When the word "bodega" began to trend all over Twitter this week, I wondered if something bad had happened in one those beloved neighborhood joints.
You see, I grew up with bodegas. I don't remember a time when a lot of the corner stores in my neighborhood of Ridgewood, Queens, weren't a fixture in my life, as ever-present as my mom's platano dishes and savory bean stews or my dad's Puerto Rican folklore. Even now, as an adult who still lives in the same neighborhood, I constantly go to corner stores, whether it's for a bottle of seltzer or a late-snack of spicy takis.
So when I saw that "bodega" was trending, I wondered if some moneyed, hipster transplant had set up a bar in an immigrant neighborhood and insensitively named it "Bodega." It was worse.
It turned out that two ex-Google employees wanted to work on a startup named "Bodega." Their logo was a cat, not unlike the actual corner store cats — with names like Tito — that sleep on the newspapers or bags of bread. Except their concept was essentially a glorified vending machine that would be placed inside gyms and lobbies. There would be no bodega cat, no bodegero playing lewd bachata over his speakers, no loosies (cigarettes sold individually) and no Caribbean coconut candies. Just an unmanned pantry box filled with bougie products that customers would pay for through an app connected to their credit cards. Their aim, as one headline put it, was to make the traditional corner store "obsolete."
I laughed. And then I read a description in a news article in which the founders said that they wanted to eliminate the hassle of human interaction. But I don't go to bodegas just for the convenience. Sometimes I go for a pack of gum and end up standing at the counter for more than 15 minutes, just chatting with the guy manning the cash register who knows my dad and always says "hi" when I come in. I go because his brother — whom everyone has nicknamed "Rubio," because he's the "light-skinned one" — is hilarious. I go because they're part of my community.
I also go because bodegas are one of the things that have kept me Caribbean throughout my life. As the child of a Puerto Rican man and a Dominican immigrant, Spanish was my first language. I learned the bulk of my English at school — and then I learned shame. I was embarrassed by my parents' accents; I spent hours scouring my vocabulary to make sure that it sounded "American" to my teachers who lived in places like Long Island. I didn't want to eat the mango my mom packed as a snack, and I envied the kids in CapriSun commercials.