The Bodega: From Pasteles to Perrier
November 16, 1981
For most of us gringos, the heart of the bodega remains concealed behind the Old World patina that obscures its windows full of potato-like roots, hand-lettered notices in Spanish, and pictures of saints. It’s an open secret that most of these little Hispanic grocery stores harbor gambling activities (las numeritos), a fact that causes some Hispanics to view the store itself as a social problem. Nonetheless, it’s probably more influential than the church in keeping the community together. The bodega provides, here as in the Caribbean, a meeting place where people can lounge and chat with neighbors — a kind of extension of the family living room. This tradition, and the universal practice of extending credit, popularly called fia’o, exemplify a way of life in which neighbors, for better or worse, depend on one another. The bodegero is more a neighbor than a businessman.
On Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue, a far cry from its Manhattan namesake, Joe Olavarria stands behind the counter of his store, chewing the fat with a middle-aged man who leans against the door frame. Dressed in a navy T-shirt and running shorts, his frequent smile uncovering perfect, white teeth, he looks more like a young tennis pro than a bodega owner. The Arecibo, larger than most bodegas (and free of gambling), testifies to second-generation efficiency: somehow Olavarria has imposed order on the usual havoc — goods from tins of guava paste to eight-track tapes. It’s hot, and the wobbly ceiling fan seems tired. People are out on the street, and beer and ice creams are going fast.
“Hey, your change!” Joe calls in Spanish to a frizzy-haired woman with one kid on her arm and another in the stroller.
She turns back. “No, mi amor, compre dos,” she answers, holding up two frozen ices.
“Vamonos, hombre, ya uiene la guagua. (Hurry it up the bus is coming),” complains the neckerchiefed guy with two winged red hearts tattooed on one arm, “Alice” emblazoned across them. He scrapes his change off the counter, bumping into a young couple as he leaves.
“Mira, Joe, okay?” Hardly slowing her pace toward the door, a girl tilts her bag toward him so he can see the potato chips she added to her credit purchase. In full view of his glaring “No Credit ” sign, he reaches to a shelf below the register for a file box and jots something down on a card.
Two sweating adolescents rush in and shove a boxed pair of binoculars toward him.
“Wanna buy these?”
Right on their heels, another pair comes in to palm off a carton of “hot” Sanka. “No thanks.” Joe waves them away before they can get a word out.
He rolls his eyes, laughing. “You should see some of the stuff they bring in here. One guy, a junkie, comes in with a loveseat one day. It’s a mess, covered with grease spots, and he’s fighting to get it through the door…”
A skinny nine-year-old girl slides this way and that in the doorway before skidding up to the counter.
“When ya gonna wear yuh glasses again?” she asks Joe, who had just taken them off.
“Ya gonna look sick, nevah.” She slams down a quarter for a coconut macaroon.
“Where was ya before the 15th?”
“Friday? I was here.”
“No ya wasn’t.” She skates away on her plastic clogs.
A tall, hurried-looking black guy comes in, dressed in running shorts over sweatpants. “Change a subway token?” Joe opens the register. No change. The guy’s face erupts in a troubled frown. He passes Mario Flores as he leaves.
Mario Flores comes in, shaking his close-cropped head, scratching his short black beard, spouting off, to the floor and counter it seems. “We Puerto Ricans gotta get together. Puerto Rican youth gotta stop smoking marijuana and supporting enemigos de la revolucion,” he glances up insinuatingly at Olavarria, “who just wanna make a lot of bucks off their sisters and brothers in the States so they can go back to P.R. and live in style.” He slaps down a small bilingual poster for the block party this Sunday. As Joe looks for tape to put it up with, Flores heads for his store down the street.
Olavarria, who was born in Brooklyn 27 years ago, gave up schoolteaching to run his uncle’s store when the uncle returned to Puerto Rico. With his feet planted firmly in both cultures, he enjoys a unique perspective on the bodega’s evolution.
“It used to be a point of honor,” he says, “to pay your bills. Now people aren’t so preoccupied with their reputations. They want to see how much they can get away with.” He still gives credit, but more discreetly than his uncle Horatio, whose customers owed a total of $4000 at the time he left the business.
The culture is changing in style as well as substance, according to Joe.
“A year ago I couldn’t sell one bottle of Perrier — now everyone wants it. People are starting to use heavy cream, sour cream, things you don’t use in Puerto Rican food. The young people still eat the Hispanic dishes when they go home to mom, but they’re not going to slave for hours in the kitchen making recao [a complicated, spicy sauce] themselves — they’ll heat at up a can of macaroni and cheese.”
