Another Surprise in Portland
July | 2015
July 18, 2015 — Today, I drove through downtown Portland to soak in the familiar streets and local culture. At the end of Congress Street I came upon this corner grocery. Markets or bodegas like these are a true sign of Latin American presence in a city or town. Like Fefa's Market on Broad Street in Providence, they become a local place for Latinos to gather when they miss their culture back home.
Pleasantly surprised, I pull over and walk inside to see what I could learn.
Mixed in with familiar American products, the shelves are lined with rows and rows of Goya products.
The radio is loudly playing a familiar meringüe beat. On the far end wall of the bodega, I notice these Caribbean products (below), which are normally hard to find in these parts of New England: yuca, plátanos, mangos and more.
In the freezer, I find some tortillas, "Mexican gordita style" so I grab a bag and go over to talk to the cashier (below). Her name is Margarita and she is Dominican.
She reacts positively and lets out a gleeful laugh when I tell her I am visiting from Providence: "There are many Dominicans in Providence. Not like here, where there are so few," she says.
I asked her permission in Spanish to take a photo, and she seems tickled and smiles nervously. I wait until she peers in the mirror and then when she is ready, I snap a photo.
Owner Juán González, originally from the Dominican Republic, opened La Bodega Latina in Portland in 2007. Margarita and Juán tell me that in Portland there are very few Latinos in general: few Dominican families, some Mexicans, Hondureños and Salvadoreños.
I figured they would know, since the store would attract Latin Americans of all kinds who lived in or, like me, are passing through the city.
"In Portland we see many Hondurans who work in manufacturing plants that pack canned foods, and in the north they work in the potato fields." says Margarita. "Once a year, we see Mexicans who have heard about our store as they drive to Maine on their way to do seasonal work in blueberry fields in the north-eastern part of the state."
When I ask Juán why he felt a need to open this store with so few Latinos living in Portland, his answer: "Well, what was I supposed to eat in my new American home? Hot dogs and hamburgers every day were out of the question, so this became my second home where I not only could sell but also cook my favorite Dominican food."
One can order from a take-out menu on the counter and "home cooked" Dominican meals are brought out from the back.
After I pay for my tortillas and reach to open the door, a family speaking Spanish walks in and asks for a bag of masa (corn meal) to make pupusas (a Salvadorian dish, similar to Mexican gorditas). Juán takes them to the corner where he keeps limited supplies of this product and waves as I walk out.