Amaris, a daughter of Dominican immigrants and born in NYC, grew up around the bodegas peppering her neighborhood where her parents worked. "These small spaces felt like home to me, and the stories I heard from the people in them drew me in even more." Now her parents own their own corner store in Florida and Amaris has set out to share these very stories online at BodegaStories.com
What would we learn from immigrants if we listened to their stories? Really listened.
Hear how they struggled when they first arrived and how the language barrier can take years to overcome – and even then some words and phrases get lost in translation. How their minds cling to childhood memories from their native countries, and how the lives of their children here in the United States compare.
These stories – every one of them a gem in raw form – are what I set out to capture through Bodega Stories, a multimedia project I created in early 2015. So far, Bodega Stories features personal stories from people who frequent my parents’ bodega in Florida and a few from New York City.
There’s Miguel Capestany, who, in 1962, was forced to leave his native Cuba as an unaccompanied child and was sent to the U.S. as part Operation Peter Pan. He didn’t want to be photographed, but he shared his still acute pain with me. “The greatest difficulty in my life has been leaving my family on Jan. 6, 1962,” he said. “I left them all alone there, without knowing when I would see them again, but that was destiny… and I’m here now.”
Maria Frias, a 29-year- old woman from the Dominican Republic, spoke to me about her dream of establishing her own cleaning business someday. “I’m a very hard- working woman, I’m a mother who pushes forward,” Frias said. “And that’s what I hope for… to be able to fulfill that dream.”
And there’s Rolando Marquéz, who spoke candidly about the difficulty of life in Cuba. Before leaving for the U.S., he told me he imagined “a place with everything.”
As the daughter of Dominican immigrants growing up in NYC, storytelling was central to my childhood – so much so that it planted within me the path to journalism. Stories filled my local church before Mass at my heavily Latino and black neighborhood in Crown Heights, and at family gatherings.
My father used to work in a bodega in Brooklyn, and I remember listening to what felt like an endless stream of stories by regulars, many of them immigrants like him. They were stories of struggle and joy and unlike the ones I would see on television. I learned then how important immigrant stories are.
Who are we if we can’t learn to understand others and the lives they have led? This project is as much for me and other children of immigrants as it is for people who have no close ties to immigrants. My aim through Bodega Stories is to give mostly immigrants a platform through which to tell their own story.
For me, this project is a labor of love. It’s an honor for me to preserve culture, language and the experiences of so many that are part of a diaspora here in the United States. In Bodega Stories, I have found what fulfills me.
Below are a series of stories from Bodega Stories, reprinted with permission
Jorge Gonzalez Sanchez’s hands prepared meals for close to 60 years. Seated outside Orlando Latin Market, the 73-year-old recalled his culinary past.
His first job was at a restaurant in Artemisa, a municipality and city in Sanchez’s native Cuba. From a busy kitchen, he and his team made all kinds of dishes — everything.
“Typical Cuban food, Italian… a lot of people in Cuba love congri (Cuban rice and black beans), lechón asado (grilled pork), la yuca con mojo (yuca with marinade),” he said.
His mahogany face widened into a toothy smile.
“And their beer,” he said with a laugh.
Sanchez was 13 years old when he learned to cook. Out of all professions, he said this is what he liked the most.
“We had to live from something,” Sanchez said bluntly when asked what drew him to a career as a chef. “I had to pick a profession, or continue in the country…”
Now that he’s older, Sanchez’s hands don’t prepare as many meals as they used to. He does, however, help his wife in the kitchen sometimes — primarily with meat dishes.
“The kitchen is very beautiful,” Sanchez said.
One just needs to be able to understand it.
Jose Rodriguez’s musical inclination surfaced early on in life.
As a young boy in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez would piece together wood and cords to create his own instruments. He first learned to play the Puerto Rican cuatro and later graduated to guitars.
At home, he loved listening to music, including that of Los Panchos, a trio known for their romantic ballads and boleros. At school, the guitar was his greatest companion.
According to Rodriguez, neighbors told his father that he would become a musician someday.
“Papi would tell them ‘You think? You think?’… ‘But listen to him!'” Rodriguez said.
The 74-year-old sat with crinkled eyes inside Orlando Latin Market, laughter erupting from his lips as he recalled his childhood.
He’d observe older guitarists performing, watch closely how they positioned their hands on the instrument — where they placed their fingers.
Rodriguez lifted his hands, positioning them as if he were playing the guitar. He said he still plays, but not much. When he does, Rodriguez said it reminds him of those early years.
“I feel happy still,” Rodriguez said. “Thank God that He still gives us the energy and happiness to continue.”
Having a child did not come easy for Ada Oramas. She and her husband had tried to conceive for two years and, once she got pregnant, it was high-risk.
As she sat in Orlando Latin Market, the 47-year-old grew emotional as she recalled that time in her life 13 years ago — before her only son was born. Oramas said she followed doctor’s orders and was placed on bed rest. At seven months pregnant, her blood pressure rose and she was admitted to a hospital.
“I gave birth fine but they later had to give me a blood transfusion because I lost a lot of blood,” she said. “I felt ill but, thank God, everything came out okay. I had my baby — a beautiful boy.”
Oramas and her husband named him Carlos Perez Oramas.
In 2004, the family moved from their native Cuba to the United States. It was difficult in the beginning to adjust to life here, but Oramas said she and her family lifted themselves up little by little.
“I dedicated myself to my son — to be with me, to care for him, to take him to school, worry about his homework, his projects — everything,” she said. “I thank God I have a wonderful son, with excellent grades, honors. I don’t regret anything.”
Oramas said she left dreams behind in Cuba. She had wanted to keep studying economics — but still, no regrets. When she looks at her son, Oramas said she sees a blessing.
“It’s something good that has happened to me,” she said. “What I haven’t been able to do here, he will be able to — study what he likes.”
She said she wants a better life for him.
“Es algo tan grande (something so big) — tan lindo (so beautiful),” Oramas said about being a mother. “It even makes me cry.”