While in college down South, I couldn’t help but to quickly realize the scarcity of one of the things dearest to my heart- a local Bodega. I remember trying to explain its significance to those not familiar with the Tri State area, and they quickly got turned off by the mention of the Bodega cat.
**Below I have a word bank if you find yourself confused on bodega slang. **
For starters, “Bodega” is a Spanish word meaning cellar, or grocery store. During the ‘50s, Hispanic immigrants began to settle in the New York Metropolitan area when Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States. With migration becoming a trend, the Cuban Revolution in the 1950’s also assisted in the extension of Cuban and Puerto Rican neighborhoods which spread from NYC, to New Jersey, Philadelphia, and neighboring areas.
For locals in the neighborhood, bodega owners are more than just employees behind a counter. They are members of the community who rapidly learn names and sandwich orders, frequently hold on to mail for missing inhabitants who live upstairs, provide employment, and sometimes even have better night time surveillance than the police does. These are the same people who have watched you go from buying 25 cent bags of chips and now a laters to backwoods and looseys. A Bodega isn’t just your average convenience store, liquor store, deli, and dear GOD it is NOT A GAS STATION STORE; A bodega is a mom and pop store that you can find all of your basic necessities in the middle of the hood. It is a sense of family. A sense of community. Regulars in the store can vouch and tell you that most bodega owners will establish a “credit” with you if you’re short on cash but in need of your everyday supplies such as scratchies, toilet paper, or eggs. You will be allowed to pay when you can, just try not to accumulate too much of a tab.
As soon as you step in a bodega you will be welcomed with Spanish music blasting, a cook in the back,the infamous bodega cat (a key employee/exterminator) roaming the aisles or relaxing behind the counter, and a glass counter where you will see a range from baby pictures, candy, and tobacco products displayed. Some bodega owners will even have baby and graduation pictures of those who live in the neighborhood who are visibly not blood members of their family, but have developed relations with them nonetheless. **Click the hyperlink and it will direct you to a Bodega Cat twitter page. Trust me, these cats are too cute)
Bronx native, Nyasha Francis, recalls her favorite childhood memory in a bodega located on 116th & Pleasant ave, NY. “Bodegas are all about community. On a regular day you might exchange gossip about your neighbors, update the workers about school, or meet up with friends to order some food. I can specifically remember when I was in middle school and I went to the bodega in the morning for breakfast (baconeggandcheese and Arizona of course) and one of the ladies in the store paid for all the kids’ orders. That’s love. Food you find in bodegas are a big part of NYC culture. You’re not gonna find a chopped cheese anywhere else”
Francis’ comment about bodega food being a key component of the culture was 100% correct. The holy trinity of the most popular bodega foods is a chopped cheese (NYC), an italian cheeseburger (NJ), and the mother of all: baconeggandcheese (Make sure to say it like this)
Being inside of a bodega gives you a sense of being at home, as they ask you how your family is doing while they ring you up. One of the best parts about bodegas is the accessibility in proximity and hours. With most of them being open during late hours, if you’re having a drunk night at 3 am and looking for some comfort food? Your local bodega got your back and the only thing that you have to worry about is whether you want your sandwich on a hero or on a roll. (Get the roll)
Speaking of being dependable, a bodega in Newark, NJ has been offering free food every Monday since the quarantine lockdown has started. I found this to be very noble and a prime example of how bodegas give back to the community. While I was not able to interview with the owners, it is located on 298 South 10th Street Newark, NJ 07103.
If you know anything about Bodegas, then you know that there are some unspoken rules.
- Let’s say that you have exact change for your items.. There is no need to wait in line to pay for it. Simply just flash your items, put the money on the counter, and keep it pushin.
- Don’t wait to pay in front of the sandwich station.. The cook will hand your sandwich to you or the cashier to keep the lines moving. You attempting to pay for your sandwich in the sandwich line is blocking others and is a huge red flag that you’re not from the area.
- Don’t steal. The worst thing that you can do is steal from a store that has created a family dynamic. Especially if you have the opportunity to get in store credit.
- Circling back to credit.. Don’t take the owners for advantage. Pay them back when possible; Remember that they have bills to pay, too.