Come Christmas season, it’s different, he says. They want their pernil (pork shoulder) and their plantains to make the traditional pasteles (small, spicy meat cakes). Lazier folks buy their pasteles ready-made by neighborhood women who sell them through the store; good customers get them as presents, Olavarria says.
The bodega is a microcosm of a world left behind, a world where people live day-to-day and social customs attest to strong family ties and Caribbean machismo. In the island, these closet-sized stores are made even friendlier than those here by small bar setups where locals — the men, that is — spend hours playing dominoes while the radio blares jibaro (country) music. During the World Series, the family TV is brought in so everyone can cheer on their heroes and see how their bets are faring. In Puerto Rico, bodegas keep shorter hours than those in the U.S., which run a hectic seven-day week, 7 a.m. to 10:30 or 11 p.m.
In New York, otherwise nondescript little stores flaunting layered coats of red or electric blue paint bear names like Mayaguez, Borinquen, or Quisqueya, recalling the Caribbean homelands of their owners. Sometimes a sign in Spanish or Spanglish tells people not to hangear in front of their businesses, a warning that seems meant to be, and certainly is, ignored. On warm days, men huddle over makeshift tables, playing dominoes for beer. Inside, the air is sometimes burdened with the smell of stale tobacco. There is the clownish and sometimes tragic drunk who comes in Sunday afternoon, demanding, “Where’s my petroleo?” to which the storekeeper responds by unearthing a near-empty bottle of rum from behind the counter. Merengue music chucka-toos on the tape player, tempting kids to dance and tease one another, while the store owner’s baseball trophies and favorite saints look down from their poise on a top shelf. Other features reappear, like the ubiquitous Goya products and green bananas — but beyond these, the bodegas reflect the eccentricities of their individual neighborhoods.
In one section of the South Bronx, a self-taught itinerant painter turned many stores into tropical oases with his finely executed murals. A clerk in Ramos Super Market, at East 184th and Corona, ruefully calls attention to a bald brick spot in one of their murals, where vandals partially defaced a haunting, silvery coastal sunset. He says the owner of the store has tried unsuccessfully to find the artist, who had been recently released from prison in Puerto Rico when he did all the work. “No one in the neighborhood even knows his name,” he says, “and just look at that,” he gestures, beaming, with a sweep of his hand, “it’s beautiful.”
Bodegas in East Harlem are more austere. Business there is transacted briskly through a window in the bullet-proof plastic that envelops everything but the customer. No signs are needed to prohibit loitering; the Plexiglas proclaims the fears and distrust of most store owners. Among customers, it seems to heighten tension as palpable as the hard penny candies that draw kids to the bodegas in other neighborhoods.
Patrolman Roger Casuso has worked in the 25th Precinct for five years. According to him, about 90 per cent of local robberies involve weapons. However, he thinks the bodegas are no more plagued than other businesses, and that the familiar nature of the bodega may even afford them an advantage.
“Sometimes they don’t bother owners who’ve been in the neighborhood for years,” he says, “especially if the owner lives in the neighborhood and the family’s known. But if someone just moves in, say, from Queens, they’re more liable to get hit.”
Elena Vargas and her husband Frank bought the Arroyo Market, at Lexington and 112th, about four months ago, after selling their old store near Yonkers, where business was slow. They immediately installed the Plexiglas and now they’re open 24 hours a day, turning a neat profit. A heavy, jet-black-haired woman, she looks like she could give any thief a run for his money.
“We haven’t gotten ripped off yet,” she says in Spanish, “but we’re not taking any chances.”
Rosalie Garcia, a longtime resident of the nearby Johnson Housing Project, says most of the bodegas’ shields have gone up in the last year or so. She still feels at home in the Arroyo Market, despite the changes, mostly because of one clerk she’s known since she was 10. Even when she moved out of the neighborhood for a while, she traveled back once a week to her old favorite store.
“Rosie gives me better cuts of meat, because she knows me. And she loves my daughter and my nephew. The kids like to go there because no one follows them around to see if they’re stealing.” She buys almost everything at the bodega, but for fresh Caribbean fruits and vegetables, she goes to the Korean produce markets.
