The Legacy of the Dominican Bodega

Bodega owner Juan Soto opened his 103 Manhattan Grocery Corp. in 1995 in the Upper West Side. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Bodega owner Juan Soto opened 103 Manhattan Grocery Corp. in 1995 on the Upper West Side. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Seventy thousand dollars in three payments. This is the amount that Juan Soto – along with two partners – paid when he acquired a business that would become one of the Bronx’s first bodegas.

He was only 21 when he left his native Santo Domingo to start anew in New York, where he arrived on Jan. 13, 1970.

Miguel López was the owner of the store at the time. It was located on Watson and Manor, number 1579. In November 1975, after the paperwork was done, Soto had a prosperous business in his hands, as well as the headaches and sleepless nights that come with that.

Soto and his partners named the bodega “S y N,” after their last names Soto and Novoa. According to the veteran bodeguero, they sold the usual: beer, soda, cigarettes, dog food, mayonnaise… He adds that he does not remember selling any items imported from the Dominican Republic; their stock consisted of basic home necessities.

The business stayed in the family for 10 years, growing and changing with the neighborhood. Five years later, Soto decided to sell it to other relatives because he had bought two other bodegas. Today, he only has one, Grocery Corporation, located on 62 Manhattan Ave. at the corner of 103rd Street.

It was not easy, remembers Soto, and there were ups and downs. “As my dad used to say, now we live well; there wasn’t even water where he lived. Now we have everything here,” he said.

(…)

His priority was always his wife Altagracia and their five children. He admits that he was always afraid that the kids would end up in the bodega, so he worked hard to send them all to college. Today, the children are between the ages of 25 and 40, and two of them are psychologists.

Witness to change

Soto has seen his neighborhood change up-close. He remembers that, when he opened his business, the area was mostly African American and Puerto Rican. “I was lucky to be in the projects. Although it wasn’t great, you got used to it. How could it be bad? There will always be business where people live,” he says.

(…)

Soto has seven employees in rotating shifts and says that, even though his expenses have increased considerably, his business still gives him a good percentage of earnings. He will soon follow his wife’s steps: She retired after 20 years working at the bodega. “She worked with me a lot and got tired of it.”

The social impact

Like Soto, thousands of Dominicans left their country after the political instability left by the 1965 civil war. “The influx of Dominicans was possible thanks to multiple factors, including the aftermath of the war, the endless demand for cheap labor in New York, and the relaxation of emigration restrictions during Trujillo’s time,” said wrote Gabriel Haslip-Viera in his essay “The Evolution of the Latino Community in New York City.”

Many of the people who came to New York ‒ a city with a high unemployment rate and on the brink of bankruptcy ‒ “were forced to find work in non-traditional industries or create entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves,” said María Cristina García in a documentary by Immigrant News.

Dominicans pioneered the creation of bodegas in the 1970s, a business type that expanded rapidly ‒ often evolving into supermarket chains ‒ to the community’s benefit. Still, it was not easy, as there was no assistance or state subsidies back then, says writer and journalist Juan González.

Eligio Peña’s story was written in this context as well. At 20 years old, he left the Dominican Republic against his father’s wishes.

Things went well for those who agreed with the government, but Peña did not, he says in the documentary where he briefly tells of his experience as an immigrant. His father tried to dissuade him from leaving by telling him that the family had properties and land enough for all of them. “This is enough for you and my mother, but if you divide it between 17 siblings, it’s not enough,” said Peña to his father, who then let him take his brothers to New York with him.

Peña worked at a Puerto Rican bodega and also drove a taxi full time. After one year, an uncle helped him to buy a bodega in Woodside, Queens. The success of this first store encouraged the family to expand the business, and they turned it into a supermarket chain with locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. They baptized it “Compare Foods,” and it has been operating officially since 1989.

Other names who made their way during that time were Ramón Vargas and Primitivo Hidalgo. The latter was the last owner of the renowned La Antillana bodegas ‒ 245 E. Tremont Ave., Bronx ‒ and Tu País supermarket.

Ramón Murphy, current president of the Bodega Association of the United States, is part of this economic and social phenomenon. He believes that these businesses have served the community by providing basic necessity items, jobs and meeting points.

(…)

In the ’80s, he bought out a relative’s part of a bodega named Stop One, which used to be located at 134 Hamilton Place. “I kept going and stayed,” said Murphy.

He remembers how, since then, bodegas have provided the basics to a diverse community living nearby and the indispensable goods needed to prepare Caribbean dishes.

Murphy sold Stop One in 1985 and took his business to Coney Island. In 1996, he returned to the Bronx and opened a new bodega named Chef Linda. Two years later, he acquired Red Apple, where he sells a wide array of traditional Latino products.

“Bodegas were the foundation of the Bronx’s economic development. These communities formed, grew and organized. We, with these small businesses, opened the doors for investment,” said Murphy.

His opinion is shared by Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. “Bodegas are an essential part of our borough, and they have helped the Bronx grow financially,” Díaz told El Diario. “Most of these business owners are Hispanics who have transformed the Bronx through their success.”

Although the bodega business model is still current, both owners and workers face the danger of robberies and assault. Legislation and proposals such as the tightening of anti-tobacco controls, proposals to tax plastic bags and cuts to food stamp benefits have also had a negative effect on their business.

But, more than anything, rents are ever-increasing and gentrification looms. Ramón Murphy has said that contract negotiations are unilateral because landlords want to get rid of small businesses to rent the spaces to commercial chains able to pay more.

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