The one universal that everyone can agree on is this: It can’t be a bodega without “regulars.” And by that, I don’t mean frequent patrons who might come in daily for silent exchanges of money for cat food or coffee. No. I’m talking about people for whom stopping in the bodega is a part of their day. It’s a place to see their neighbors, to talk politics or even just pass on bochinche with the bodeguero behind the counter. A true bodega is, at least for certain times of the day, a local social center. Community is part of its DNA.
Although the bodega is now as much a part of New York as the Yankees or the MetroCard, few realize its roots are uniquely Nuyorican, that distinct variation on Puerto Rican culture that developed as part of the mass migration from the island to New York City. Puerto Ricans have been moving to New York since they were made U.S. citizens during World War I. But it was during the ’40s and ’50s, with diminishing agricultural work on the island and more employment opportunities in urban factories, that the Puerto Rican population vastly expanded. As did the
proliferation of bodegas that stocked familiar tropical foods not easily found in American supermarkets.
Small in size, the bodega was for the new migrant a supermarket for the soul. The deli counter offered cut meats, but, sometimes, prepared dishes from “home.” The aisles stocked groceries, but also votive candles, Agua de Florida, medicine-cabinet staples, cleaning supplies, and even, sometimes, a record section of Latin music. In short, the bodega didn’t carry everything, but
it carried everything one needed to keep a good Puerto Rican home in this new place. And it offered community. According to Caribbean history scholar Carlos Sanabria in the book Bodega: A Cornerstone of Puerto Rican Barrios, the bodega became a place where recent arrivals could find news about apartments for rent or available work. And, because they were largely owner-operated, family-run enterprises, many bodegueros would allow customers to shop on credit. But what made the bodega special and unique, and still does to this day, is that it’s more than a place for commerce. It is a place where knowing your neighbors and the children of your neighbors matters. It is a place vibrant with life, much like the island of Puerto Rico itself.