Elizabth, NJ native Hannah Guadad was ecstatic to share why bodegas mean a lot to her as she began to say, “Growing up, the bodega was definitely more than just our local corner store. Everyone on the block knew that the ock was more than just the dude that ran the store. In my experience our bodega was an extended version of my home. I remember one time, I was about 7 years old, and my mom and I got into it, over something small, but what had seemed huge to me at them time. I kid you not i packed my bags, getting ready to dramatically tell my mother I was running away. I figured I was going to need some snacks for the walk to my aunt’s house because I knew I wasn’t actually running away. I stopped by the bodega and got the usual baconeggncheese (yes it’s one word lol) and a drink. I remember the ock asked me why I had a packed bag on my shoulder, and I told him i was running away. After hysterically laughing, he asked me why, and I was able to vent to him. And I personally am pretty private and keep to my self when it comes to my home life, but it didn’t feel weird, it didn’t feel like I was talking to a stranger. I’ll never forget the advice he gave me, he said, “cherish the time you have while you are young, for when you are older is when you’ll need all the energy for stress”. And of course, me being a stubborn 7 year old, I didn’t feel like hearing it. But then he said, he’d give me a free baconeggncheese if I went home and apologized to my mom afterwards, which definitely did the trick! And looking back, he didn’t HAVE to do that for me; my home life had absolutely nothing to do with him, yet he chose to do that for me. And it wasn’t just me- he’d do that for all the kids in the neighborhood. There has been plenty of times where he’s gotten kids out of trouble, and gave them advice that would go such a long way. And that goes to show how much of an impact the bodega had to our community.” Guadad shares that you can find this bodega at 143 Catherine St, Elizabeth NJ.
Not only have bodegas made their mark in Black and Brown communities, but in Hip Hop culture as well. Spanish Harlem native Nathaniel De La Rosa, also known as rapper Bodega Bamz, has also paid homage to the stores as he explains how he got his name in an interview with ThisIs50 and YoungJack back in 2013. “I did a song called ‘Welcome to Bodega Bamz’ and ever since then it stuck with me. The bodega is a very important part in the hood. The versatility that I got in a bodega, I got it for rap. They got everything you need.” Have you ever noticed that when upcoming artists make music videos, it is usually in an aisle or in front of the store?
Although the origin of the word bodega is Spanish, it has become the umbrella term for family-run, 24/7 stores. While bodegas in 2020 are not exclusively run by the Hispanic community, bodega refers to all kinds of corner stores and has remained a staple in the city’s lingo. Today, you can find bodegas whose owners are Middle Eastern, Indian, and in some neighborhoods, Chinese. For example, in a Dominican bodega it is no surprise to find empanadas for sale that Mami/Papi made. Whereas in a Muslim based bodega, “Ock/Habibi” will assure you that everything cooked there is Halal.
Regardless of the ethnicity of the owner, bodega’s are an example of the neighborhood’s past, present and future. While on the other hand, bodegas are often referred to as “papi stores” in Pennsylvania and Southern Jersey. Philly native, Jaqui Ferrar states, “ Papi stores are one of the key puzzle pieces that makes up the inner city. Growing up, the papi store/ becomes an essential part of your childhood.They hold good memories, and the owners of the stores usually become family. The only downside of them is that every couple of years, the owners might change. When this happens, the vibe of the store changes each time. Not for the worst, but it just changes. Nevertheless, the stores themselves serve a purpose in brown communities.”
Ferrar touches on the word that we all hate to hear: Gentrification. With gentrification and government shutdowns on the rise, local bodegas have been taking hits left and right. Even still, with financial obstacles being placed in front of them, many bodegas have stood their ground much like their original owners back in the 50s.
Brianna Patterson, a Brooklyn native states “Some call it bodega, some call it a corner store. But, to the Black and Brown community, it is home. There is no better feeling than saying ‘Ayoo ock, lemme get aaa.’ Corner stores are an essential part of Black and Brown communities as it has become a place of comfort, a place of vulnerability, and a place to build connections. As a Black person in America, we are already viewed as a target. However, once you step into a corner store and hear Spanish music or see a cat on the floor, you are free. At your comfort, you gather some groceries with what you can afford without judgment. The cashier asks “¿Qué lo que mami? And it’s genuine. They care. It’s not about the color of your skin, but who you are as an individual. Bodegas welcome the Black and Brown community and cater to their needs, a rare sight in America. “
This is a think piece that I have been working on because I wanted to show homage to a place that may be often overlooked, but has raised entire communities. Any one who has experienced the bodega, will tell you that it is the heart of the community. As you finish reading, I hope that you develop an appreciation for the small family businesses, and support them.
scratchies– scratch off tickets
looseys– a loose cigarette that is cheaper than buying an entire pack
ock/habibi– Owners of middle eastern descent
“que lo que/klk– Dominican slang for, “what’s up?”