My Love Relationship with Bodegas

As as kid growing up in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, we had our local bodega. It was named 'Cubanacan', aptly so, because the owners were Cuban. And we are Cuban, so we were part of the cast of characters that frequented that store, whether we wanted to be or not. As a Hispanic, access to specific foods and brands is very important ... it's CRUCIAL, actually. No, La Llave coffee is NOT the same as Café Bustelo – gotta get those things right. My mother would send me on several daily missions to Cubanancan, because she didn't stock up on anything. So I would be sent to get a bag of Goya black beans, 3 plantains and white rice for that evenings dinner. I would race down the alley that ran parallel with the former 'Ravenswood' train line, come to stop at Wellington Avenue, looked both ways and ran into the bodega. Everyone knew me and they would tease me about being sent by my mom, yet again. It was the only grocery store that I've ever known to allow customers to have a 'tab'. I sheepishly would have to tell the familiar cashier lady that my mom said to put it on her 'tab' and she would smile and say 'no hay problema'. She'd take the receipt and write my mother's name on it. No questions asked. Complete trust and that's unheard of in today's world, but hey, it was 1974. Such a different time and place. 
Cubanacan was just a great store - it had everything you could dream of. The produce aisle was also the aisle for check out, so that was tricky because it was very narrow; so you had to pick your ñame and lettuce while you moved your cart to get to the register. Canned goods were in the center area, then a bit further back were cleaning and cooking items and the back-end of the store held 'La Carniceria' or the 'butcher shop'. The carniceria had a very cool map of Cuba cut out of thick wood and hung on the wall - I learned about the five Cuban providences and what the Cuban coat of arms looked like that way. All the aisles were ridiculously narrow and stocked precariously almost to the ceiling - but whatever you needed, they had it. If you didn't see what you needed, the owner, Gerardo, would be dispatched to the mysterious storage room and he'd always magically appear with your item - always. Anyway, this bodega was convenient and it gave the Hispanics in the area a sense of place, belonging and community.

As time went by, rents rose and those Cuban owners closed the legendary Cubanacan, and packed up to retire in Miami. My family saw many Hispanics leave the area little by little - being priced out and I guess, feeling like they didn't belong anymore. Now developers converted bodegas and corner stores into apartments. I think new building owners and tenants thought neighborhood bodegas encouraged street gang activity, so they started to disappear. Not having that nearby bodega made cooking difficult for my mom - I was no longer her local Cuban envoy. Bodegas got spread out around the city - walking to one was not a reality anymore. We eventually found another Cuban enclave on North Clark Street named 'La Commercial' - it wasn't as good and not as magical as La Cubanacan. It was too similar to American supermarkets, like Jewel and Dominick's. I remember their store merchandise signs were printed, not hand-lettered. They had Tiger Beat magazines alongside the Spanish publication ¡HOLA! - it didn't seem so exclusive to Hispanics. It was a weird hybrid that was trying to cater to dual audiences and shoppers. La Commercial just didn't want to stand out - I don't think they wanted 'exclusivity'. Ok, that's cool, but it's boring.

I moved to Miami in 1999 and I could not believe my eyes when I saw stores and businesses with Hispanic names proudly exhibited. There were bodegas E V E R Y W H E R E in Miami and even supermarkets, like Navarro's and El Presidente. We initially did our food shopping at the El Presidente located on Calle 8 (8th Street) in Little Havana. I felt transported back to my youth - hand-lettered signs that blocked the windows with store specials. This store had parakeets flying around in its vaulted ceilings - it was so curious and people didn't care about the potential health hazards, so I learned to not care about it either. Most Miami bodegas have amazing desserts (capucinos) and treats (pastelitos de guayaba) for sale alongside a plastic demitasse of Cuban coffee. Everything was written in Spanish and I swear that most of the cashiers did not speak a lick of English. It didn't matter, because Miami was like being in Cuba or any Latin-American city, I guess. Now the more updated bodegas in Hialeah carry lanyards and rear-view mirror hanging flags of every Latin-American nation - ethnic pride for everyone! A flag for you and a flag for YOU!

Fast-forward 14 years, we have moved back to Chicago and trust me, the availability and variety in Hispanic food is super limited in this city. If you go to Jewel and peer into their 'Hispanic' aisle, you will see 20 different types of tortillas. And some hot sauce. Refried beans. Jars of jalapeños. That's it. It was very disappointing ... I'm sure Mexicans felt the same way! It seems like the American grocery stores don't really understand their Hispanic demographic - it's borderline stereotypical. We honestly did not know where to shop - we didn't know the bodega scene in Chicago anymore. Thankfully, we found Armitage Produce, which is on the West Side and it follows in the tradition of the old bodega stores. Narrow aisles, things stacked up to the ceiling, freezers full of bagged frozen yuca and a rockin' butcher shop. It caters to all Hispanics - they even have the stringed Hispanic flags nations display over the produce section. Having access to a good bodega means knowing that you can get fresh steaks, cut and run through the machine to your liking, you can get coconuts, you can get green and ripe plantains. You can get your STUFF ... sometimes you want 'fruta bomba' for dessert. You want what you want and you should be able to get it.

What I really love about Armitage Produce are their signs and store visuals - I can describe it as 'sincere'. If you look at the picture below, the signs are hand-lettered or at least not overly manufactured. I know that the Hobo typeface is not a revered one in graphic design, but it works so well here. It seems folksy and not haughty at all ... it's a typeface for the humble. The typographic hierarchy is 'big and bigger' - stacked with very little leading. I truly appreciate the serif letters that obviously someone bought at a craft store to spell out in a 'screaming' manner, 'PAPAS' ... which I find humorous, because it seems like people couldn't find the potatoes.
English, Spanish and Spanglish are used liberally in the signage and if you're a neighborhood hipster, you're gonna understand one way or another. I mean, at least you'll learn about language as you shop. I think the chalk signs are pretty trendy - I've never seen that in any bodega from memory. This photo looks like it could of been taken in 1974, barring the prices, this space relates to the common person; the neighborhood kid, the working-class family and the single moms. The only thing that I felt funny about is that, there are quite a bit of surveillance cameras and I didn't want to get i trouble for taking pictures. I'm sure the owners wouldn't believe me if I told them how much I appreciate their store aesthetic ... it's not like that anymore. So, if you want to enjoy a slice of nostalgia and yesteryear, just find a bodega; you won't be disappointed. You get your PAPAS and off you go.

Armitage Produce, 3334 W Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL

Armitage Produce, 3334 W Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL

Armitage Produce, interior, butcher shop.

Armitage Produce, interior, butcher shop.

The site of the old Cubanacan on Wellington Avenue and Sheffield Avenue in Lake View, Chicago, IL.

The site of the old Cubanacan on Wellington Avenue and Sheffield Avenue in Lake View, Chicago, IL.