By SIMÓN RIOS
March 23, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — The small shop is filled to the brim, a cornucopia of items catering to the Central Americans along Acushnet Avenue and beyond. From the wooden tortilla presses and corn flour to the metal “comal” griddles for cooking the tortillas, the bodega offers enough items to make folks feel “en su casa,” — at least at dinner time.
“Mostly we sell Central American products,” said Erika Lopez, who works the counter at Tienda Centroamericana y Antojitos, “like tamalitos, pitos, items traditional to our countries. We have products from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and a few Cape Verdean items, not many.”
Owned by Lopez’ aunt, the Acushnet Avenue shop is operated by Lopez and her aunt and uncle. The merchandise — which can change according to the season and what’s in demand — ranges from Mexican flags and Salvadoran “crema” to iPhone 3 chargers and votive candles.
“They are highly devout people,” Lopez said in Spanish, speaking of her clientele. “Let’s say your uncle is sick — you light a candle for the Virgin or to God, and the next day your uncle gets better, then you light another candle. So there are many candles.”
Bodega (Spanish for “wine cellar”) is another word for corner store. They have long been a cultural holdout for immigrant communities in urban America. A survey of 10 of New Bedford’s bodegas found that the great majority are owned by immigrants — some Latin Americans and some Arab, but in most cases South Asian, including Indian, Pakistani and Bangladesh.
Muhammad Naseer and his partner opened Americas Market at the end of 2012. It’s the former site of a Central Food Market II he said was owned by Ignacio Diaz, a Dominican immigrant who also owned a large Latino bodega, Central Food Market, on South 2nd Street in the South End. Naseer’s is now one of the largest bodegas on the avenue.
“It’s not cheap by any means,” he said with a laugh, referring to the bills associated with running a bodega, which he stocks with a healthy array of Hispanic food as well as meat, cigarettes, phone cards and lottery items.
Naseer is originally from Pakistan but lives in New Bedford now. He said he has basically zero Pakistani clients, estimating that 60 percent of his clients speak Spanish as a first language.
“We didn’t open it to serve the Pakistani community,” he said. “We opened (in) the neighborhood and Hispanics are the majority.”
THE CHANGING FACE OF BODEGAS
When she was a 10 and freshly migrated from Portugal, Helena DaSilva Hughes remembers most of the bodegas being owned by Portuguese immigrants. But as the Portuguese became more affluent and moved into the suburbs, many of the corner convenience stores closed their doors.
Now that’s starting to change.
“I’ve noticed within the last 10 years they’re popping up everywhere, with more immigrants coming into the area, and that’s why the need is there again,” said Hughes, who runs the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in the South End.
Those who shop at bodegas are willing to pay a small premium for goods that they could find cheaper elsewhere — as well as products that can’t be found at the Market Baskets and Stop & Shops of the world. And for many neighborhood dwellers, especially those without vehicles, the convenience is unbeatable.
Although some of the bodegas cater to Latino audiences, they aren’t predominantly Latino-owned. Hughes said the fact that Latinos aren’t as prevalent as bodega owners could be due to a lack of capital. Regardless of who owns them, she said the predominance of bodegas proves there’s a healthy market for it.
“They exist because they’re making money,” she said. “If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there.”
Santa Alvarado, a Puerto Rican immigrant who came to New Bedford in the 1960s, said she grew up in New York City, where bodegas abound and filled with ethnic foods. Even today she depends on the bodegas for certain Puerto Rican dishes.
“The bodegas serve the communities,” Alvarado said. “I can find the Spanish food I make there.”
Now Alvarado does her shopping on Acushnet Avenue. She plays her scratch tickets and Keno at an Orhcard Street bodega run by Indians from the state of Gujarat.
WHY IMMIGRANTS? WHY BODEGAS
Immigration tends to work in cycles. Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center, said the first immigrants generally work in lower paying jobs. With time they are able to save money to invest in businesses — like bodegas.
“The Portuguese community were factory workers, garment and apparel, and (later some) were able to go into business,” Williams said. “It seems like that evolution hasn’t quite gelled with the Latino community just yet.”
The class background of different immigrants groups can also play a role in their ability to open businesses — like whether they come with access to investment capital or with just a few dollars in their pocket.
“By and large, someone who’s just working in seafood processing and trying to survive here and help support a family, it’s pretty hard to have extra resources,” she said.
Similar to the entrepreneurship among the city’s Portuguese immigrants, Williams predicted that in the years to come, as New Bedford’s Latinos become more established at work and at home, that there will be a higher concentration of business ownership among them.
Nick Patel’s family owns Corner Store and two others bodegas in the city. Asked why immigrants are likely to be bodega owners, he referred to his ancestors as spice traders.
“The Patels who came from India, they’re basically merchant people,” he said. “It’s a long history. You can find Patels anywhere, even if you cross the Atlantic Ocean.”
Patel said that with modernity his people have become more inclined to open businesses. In his case he works 50 to 60 hours a week.
Of Pakistani origin but born in America, Waqar Akbar helps his family at N & W Convenience Mart on Belleville Avenue He said native-born Americans aren’t always inclined to put in the endless hours necessary to keep a bodega going, which can mean saying goodbye to weekends, holidays and vacations.
“They are hard workers and the business requires hard work,” Akbar said of the immigrant community.
A year-and-a-half ago, Petro Mart opened right across the street from Corner Store, according to Michael Khalife, whose family owns the store. Born in Lebanon, Khalife said his father was in construction in the old country — going into this type of business was a fitting choice.
“With a language barrier at the time, they couldn’t go get a desk job anywhere, no college degree, so to work for themselves was a lot easier than trying to get into the corporate world,” Khalife said.
He said the family has run an array of gasoline franchises over the years. In 2002 they opened a shop on Coggeshall Street, followed by Petro Mart 2 on Orchard Street.
Khalife said he received a bachelor’s degree in business and “had options” about what to do with his degree. He opted to continue with the family business although the margin can often be slim.
“A little margin here and a little margin there, and you get the volume and make something at end of the month,” he said.
“(You do OK) if you get the right location and you’re set up in the right community.”