What Is a Bodega Store?

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Many times when people know I am Hispanic they ask me: What is a bodega store?  If you look up the English translation of “bodega,” you’ll find a number of different meanings depending on the country: wine cellar, wine shop or winery; the hold of a ship or place; pantry or larder in a home; or warehouse.

But in Hispanic places in the U.S., when you hear the word bodega, it will almost always mean a corner store. And not just any corner store – the bodega, originating in New York City’s Hispanic neighborhoods, plays a very specific role in the city’s culture.

History of the Bodega – What Is a Bodega Store?

Corner stores themselves have been around for generations, particularly in urban areas such a New York City.

In Irish and Italian neighborhoods, they were called food stands. But with the increase in Hispanic, particularly Dominican and Puerto Rican, ownership in the first part of the 20th century, these small grocery stores and Latin food markets came to be called bodegas, after the word for the little markets in their home countries.

There, the stores were part of the neighborhood, where locals would gather to talk, drink, and play dominoes. That community aspect came to be associated with the stores in New York City, and the name bodega stuck.

Today bodegas sell much of what a typical convenience store sells, and an average bodega has over 3,000 products. But the focus is definitely on convenience food and necessities: milk, bread, eggs, newspapers, candy, and cigarettes are all essentials at a bodega.

With changes in liquor laws, beer also became a staple; in recent years, more bodegas even offer fresh sandwiches as a nod to the New York City deli.

What Defines a Bodega?

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For many New Yorkers, it’s just a feeling.  In fact, these days bodegas are not necessarily owned by Hispanics or even in Hispanic neighborhoods – many New Yorkers call any neighborhood corner store, or tienda de esquina, a bodega.

There are certain aspects of appearance and product selection that seem to be the hallmarks of a bodega.  For example:

  • Signage: Bodegas generally have red and yellow awnings and signs, with signage in block letters. Instead of the name of the store, the products on offer are prominently displayed: “grocery,” “ATM,” “ice,” “soda,” etc.
  • International food selection: As neighborhood stores, bodegas respond to their local demographics. Hispanic areas will have plantains and plantain chips, stores owned by Muslims stock a wider variety of non-alcoholic beverages, etc.
  • Location: Many bodegas are on corners and often converted from some other space, and therefore they generally have no windows and only one or two doors. Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons that they can be targets for robberies.

Beyond just convenience, New Yorkers value bodegas for their unique atmospheres and their relationship with the community.

Many have cats to keep mice and insects away, and, like other cats, the Internet loves bodega cats. When radio station WNYC announced a contest the best bodega cat in New York, it got over 200 entries. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are even bodega cat Tumblr and Instagram accounts.

There are over 10,000 bodegas in New York City, so chances are, if you visit the city, you’ll have the opportunity – and probably the need – to visit one especially in Spanish harlem and Alphabet city.

Have you visited a bodega? Tell us about it in the comments!

3 Ways to Recognize a Pachuco

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So what characterized a pachucho – the stylish, rebellious Chicano teens – back in the 1930s and 40s? Three things to look for: pachucho zoot suits, Caló, and attitude.

Pachuco Trait #1: Zoot Suits

The defining characteristic of a pachuco (and even some pachuchasHispanic terminology for female pachuchos) was the zoot suit. Contrary to the fashion of the time, these suits were big, baggy, and flashy.

Zoot suits had high waists and wide legs, with cuffs that were folded and tight at the ankles (pegged). And the coats were oversized and very long (often double-breasted and to the knees), with padded shoulders and wide lapels. Very hard to miss!

In fact, with the entrance of the United States into World War II, zoot suits were actually illegal. The U.S. was rationing most essential goods, and fabric was no exception.

In 1942, the War Production Board directly impacted suit manufacturing by setting up regulations for “streamlined” suits. As such, most tailors stopped creating or advertising any suits that didn’t go along with the government guidelines.

However, demand continued for zoot suits – and production went underground. The blatant disregard for rationing – and the patriotism it implied – made zoot suits an even bigger scandal than they had been before the war.

Easily identifiable by their dress, pachucho youth in Los Angeles were the victims of racial profiling during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when servicemen attacked and stripped them of their suits.

Pachuco Trait #2: Caló

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Pachuchos not only dressed distinctly, they also spoke that way. They used a slang of Mexican Spanish that is called Caló.

A combination of Spanish gypsy dialect, indigenous languages, and aspects of Spanglish, Caló (sometimes called “pachuquismo”) appears to have arisen in the El Paso-Juárez area, the border region that saw the birth of the pachucho in the 1920s and 1930s. Due to its association with the pachucho gangs, the slang was associated with rebellion and counterculture.

Like Chicanos today who are able to switch fluidly between Spanish and English, pachucos were able to codeswitch – use English, standard Spanish, and Caló at appropriate times.

There are pachucho words and phrases that Chicanos still use today. For example: “órale,” “vato,” “carnal,” and “ese.” Even “pendejo” y “pinche” come from Caló.

Pachuco Trait #3: Attitude

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a pachucho was their attitude. As Mexican Americans, they were discriminated against in many of the same ways other minorities were. As teenagers, they were underestimated and didn’t have complete control over their lives.

Dressing and speaking as pachuchos gave these young people a unique identity and allowed them to feel part of a group, much like the many teenage subcultures that have come after them.

While there were pachucho gangs who were involved in criminal activity, many pachuchos simply dressed in what they saw as a fashionable clothes. As teenagers, it didn’t hurt that their style ruffled feathers with the older generations.

Pachucho culture, as a defining moment in the Chicano movement, continues to be relevant today.

Do you identify with pachucho culture? Tell us in the comments.

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