One of my earliest childhood memories was having cash in my hand and roaming a baqala, or a corner store, in my Middle Eastern hometown. I remember the South Asian employee who patiently watched me decide which treat to buy and, once I tiptoed my selection to the counter, helped me count the change and add my candy to a small plastic bag. My watchful parents knew that big grocery stores wouldn’t give us that kind of special treatment, so they trusted my siblings and me to walk on our own through cramped aisles stacked ceiling-high with things like incense sticks, chicken stock cubes, prayer beads, brooms and school stationery.
“I let them all know that I care about their story. It’s a privilege being able to tell our own stories. I just feel we need storytellers more than ever now.”
Later, I discovered that in places like NYC and Miami, the same concept existed, with a slight variation in pronunciation. They were called bodegas.
Last month, a viral story highlighted a startup created by two ex-Google employees whose service is essentially a curated vending machine; products are enclosed in a trendy, clear-fronted box, and all transactions are paid for via the app. Sounds like a standard app-crazy trend, right? But they called it Bodega. They even used a cat, made popular in bodega cat memes, as their logo.
“The entire process happens without a person actually manning the ‘store,’” the website promised.
Latino Twitter wasn’t having it. To many, it was an insult to their work ethic that would further remove ethnic charm from the places they now call home. The backlash against the Bodega app was so intense and swift that one of the founders issued an apology.
Since then, the Twitter community has clustered together in support of bodegas and in support of those who still hold onto the good old American Dream—tied together with sweat, tears and bubble gum.
As soon as the piece went live, I reached out to journalist Amaris Castillo, who created a multimedia project called Bodega Stories, inspired by Castillo’s own parents, who owned a bodega when she was growing up. For the past two years, she has made it her mission to photograph and document stories of bodega owners and customers in visual diaries across Latin America and here in the U.S. The subtitle of the site says it all: “Stories from a beloved place.”
One of the recent stories, titled “Not For Sale,” tells the story of a Honduran shop owner who’s facing tough times. Business is slow, she says, but she wouldn’t dream of selling. “We depend on this,” Rosario Lopez, said, shaking her head at the thought.
I talked to Castillo about what bodega means to her and what it should mean to the whole country. The answers have been slightly edited for length and flow.
Why did you start Bodega Stories?
I began Bodega Stories by interviewing customers at my parents’ bodega in St. Petersburg, Fla., and have since expanded the project to New York City, where I grew up. Earlier this summer, I was able to go to Honduras, thanks to the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and did more stories there. I really feel as though Bodega Stories taught me how important you telling your own story is. As a child, I would sit on a milk crate and spend time in the store; my dad would be behind the register, I didn’t have a cellphone to browse back then, and all I could do was listen to the exchanges between my dad and the customers and their tall tales and their stories. I remember stories of people struggling to make it and how they wanted to bring their mothers from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. So my first journalism teacher was really my dad. With my Bodega Stories, I feel as though there are so many narratives out there that people will share with family or in a private setting and it often will stay between the storyteller and the person they’re speaking to. I feel this responsibility, like this urge, to tell these stories and especially the Cuban diaspora in Florida. I let them all know that I care about their story. It’s a privilege being able to tell our own stories. I just feel we need storytellers more than ever now.
What does a bodega represent to your community?
The term bodega is not just a name. It’s what it represents. Especially in New York where I was born and raised, it’s 24/7. People rely on them for goods but also for information, for directions and for jobs. It’s like a community center, almost. Even if you’re not even going in there to buy, it’s a safe space for women against harassment on the street. Many bodega owners are immigrants themselves, so it’s really nice to see people of all backgrounds. The bodega is what got me through graduate school; it’s what helped me pay for my wedding. My parents continue to provide jobs to newly arrived Cuban immigrants in Florida. With the language barrier, it’s difficult to find a job right away. My parents are American citizens and speak English, but they have not forgotten that they were born in the Dominican Republic. They haven’t forgotten how it was when they arrived in the 1980s. They help the community.
How do you feel about this new Bodega app, which essentially is a glorified hotel minibar that automatically deducts money from your App as you lift an item from the machine?
