A Cultural Oasis Inside a Bronx Bodega
The Bronx corner where all languages and people converge and a culture is passed from one generation of New Yorkers to the next
Presenting the first installment of The Bodega Project, a new summer-long series from Electric Literature. Read the introduction to the series here.
There are several bodegas in my neighborhood, the most convenient being Yaffa Deli and Grocery on the corner of Lydig and Cruger Avenues. Yaffa attracts residents from the various peoples that call my Pelham Parkway neighborhood home. This international working-class district shaped my youth and adolescence in the 1970s and 1980s, when I grew up and went to school in the nearby Fordham and Allerton neighborhoods that still bring movies such as The Godfather and Taxi Driver to mind.
The first bodega I remember going to in the 1970s, on the corner of Bronx Park South and Crotona Parkway (now Poppy’s Deli), was a treasure box of Puerto Rican culture, where you’d find malanga and coconuts before you’d spot an apple in narrow, cluttered aisles. Colorful pictures of Jesus Christ and saints lingered in Roman glory behind Plexiglas during this gritty era, when New York City served as the perfect backdrop for crime noir spectacles like The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, two of my favorites.
Bodegas terrified me once I learned about the nightmarish holdup stories that began circulating in the neighborhood every time one was robbed, when the violent crime rate across New York City was more than twice what it is today. The gunning down of owners and employees was known to happen, such as during the robbery of another grocery store in the East Tremont section of the Bronx where I attended kindergarten. Bodegas became synonymous with the perils and triumphs of the immigrant struggle.
The corner store service areas (like those of taxis) were sealed shut behind Plexiglas the same way banks are today. This would change moving into the 90s during the Giuliani years, as the city transformed in general. And although bodegas still offer glimpses into the old New York that vanishes a little more each day, they were crucial sites of cultural exchange for Puerto Ricans and others; places where our music, food and language triumphed; oases surrounded by oppressive institutional forces such as racism and police brutality.
As Néstor David Pastor writes in his essay “Bodegas: The Legacy of the Puerto Rican Bodega,” for Centro/Center for Puerto Rican Studies’ online magazine: “Bodegas provided a link to Puerto Rico.” It was in these family-owned corner stores that knowledge of my family’s roots in the Caribbean was enhanced by the textures and scents of strange-looking foods with even weirder-sounding names: ajicito, batata, malanga. This often happened on humid afternoons when men played congas with beer bottles at their feet, while their wives exchanged juicy neighborhood gossip on foldout beach chairs.
It was in these spaces that my Puerto Rican father shed his bicultural identity and dove down to his island essence while talking with clerks and neighbors, where his Spanish became faster and more clipped, weaving in and out of the complex drumming always present behind the perpetual salsa soundtrack that played in those years. Spanish dominated in the bodegas of those days and it wasn’t uncommon for non-Spanish speakers to mime their way through transactions when encountering owners and employees who didn’t speak English or refused to.
Bodegas became synonymous with the perils and triumphs of the immigrant struggle.
A lot of that imagery remains and you can still purchase plátano chips and dulce de leche treats in bodegas where new owners learn enough Spanish to continue serving clienteles cultivated over many decades (generations, in my family’s case). This changing of the guard has seen many Puerto Ricans selling their stores to buyers of other nationalities, to retire in Florida and others places. You will more likely hear Arabic devotional music or Dominican bachatas in Bronx bodegas nowadays, but the ghosts of those past, where Puerto Rican New Yorkers as myself used to shop with grandparents and parents, are still there if you listen.
We lit candles for the murdered; crimes and bloodshed, events that scored television networks headlines and ratings back in the day. What you’ll never hear about were all the occurrences that didn’t make the news; people falling in love while paying at counters crammed with sweaty sweet treats, the passing down of musical and cultural traditions. The exposure to folklore and music and art; learning about the places your parents and grandparents once called home. (As for newcomers who complain about the cats…off with their heads!)
