En La Bodega
By: Quizayra Gonzalez
The rumbling of the silver gates echo like church bells beckoning it’s flock. As the veil lifts, light floods into the space, revealing the vibrant configuration of The Gonzalez Deli. The flood of school-aged children disrupts the stillness of the morning. Their chatter shakes away the silence and awakens the sleepy bodegueros. They flow into the Gonzalez Deli in large numbers, placing their small hands on every sweet and salty treat they can reach. Waves of Doritos, coffee cakes, and Little Hug juices fill the counter as Bru, the owner and my mother, quickly stuffs plastic bags before the first school bell rings. Mornings in this Philadelphia bodega are quite familiar to me but this place isn’t just the Gonzalez Deli, It’s the bodega, my bodega, la bodega.
Today, I’m back in The Gonzalez Deli observing familiar scenes of everyday life. I started documenting my family’s bodega in Philadelphia after my father died in 2009. My father dedicated most of his life to this business so I confronted the space that defined my childhood in hopes of learning something new about him. Instead, my observations made me aware of the multiple ways life unfolds. Among these cluttered aisles, Spanish is only peppered with English; Bachata is introduced to Hip-Hop; and distinct cultures find their common ground in mundane transactions.
Drifting through the aisles, I let my fingertips graze the Goya cans and take in the unrest imbued in the air. Everything is in constant flux. The assortment of umbrellas, T-shirts, socks, and electronic accessories hang from the ceiling and sway back and forth, itching for someone to take them out of their canopy. Boxes are shifted around, broken down, flattened, and laid on the floor for cushioning. The midday drinkers and the errand-runners navigate the small space between the cereal shelves and beer refrigerator. They bump into one another. An argument ensues. The clinking of spatulas lure the hungry lunchtime crowd towards the back deli where, separated by plexiglass walls, the cook finds a small reprieve from the chaos that surrounds him. It is a hectic and vibrant universe from which much emerges. It is also a demanding one. There are no holidays, birthdays or graduations worth closing la bodega for. It is the faithful vestige of convenience. Many depend on la bodega and for bodegueros everything revolves around it.
I grew up floating inside this microcosm, witnessing my family navigate a new land through the daily exchange of products, services, and phrases. The world was framed for them through a counter made from plastic walls. Unlike sterile super-market counters or overly friendly, almost invasive, coffee shop counters, la bodega’s counter strikes a balance between intimate and distant. To the untrained eye, it looks like any other bodega counter but twenty-three years as bodega kid has trained me well. I know that among the neat cigarette stacks and sunflower seed packs, are small items that aren’t for sale. Images of children in graduation gowns and teenagers in prom suits are wedged between the plexiglass and the candy-filled square. Some have been added recently, while others reveal their age through their tattered edges. My cousin’s graduation photo is right below a family portrait of a loyal customer. These images of bodegueros, bodega kids, and customers turn the counter into a living archive, reminding everyone that, despite our differences, we are connected.
Before the evening rush, Bru takes a moment to write new prices on pieces of empty cigarette cartons. Nothing is wasted in la bodega. Scraps of paper are used to promote specials, and milk cartons are used as chairs. Everything has value here. As the sun sets, la bodega assumes its evening phase. The sporadic energy of the day is replaced with a languid air that blankets the space and its patrons. In contrast, the bodegueros, are more awake, rejecting the exhaustion of a fifteen-hour day. Instead of going back and forth, every employee surrounds the counter, mindful of the slightest movement. Unlike most bodegas, The Gonzalez Deli is not 24 hours. By 9pm, the last customers saunters out and the clanking of the closing gate resounds throughout the neighborhood. The bodegueros are relieved to end another long workday, and si dios quiere, will come back tomorrow. Once la bodega’s outer lights turn off, the block grows quiet as if, it too, is closed for the night.
 This term refers to those that own and work in the bodega. This is a term that usually refers to Dominican bodega owners.
 This refers to someone whose family owns a bodega. They usually live on top of the bodega and work there on weekends.
 God Willing. This phrase is used before or after any mention of plans.