They’re saying that they are not trying to diminish the value of convenience stores, but they seem to be. Apparently, they did a study and reached out to people in the Latino community. I’m really not sure who they talked to, but it seems they didn’t ask the right questions and they didn’t talk to the right people. I didn’t see anyone in favor of the app. It was wonderful to see that support for the original bodegas. I hope people continue to support small businesses and it does not just stay on Twitter. My parents are still working hard; they hardly have a day off. The app angers me because they are saying that it’s not a bodega but here they are taking things from the original bodega. Their concept is a machine, and yet the logo of a cat is something so dear to authentic bodegas. Technology has its benefits, but I also feel as though this is not necessary. This is completely removing the human element. I myself would not want to buy a single chocolate bar from that app.
What did you think of the backlash of the Bodega app and the tremendous support Twitter users provided to the original bodegas?
I think obviously this showed me that spaces like bodegas are often taken for granted, and I believe it has to do with people who are in them. The people who work the registers are seen as people who are less important than the larger-than-life figures, such as our president or people of a higher socioeconomic class. On one hand, it upsets me that I dedicated a whole project [Bodega Stories] not for glory or attention but because these stories matter to me. It took something like a service out of Silicon Valley to wake people up. Bodegas matter, and they matter in my community. It was also gratifying because I saw people from all backgrounds who recognized that these spaces have tremendous value to the families, and to them as well.
There was an apology but they don’t seem to have changed anything. What do you think the guys at Bodega should do next?
I’m sure they have a lot of investors backing them. I would want them to go back to the drawing board and really think about the impact that their concept had outside of California. This is their service, so they’ll do whatever they want. But also I feel as though what they’re doing is trying to reinvent something that already exists. There is no need to reinvent the bodega. Obviously, gentrification happens, but even with rising rents, the real bodegas are still here; people still rely on them. I don’t understand this. They’re trying to be hip.
“I try to give people a window into these people’s lives. The stories range from loss to nostalgia to having to leave your family behind. But they’re also about how proud and excited they are to come to the U.S. I try to capture pieces of people’s stories.”
What did your father, who has worked in bodegas for decades, think about the Silicon Valley service?
I spoke to my dad about it, and it was hard for him to really understand. I had to explain that it’s a pantry box and they target it to their audience. So if it’s a gym for women, they’d have feminine products and stuff like that. He thought it was discarding his sacrifices—he’s tried so hard to build a life in a bodega. It’s long hours with a lot of demands and fielding questions, and getting requests like, “Can you break $100?” Sometimes, there’ll be a long line and customers would want to weigh a package for Cuba because he’s that kind of person. He puts his all into his work. My dad was insulted. It removes the human element, and people like him would not be needed.
If you were to enter a real bodega now, what’s the first thing you’d look for to buy?
Plantains! And cheese—the special one for frying. Oh, and cinnamon sticks. I love to see what the brand names are and if you sell razors and feminine products. I don’t like to eavesdrop, but you know, I love to eavesdrop! I now work at a newspaper in Massachusetts and I love hearing what people talk about, and it helps me as a reporter in the community. People will hear some really crazy stories and deep accounts of people’s lives. It’s almost like therapy. You’ll never know what you’ll get when you enter a bodega. My dad is always cracking corny jokes with his customers; it feels like a second home to me. In bodegas, I don’t feel like an “other.” When I walk elsewhere, sometimes I feel like the token Latina and feel self-conscious that I’m a minority. In bodegas, there are people who look like me. I love going to different bodegas to see what products they’re selling. To see what potato chips they stock.
What do bodegas mean to you personally?
I felt like I was always a cultural ambassador at bodegas and here I am spreading the culture, trying to promote and spread awareness. When I go to places, I bring snacks from my dad’s bodega and people ask me where it’s from and I tell them which bodega to get it from. At an early age, I learned how important it was to have your own narrative. A lot more people of color are elevating their community stories and voices. People have told me, “It’s just a store — get over it!” But I will not stop; no one is going to downplay the value of these spaces to me—that is not possible. Bodega Stories means so much more to me today than when I first started it. I try to give people a window into these people’s lives. The stories range from loss to nostalgia to having to leave your family behind. But they’re also about how proud and excited they are to come to the U.S. I try to capture pieces of people’s stories.