Coffee shop cashier behind the register at a coffee shop accepting payment from a customer wearing a backpack

Bodega Dreams in Austin, Texas

“The neighborhood might have been down, but it was far from out. Its people far from defeat. They had been bounced all over the place but they were still jamming.

It seemed like a good place to start.”

—Ernesto Quiñonez, Bodega Dreams

As graduate students and teachers at the University of Texas, my husband and I rent a small B-unit in a popular neighborhood for students, academics, professionals, and young families—Hyde Park, or as our northern pocket refers to itself, “North Loop.” I pay a premium to live off a high frequency bus route with easy access to campus in a community of those like myself: young, privileged, and educated. However, as a Latina in my neighborhood, I am constantly reminded that I do not live in a community of “those like myself” in the sense that I do not live among the intense concentration of Latinx populations in Austin. These include the now highly gentrified historic barrios of Austin’s East and South Side and the newer enclaves that so many of my Latinx students live in such as the east Riverside community or the growing minority pocket of North Lamar.

My choice to live comfortably among fellow graduate students keeps me tucked away in a white neighborhood filled with eclectic coffee shops, vintage stores, and ethnic food trucks. At the same time, the pandemic forces me to be aware of the local in a way I was not before. My long daily walks through the neighborhood compel me to take notice of the quaint homes and well-groomed gardens, but especially the numerous small businesses our neighborhood has always taken pride in—all of which right now are shut down and struggling. And for the first time, I see my neighborhood not as one dripping with privilege and whiteness, but as one that is hurting and might not fully recover.

I came face to face with this realization when I stopped by a local coffee shop for the first time since the city lockdown. Two blocks from my home, it has always been a reliable spot to grade papers or get writing done. Cautiously stepping inside, masked, and unaware of the new take-out procedures, I noticed the front room had been converted into a tiny store. Tables had been pushed together to form a kiosk, with rows of fresh produce, dry goods, snacks, and toiletries lining the wall. Briefly glancing at the cashier’s stand, I read the words “Bodega,” and in this moment I felt a surge of ambivalence. On the one hand, the small walk-up grocery shop did bear some resemblance to the Latinx corner stores of the same name. However, for a largely white business to adopt the particularly racialized and classed term bodega seemed to me like an easy example of cultural appropriation, and once again I felt the strong dissonance between my Latinidad and my chosen membership within this community. Yet, in light of the current pandemic, I am inclined to reconsider and think about why a Latinx term like bodega might be the word of choice in community efforts to resist a virus and its social, economic, and health effects, which have been intensified as a result of persisting colonial power.[1] Does the coffee shop’s usurpation of bodega reify Latinx community structures, or does it in fact harness the decolonial power of the bodega for another group of suffering workers, who might now begin to comprehend the lasting effects of colonization? Is there a reality in which both are true?

Although bodegas have roots in Latin America, serving low-income neighborhoods and still present today, most people in the United States associate bodegas with small Latinx grocery stores on the east coast.[2] The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink defines bodega as “A Hispanic American grocery store…gained currency in the U.S. only in the 1950s.”[3] However, this entry homogenizes the more complex nature of the bodega and its role within Latinx neighborhood cultures. In her book From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, Virginia Sánchez Korrol speaks to the 1950s influx of Puerto Rican immigration and settlement that resulted in a development of bodegas in New York City. Referencing Puerto Rican migration studies, both pre- and post-World War II, she characterizes the communal structures within Puerto Rican settlements as “prepared to cushion the impact of the migration experience and to perpetuate essential characteristics designed to maintain that community intact.”[4] A particular aspect of this community formation was the proliferation of small businesses that deliberately catered to migrant needs, and Korrol cites the bodega as “the first business in the neighborhood concerned with the Puerto Rican consumer.”[5] Indeed, these settlements were crucial sites of support, ready to provide the community ties necessary for new migrants to survive a harsh transition to the United States’ mainland.

