What’s a deadly disease that has killed off a once-famous type of banana have to do with the winner of an annual race unity essay award?
Matthew Garaicoa, a Lehman College junior, has the answer because he was the winner of the first annual Race Unity Award created by Elmo Realty Co. owner and billionaire Moujan Vahdat.
The sociology major and social inequality and urban studies minor made an impression on Lehman faculty members after he collaborated on a course called “Let’s Go Bananas” with Lehman Lab for Social Analysis and the New York Botanical Garden last year.
His award-winning essay focused on the economic impact of the fungal disease Tropical Race 4 on the banana industry. And the top banana producer’s exploitation of its workers over several decades in the early 20th century.
“I am a proud son of two immigrants who come from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, which has many roots,” Garaicoa said.
Students were required to explore the ethnographics and historiography of bananas, including how family backgrounds are rooted to banana-producing regions.
In his essay, Garaicoa described how two types of famous banana types grown in Central and South America were ravaged by Tropical Race 4 in the early to mid-20th century.
Gros Michels and Cavendish bananas, which were sold under different brand names through two companies — United Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit — were affected by the disease during two separate periods. In one case, the Gros Michels were wiped out.
The two companies knew in order to survive they had to come up with a way to grow disease-resistant bananas. That’s where the Cavendish bananas came in. But they too were attacked by another strain of the disease from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The solution UFC finally realized was not delivering the bananas on stems but rather in boxes. But to do so, UFC had to add another step to its shipping process. That meant hiring more workers to maximize their profits. Garaicoa discovered those workers were subjected to terrible working conditions, low wages, and even death to deliver the bananas on time.
Richard Finger, the interim vice president and enrollment management at the college, sent a nomination letter for the Elmo Realty Co. Annual Race Unity Award Program based on Garaicoa’s performance.
The award program is the brainchild of Vahdat, a New York-based real estate developer with almost 40 years of experience.
He feels strongly about those who try to take positive steps towards creating an accepting world. And race unity is no different.
“I feel very strong about race unity,” Vahdat said. “Myself being an Iranian minority, I think that race unity is one of the most challenging issues facing humanity.”
The real estate developer received hundreds of nominations from colleges along with student essays demonstrating a commitment to empowering others to become advocates for racial equality.
Students were judged on responses to the question of how they would use their prize money to help others become advocates for racial equality, a news release said.
While reading these essays, he read of a lot of suffering and people’s goals to improve life for all humanity. He was looking for a student who also has had some experience facing racism.
“I can’t deny that there have been times in life, not just this year, many years where Latinos have been brought down,” Garaicoa said. “I can bring up the fires in the South Bronx and the garbage issue here.”
According to Garaicoa, immigrants coming to the United States are proud of their country and culture. However, further down the line, when their children grow up, he feels they realize they are in a world where nobody cares about them.
He continued to say there is a lot of demand for Spanish-speaking programs and translations for documents and applications that include Latinos, and schools need to enforce more programs.
Last month in an award ceremony Garaicoa received an honorary plaque and $2,500 for his efforts.
“We received (applicants) from African Americans, from Hispanics, Asians and in my book — they’re all winners. They really are,” Vahdat said.
“Matthew is very intelligent and is a passionate person. He did a lot of research, and I made the decision before meeting him.”
After meeting Garaicoa for the first time during the ceremony, the real estate developer said he was “pleasantly surprised.”
He knew he had made the right choice after witnessing the transparency and love for his family.
“I was honored — but I was also surprised. I was just following my passion to be acknowledged.” Garaicoa said. “It means a lot that someone would look at me and say, ‘Hey, that is really good work’.
Vahdat is working toward future competitions for the next 10 years. He put aside $30,000 for that endeavor.
Garaicoa has also stepped into the theatre world. He has co-written and starred in, ¡Pa’lante!, a play inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred during the pandemic.
The play was the first at Lehman since the pandemic, and it sold out for all three nights.
“I think it was not only a wonderful performance and an eye-opening experience for audience members. It was also an opportunity to give people of minorities a place to speak out and say what they wanted to say,” he said.