Bodegas: The small corner shops that run NYC

After World War Two, Sanabria says the Puerto Rican population in NYC increased to more than 600,000, and their bodegas began to spread from East Harlem in Manhattan and Gowanus in Brooklyn into neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, the Upper West Side, the South Bronx and Williamsburg. Like a communal living room, bodegas served as vital centres for Puerto Rican immigrants to socialise, get information about employment or housing, or buy goods on credit if they were short on money. 

“Bodegas became the social hub, the social network. Anything that was happening, you could find out in the bodega, even the bad rumours,” said documentary filmmaker Lilian Jiménez. “Bodegueros were highly respected and people trusted them. My mother would say, ‘If you ever get into trouble, run to the bodega’.” 

Bodegas today 

Many bodegas have changed in recent decades with the city’s shifting social and demographic trends. When early Puerto Rican bodega owners decided to retire, many of their children didn’t necessarily want to take over the family business, so they sold their bodegas to Dominicans, who started arriving in New York City in large numbers in the 1980s. Today, the amount of Dominican immigrants in NYC is nearly seven times that of elsewhere in the US, andaccording to Christian Krohn-Hansen, author of the book Making New York Dominican: Small Business, Politics, and Everyday Life, by 1991, Dominicans owned roughly 80% of the Latinx-owned bodegas in NYC. 

Just as their Puerto Rican predecessors did, Dominican bodegueros cater to their fellow compatriots, selling dishes like the popular mangú (boiled mashed plantains), arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans), chicken chicharrones (fried pork belly or rinds), frituras (fried treats), sausages, fried cheese and sauteed onions.

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