Korrol further characterizes 1950s Puerto Rican neighborhoods as “providing outlets for Puerto Rican interests, creating institutions which affirmed social identity and fostered internal activities while coping with problems stemming from contacts with the host society, and offering the migrant a familiar base in which to operate.”[6] Thus, the bodega becomes more than a “Hispanic American grocery store.” The bodega becomes a cultural site of resistance in which migrants can access food, be socially affirmed, gain local information, and cope with a hostile new environment—all while maintaining and keeping their cultural affinities alive. This is true not only for Puerto Rican communities, but for other Latinx migrant populations who brought their bodega culture with them as a means of survival.

Consequently, my ambivalence toward a white neighborhood coffee shop using a culturally significant term like “bodega” stems from a fear that such usage is only another example of the reification of Latinx bodies and cultural productions at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. By reification, I use Marcial González’s definition when he says “the manner in which forms of cultural production assume the logic of capital and thus obfuscate their own class content.”[7] Indeed, for a neighborhood like Hyde Park to adopt the term bodega turns the culturally specific site into a marketable object—the racial and economic otherness becomes part of its charm, and it loses any and all of its ties to a particular racial, ethnic, or class identity, “making a static object out of a dynamic process.”[8] And yet, the economic crisis resulting from this global pandemic causes me to take pause.

I do not mean to undermine the overwhelming disparity of coronavirus cases and economic losses between whites and people of color. The Pew Research Center shows that Latinx people have been among the most affected by pay cuts and job losses, most likely because they often hold more low-paying or service-industry jobs due to lower levels of educational attainment.[9] Studies also show that Latinx people are likely to be employed as “essential workers”—the label given to employees who work in industries deemed necessary to stay open—thereby enabling some job security but leaving them more at-risk for contracting the virus.[10] Furthermore, Latinx populations are especially at risk because of lower access to healthcare.[11]

As one might expect, the data represents people of color, and especially Latinx individuals, as the most susceptible to both health and economic effects from coronavirus; however, this does not leave white populations unharmed. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment report for April 2020 states, this past month recorded “the highest rate and the largest over-the-month increase [of unemployment] in the history of the series… unemployment rates rose sharply among all major worker groups.”[12] The rates recorded were “14.2 percent for Whites, 16.7 percent for Blacks, 14.5 percent for Asians, and 18.9 percent for Hispanics.”[13] As illustrated by this data, unemployment is still higher for communities of color. Yet, when examining the rates of change between March 2020 and April 2020 for racial demographic groups, the rates are almost equal among White, African American, and Asian groups (10.2, 10, and 10.4 percent, respectively). The only group with a higher rate of employment change since March is Hispanic/Latino workers at 12.9 percent.[14] Again, I do not wish to minimize all these visible disparities; I only wish to highlight that this extraordinary amount of economic loss has indeed affected all major worker groups, regardless of racial identity.

Thus, it is in light of all this that I want to be gracious to my local coffee shop bodega and the services they have rendered to our community. Although I’ll never know if their use of bodgea is an informed choice—and there is now more evidence to the contrary[15]— I know that through selling surplus grocery items they’ve been able to keep their business alive as well as provide low-cost goods to those who cannot access essential items. By collecting community donations through their store, they have also provided free groceries to laid off and furloughed workers in Hyde Park. Consequently, I see their appropriation of bodega as a moment of both cultural dominance and cultural exchange.[16] This white business might carelessly adopt bodega as their own, but their use is also a means of local resistance and survival for a suffering neighborhood; in light of the pandemic, the cultural transfer becomes more reciprocal.

As a person of color, I am well aware of the inequalities my community overcomes day in and day out to exist legibly in our country: the fear, the uncertainty, the unrest, and the inequalities that the coronavirus outbreak only makes more apparent. And yet—precisely because they have no choice, no power to completely isolate themselves from the pandemic, white Americans are experiencing a small snapshot of what precarious living is like for the socially and economically disempowered. I hope that the use of bodega in Hyde Park symbolizes a white community who realizes that we cannot go back to “normal,” but that we need to create a new normal that serves the most vulnerable among us, developing through the experience empathy and solidarity for the ones that affront chronic precarity, beyond the pandemic. Perhaps bodega is the best term because its form fits the content of this season: people in a new and hostile environment, creating affinities and learning to survive spite of a government that does not adequately care for anyone.

