Need deodorant? Or craving potato chips? Don’t want to run to the “corner store” to get it? Well, soon enough you may only need to go as far as a deluxe vending machine. A start-up is looking to put "pantry boxes" stocked with the non-perishable items you might find at a corner store in key locations, like your gym, or a dorm common area or apartment lobbies. The name for this venture? Bodega.
As the name implies, the creators want to replace brick-and-mortar bodegas—the name given to those ubiquitous corner stores in New York City and Los Angeles—with these pantry boxes. They believe that with time, and data, they can tailor these boxes to meet the specific needs of an immediate area by tracking purchases and restocking those items that are most commonly purchased there, which is what seems to distinguish these boxes from normal vending machines. (The logistics of this restocking has not been disclosed as it is presumably a large part of the business plan.) But the idea has drawn a public outcry—and for good reason: It presents a very real threat to smaller mom-and-pop type stores, but it also appropriates the name “bodega," without acknowledging the cultural and social capital that these spaces have.
This history of Caribbean immigration to the United States is rooted in labor. As the United States gained influence in the Caribbean in the early 1900s, a pattern of labor recruitment began to facilitate movement between islands. For example, Puerto Rican farmers were recruited by American sugar estates in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Hawaii. And Haitians and Jamaicans were brought to Cuban sugar fields. The United Fruit Company employed thousands of Jamaicans on the banana plantations in Costa Rica. And Barbadians were a key labor pool during the construction of the Panama Canal, per American sponsorship. As similar economic opportunities became available in the United States, Caribbean immigrants turned north. Between 1901 and 1910 approximately 100,000 Caribbean migrants entered the US, which started a year-over-year influx of island nationals into the United States. These groups were dominated by Puerto Ricans and Cubans, thanks in part to active recruitment for replacement labor during and after the World Wars, until the 1960s. The second half the twentieth-century was a time of political unrest for many Caribbean nation and, as a result, the populations of Dominicans, Haitians, and Jamaicans and other Caribbean peoples grew in the US as they sought stability.
These immigrants settled along the northeastern industrial belt, which spanned from Boston to Chicago, with a considerable population in the New York metropolitan area. They worked in factories, hotels, nursing homes, and restaurants, and settled in the neighborhoods that previous immigrant groups had vacated—the areas now known as Spanish Harlem, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, for example. And as their communities grew, so too did their means for offering services to other Caribbean nationals.
It’s not an unknown story. Immigrants settle in a place, create a community around themselves, and build a support network that consists of people, services and goods that link them to their former homes and their new ones. In this setting, entrepreneurship is a pathway to legal and social citizenship. A Ghanian business woman who sought asylum in Halle, Germany obtained legal status by opening the first “Afro-shop” in Halle. The shop was situated on the borders of a redeveloped section of the neighborhood and a more run down section. It became quickly apparent that her shop served both African nationals as well as local Germans: she sold food products, frozen fish, male and female beauty products and telephone calling cards to customers from a variety of African countries, and beer, soft drinks, cigarettes, and snacks to poorer Germans who lived nearby. Her shop was a social site as well: a migrant from Nigeria used the front of her shop to sell hip-hop inspired fashions, while the back was a meeting place for young men of African descent could gather, purchase cooked foods, and share information about assimilation and build their social networks.
This is an important example to highlight the connection bodegas can have with the larger surrounding areas. For many Hispanic Caribbean immigrants, particularly Dominicans, bodegas offered a similar pathway. Since the late 1980s, there has been a large number of Dominican immigrant professionals and white-collar workers who were prevented from working in their professions due to licensing barriers. Many became small business owners as a means of economic survival. They purchased closing supermarkets, drug stores, cab companies, nightclubs, and other businesses and reopened them to serve the needs of the communities.
Bodegas offer their owners and any employees they support the dignity afforded by work. They’re a doorway to the American middle class. And for customers, they can be a connection to identity and products and relationships in a physically accessible space. This is the basis of community: people who have similar sentiments, histories, and experiences sharing a space and sharing expectations as to how their communities and themselves are defined, perceived, and represented.
While the term bodega is specific to the Hispanic community, the idea of the corner store reaches beyond that. I grew up in a neighborhood where corner stores were run by West Indians, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Koreans, and Italians. I lived around the corner from one, and I distinctly remember the owner giving me a quart of milk on my mother’s word that she would be by to pay him later. These interactions are important, and it is perhaps one of the reasons why so many people are angry about the marketing of a dispenser-type product as corner store entity. These places are spaces of emplacement. They mediate the relationships between the people who live in the neighborhood and the overall restructuring of that neighborhood in relation to larger social and civil changes.
It’s entirely possible that this pantry-box will find a market in the spaces the founders hope that it will be successful. While it might sell you condoms it can’t make you a bacon-egg-on-a-roll or provide a safe space for you to hide if you’re being followed by bullies after school. At the very least, it’s an insensitive marketing campaign and reflects a poor understanding of cultural capital. Urban development will only be as successful as the community will let it be, and communities judge new ventures and requests on the perceived cultural sincerity in the developer. It is possible that the product may be successful as a vending machine, but calling it anything but that may have created a hurdle that will prove hard to overcome.
How do you feel about bodegas—both the product and the space? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Douglas, G. (2012). Cultural Expectations and Urban Development: The Role of “Cultural Sensitivity” and “Cultural Sincerity” in Local Growth Politics. Sociological Perspectives, 55(1): 213-236. doi:10.1525/sop.2012.55.1.213
Schiller, N., & Çağlar, A. (2013). Locating migrant pathways of economic emplacement: Thinking beyond the ethnic lens. Ethnicities, 13(4): 494-514.
Portes, A., & Grosfoguel, R. (1994). Caribbean Diasporas: Migration and Ethnic Communities. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 533: 48-69.
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