In Washington Heights–Inwood, a lot of floor space in the front of the stores is taken up by cardboard boxes filled with batatas (fat, red-skinned sweet potatoes), yautias, yucas, and the hundred and one other roots used commonly by French, English, and Spanish-speaking West Indians in their native dishes. In this area, unlike others, most of the stores have large butcher sections. They are thus characterized by a fishy-meaty smell and the sight of plump red sausages (chorizo) and pig feet nestled against the freezer glass, like large, fleshy bicuspids. On St. Nicholas, storekeepers measure out just the right amounts of fresh peppers and condiments for a single batch of sancocho (stew), packaged in little sandwich bags and tied with a twist. The magazine racks, besides the small soap operas in print called novelas, carry magazines on santeria (Cuban voodoo). A shelf in the back stocks an eclectic variety of prayer candles, whose tall jam jar exteriors have been consecrated, in white lettering, to “The Seven African Powers” (Chango, Ogum, Eligua, Orula, Obatala, Yemalla, Ochun), or to St. Anthony, St. Barbara, Our Lady of Altagracia, or, in the case of the “Alleged Money-Drawing Candle,” the god of the numbers game.
In one store, a Cuban bodegero brags, “We always sell the winning number here.” He stands at the register, sifting through a fistful of oblong betting slips, to see which of his customers “hit” today. A young woman who’s been scrutinizing the dulces (sweets) that cover half the counter, good-naturedly laments her misfortune. She failed to play the number of her hospital room when she delivered her baby two weeks ago.
“I was too tired to bother,” she says in Spanish, “but you should’ve seen my relatives — they made out on the room number, the time he was born, the street the hospital was on…”
Those who can’t wait until tomorrow to read the race results in the Daily News start dropping in at their favorite bodega after the number’s been called in, which is around 4 p.m. on the West Side. As a service to their customers, even stores that don’t take bets keep informed through the local bookie.
Farther down St. Nicholas, Dominican bodegas prevail. Sunday afternoon, the numbers posted prominently in every store represent the last two digits of the winning numbers in Santo Domingo’s National Lottery. In one store, a sign in Spanish says, “1000 pesos for el pale in any form.” El pale is a combination of the first two winning numbers. A carbon copy of someone’s betting slip indicates she lost $33 that day, playing $2, $3, and $10 amounts on various combinations.
The example seems to illustrate Hispanic leaders’ complaints that the bodega fosters self-defeating vices in a community already beset with problems. Still, the bodega is not the sole preserve of the numbers game, which thrives in other Hispanic establishments from dry cleaners to botanicas (small shops that sell plants and religious articles). It is also argued by some that if all these businesses were closed, the same people could squander their money legally on the New York State Lottery. Since the illegal betting isn’t exactly clandestine, one suspects local police have better things to do than bother bookies. A Washington Heights woman who declined to be identified, says, “The cops don’t live in the neighborhood, so they don’t really care. I even heard the cops play.”
The bodega is also criticized for charging higher prices than the supermarket. Clara Galvano lives on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights. “I always go to the A&P,” she says, “or Daitch, seven blocks away, so I won’t have to pay 10 cents or 15 cents more on everything. Their prices are exorbitant.”
Many are drawn to the bodega despite the higher prices, by its sociability and Caribbean products they can’t get elsewhere. “They’re great,” says Emil Vega, of Long Island City, Queens. “You can find anything there — yucas, yautias, newspapers from Santo Domingo.…” Vega, a stocky young man in his twenties, says he goes to three Dominican bodegas in his neighborhood so he can bullshit with the owners about their native country.
The same Washington Heights woman who faulted them for gambling activities, says she distrusts the bodegeros. An attractive woman in her fifties, she is proud of having educated her children, one a pharmacist, the other attending law school. She’s lived 20 years in the neighborhood, where, she says, in the beginning, her family was shunned by non-Hispanics. Now that they’ve become accepted, she resents behavior which, she thinks, gives the Hispanic Community a bad name. “They always blame the Puerto Ricans,” she says, “when something bad happens.”
She sees the neighborhood’s deterioration as the fault of another Hispanic group — Cubans, who according to her, “even sell marijuana [in their bodegas]. On every block they have bolita [another word for numbers],” she continues. She feels, however, that all the bodegas are a detriment to the community because, she says, they encourage people on welfare to “spend their checks gambling while their kids go hungry.” Some bodegeros, she says, profit by accepting food stamps for lesser mounts of cash, for their betting customers.