[1] By “colonial power,” I reference Anibal Quijano and his idea that “the model of power that is globally hegemonic today presupposes an element of coloniality,” which he calls “coloniality of power.” See Anibal Quijano and Michael Ennis, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from South (2000), 533–580.

[2] Madison Gray, “The Bodega: A Brief History of an Urban Institution,” Time, May 25, 2012. https://newsfeed.time.com/2012/05/25/the-bodega-a-brief-history-of-an-urban-institution/

[3] John F. Mariani, ed., Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury, 2014), “Bodega,” http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/bloomfood/bodega/0?institutionId=4864.

[4] Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 51.

[5] Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 55.

[6] Sánchez Korrol, 53.

[7] Marcial González, Chicano Novels and the Politics of Form: Race, Class, and Reification, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 2.

[8] González, Chicano Novels, 10.

[9] Jens Manuel Krogstad, Ana-Gonzalez-Barrera, and Luis Noe-Bustamante, “U.S. Latinos among hardest hit by pay cuts, job losses due to coronavirus,” Pew Research Center, April 3, 2020, https://pewrsr.ch/2UILEb7.

[10] Rogelio Sáenz, “A Profile of the Latino Workforce in the Coronavirus Era,” National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, April 13, 2020, https://nalcab.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/A-Profile-of-the-Latino-Workforce-in-Midst-of-the-Coronavirus-Era_04-13-2020.pdf

[11] Rogelio Sáenz, “A Profile of the Latino Workforce,” https://nalcab.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/A-Profile-of-the-Latino-Workforce-in-Midst-of-the-Coronavirus-Era_04-13-2020.pdf.

[12] “The Unemployment Situation—April 2020,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, May 8, 2020, 1-2.

[13] “The Unemployment Situation,” 2.

[14] “The Unemployment Situation,” 7.

[15] In May 2020, an Austin food publication did a spread on the coffeeshop’s bodega. There is no mention of Latinx influence on the owners’ choice of name.

[16] Cultural dominance and cultural exchange are both forms of cultural appropriation, but they exist through different dynamics of power. See Richard A. Rogers, “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation,” Communication Theory (November 2006), 474–503.

 

Bibliography

 “Bodega.” In Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, by John F. Mariani. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury, 2014. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/bloomfood/bodega/0?institutionId=4864

González, Marcial. Chicano Novels and the Politics of Form: Race, Class, and Reification. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Gray, Madison. “The Bodega: A Brief History of an Urban Institution,” Time, May 25, 2012. https://newsfeed.time.com/2012/05/25/the-bodega-a-brief-history-of-an-urban-institution/

Krogstad Jens Manuel, Ana-Gonzalez-Barrera and Luis Noe-Bustamante, “U.S. Latinos among hardest hit by pay cuts, job losses due to coronavirus,” Pew Research Center, April 3, 2020, https://pewrsr.ch/2UILEb7.

Quijano, Anibal, and Michael Ennis. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–580. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/nepantla/v001/1.3quijano.html.

Quiñonez, Ernesto. Bodega. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.

Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory 16, no. 4 (November 2006): 474–503.

Sáenz, Rogelio. “A Profile of the Latino Workforce in the Coronavirus Era,” National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, April 13, 2020, https://nalcab.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/A-Profile-of-the-Latino-Workforce-in-Midst-of-the-Coronavirus-Era_04-13-2020.pdf.

Sánchez Korrol, Virginia. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

“The Unemployment Situation—April 2020,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, May 8, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf.

About the author:

Alexandrea Pérez Allison is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin and a pre-doctoral fellow for the Inter-University Program for Latino Research. Her research focuses on U.S. Latinx writers and the ways in which they incorporate archival practices to perform decolonial work.

Image: “Kate at SIP” by monsieur paradis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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