscuous woman, who favors American men, and perpetuates the stereotype of hypersexual Latinas. Both “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” and the Chiquita Banana commercials show Central America as a place to exploit, one in need of civilization, with abundant resources that are ready for white men to take, exhibiting hegemonic tropicalization.

[1]United States Centennial Comission, International Exhibition 1876: Appendix to the Reports of the United Stes Centennial Commission and Centennial Board of Finance, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1879), 257-259.

[2]Andrew F. Smith, Food and Drink in American History: A “Full Course” Encyclopedia, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013), 303.

[3]Frances R. Aparicio and Susana Chavez-Silverman, Tropicalization: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (London: University Press of New

England, 1997), 1.

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