The bodega I go to now, Yaffa Deli and Grocery, is a less turbulent space compared to the bodega in East Tremont I so clearly remember. You’ll still find Goya goods and Mistolín (and now Fabuloso) cleaning products on the shelves. You’ll even see and hear customers recently arrived from the Dominican Republic and Mexico struggling through broken English to communicate with members of the Yemeni family that have operated it for more than twenty years.
I first frequented this bodega in the 1980s, while attending nearby Christopher Columbus High School. My best friend Edgar Santiago and I befriended a girl of Latvian heritage in tenth grade, who lived across the street from Yaffa (as it was also known in 1987). It is at Yaffa that I still hear Caribbean and now Mexican Spanish, but also Senegalese and Haitian French at times, in addition to English and Arabic — a working-class crossroads of global possibilities.
The Pelham Parkway neighborhood, squashed between the 2 and 5 train lines is a mix of single-family homes and tenement buildings; home to African-Americans, Yemenis, Dominicans, Albanians, Puerto Ricans and Jewish people, among others such as Pakistanis, Mexicans and Russians. The front doors of most apartments still boast mezuzahs, painted over many times by many hands from just as many places. It’s hard not to think of these things upon finding them.
My alma mater Christopher Columbus High School counts David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz among its alumni. Not a lot has changed in Pelham Parkway aside from lower crime rates, what the rest of New York City shares as well. There’s a taco truck now. The record store where I used to buy Duran Duran and Depeche Mode cassettes and 45s in the 1980s has been gone for a long time. I left in 1988. I came back in 2006. Yaffa was still on the corner.
On nights when I write late and need zone-out time, the fat cat follows me down the aisle in Yaffa, judging my poor taste in beer with a yawn: Budweiser. Panhandlers sometimes linger outside and try the hard sell — still. There are people on the streets who shouldn’t be, folks who should be taken care of by specialized professionals trained to do so. Most LGBTQ folks keep a low profile around here but not the Puerto Rican butches. I nod as I pass them on the way in.
The world will pass you by on the corner of Lydig and Cruger if you pay attention; staunch Albanian elders who refuse to shed their ways, hurrying Chinese fry-cooks, Pakistani stay-at-home moms and Dominican barber playboys. The same Greek family has owned the Lydig Coffee Shop since the 1980s, even though they live in New Jersey now. El Torito is where I go to catch up on the latest sounds out of Mexico City, as well as campy telenovelas.
The world will pass you by on the corner of Lydig and Cruger if you pay attention…
People are bound to complain that New York isn’t the same as it once was, missing the good times but not the bad. The city is growing and rents are rising, pushing young renters and buyers into areas they can afford to live and buy in. Some call this economic development, to others it means gentrification and displacement of the poor. This has been happening for a long time and all people — at one point or another — have been the newest arrivals in a neighborhood.
Returning to where you’re from is one of the strangest things you can do. You’ve grown in ways you never could have had you stayed. The Bronx continued to crumble and rebuild in the seventeen years that I wandered through the West Coast and other places, collecting experience for — what I hoped — might make me a better storyteller one day. This is something I’m still working on, what I may never know the answer to. Yaffa was here the whole time, welcoming me back.
It forces me out of my shell, which nowadays is enhanced by endless digital distraction. I study the rough and tumble clientele that behaves according to its own silenced codes, something I never learned once I left for the West Coast at age seventeen. I’m reminded of this every time one of the Yemeni clerks thanks me in English, helps the person behind me in Spanish and says something secretive to his colleague in Arabic, a sophisticated operation that eludes proper praise and description. I love the Bronx for this reason and always will.
All the world in one place.
About the Author
Charlie Vázquez is the Director of the Bronx Writers Center at Bronx Council on the Arts. He’s published fiction and poetry and served as the New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra literary celebration for five years. Charlie was awarded a commendation by the NYC Comptroller’s Office in 2014 for his contribution to the literary heritage of New York’s Latino community. He’s completed a new novel and second short story collection, works of supernatural fiction set in Puerto Rico. He’s seeking a literary agent and meets with various groups throughout the Bronx regularly, encouraging them to express themselves through the written word. You can follow him @CharlieVazquez.
— Photography by Anu Jindal
— The Bodega Project is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.