It’s significant that most of the bodega’s more vehement detractors are middle-class or upwardly mobile. For many, the little Old World store seems to symbolize poverty and ignorance. Racism causes the same kind of self-hatred among Hispanics as in other minorities who disdain old customs that remind them of the ghetto.
Johnny Torres, founder and president of the Spanish Merchants Association, thinks most bodegas are honestly run and vital to the community. He sits in his spacious office at the Bronx Terminal Market, above Metro Food Wholesalers, one of several organizations he established to serve the bodegeros. He turns this way and that in his swivel chair, watching the partial glass wall for the next interruption. His expensively tailored three-piece suit and gold watch belie the fact that he’d ever gotten his hands dirty selling sooty yucas.
“I found myself the owner of a bodega,” he says, “when after one week, my brother gave up the store I bought him. He couldn’t handle it.” Unable to sell the store, which he’d bought for $9000 cash, Torres had to make a go of it. As a commercial interior designer, he was then unschooled in running groceries and his subsequent difficulties convinced him of the need to help other Hispanic businesses. To that end he set up the Spanish Merchants Association, 70 per cent of whose 1200 members are bodegeros. A $50 membership fee entitles them to attend meetings at which merchandising techniques and business administration are discussed. His cooperative, Metro Food Wholesalers, developed as an alternative to existing food distributors, who, according to him, sold to bodegas at unfair prices. Now doing a $19 million business, Metro owns a 20,000-foot warehouse.
“Many bodegeros,” says Torres, “fail because they don’t know how to administer credit. We show them how to keep up-to-date records and follow up overdue payments. We teach them to avoid merchandising mistakes like putting the Ajax next to the soup.” Association members can hire Torres’s “Technical Assistance Program” to analyze their stores’ trade volume, location, and layout, and then whip the store into a gleaming “Metro Superette.” The fading signs, often embellished with tropical scenes, are replaced with the neat Metro logo, and Muzak is installed to keep ’em moving down the aisles — and out the door. “Having people hanging around obstructs business,” says Torres.
It may not look much like a bodega, but Aureo Soto is happy with his Superette. Soto runs a store at 1524 Unionport Road in the middle-class Parkchester section of the Bronx. He’s very grateful to Torres, he says, for finding him this new location and helping him make it successful. “He’s done a lot to help the bodegeros,” he adds.
When Torres was asked how he thought his favorite mayoral candidate would help the bodegeros, he explained that Mayor Koch helped a food distributor friend of his, Manolo Fernandez Condal. The mayor facilitated Condal’s purchase of a city building and arranged low-interest city loans for him. “I have lunch with the mayor every two weeks,” added Torres, who recently helped raise funds for the Koch campaign.
Bronx councilman Gilberto Gerena-Valentin praised Torres for his work on behalf of bodegeros, but differs with him as to how the mayor’s doing. “In supporting Koch,” he says, “Torres is going against the grain of the community he defends.” The mayor’s racist policies are best illustrated, he believes, by his gradual removal of police from poor areas, where they’re needed. The bodegeros, he points out, are especially vulnerable to theft and assault because of the late hours they keep. “It took six months,” says Valentin, “to get the city to change the lighting system and parking patterns of a part of East 138th Street in the South Bronx that was so dangerous people were afraid to go out after six.”
He believes the needs of the Hispanic community won’t be met until it has political representation. According to Gerena-Valentin, that’s where he and Johnny Torres disagree. Mentioning that Torres, who came from a wealthy family in Puerto Rico, is now rumored to be a millionaire, he hints that economic factors rule his politics. “Torres says the whole community will benefit if business prospers. He says if Hispanics aren’t elected to office, someone else will do it [protect their interests] for them. That’s why 60 per cent of Puerto Rico is on food stamps,” Gerena-Valentin adds bitterly, “because someone else is doing it for them.”
For anyone who wonders how those people will eat during the Reagan reign, it’s somewhat comforting to think of Hector Vasquez. A short, pot-bellied man with mutton-chop sideburns, he talks excitedly in Spanish about Metro’s new image for his store on Corona Avenue in the South Bronx. Store policies will change as well as the decor, he says. He won’t give credit anymore, except to the church across the street. “People don’t like to pay,” he explains. “But I can’t see people go hungry. If someone needed milk and bread for their kids, I’d just pay for it out of my pocket.” It looks like the next few years the only folks who’ll look out for El Barrio are the ones who always have.