The Dominican Colmado from Santo Domingo to New York
- Christian Krohn-HansenChristian Krohn-HansenDepartment of History, Sosialantropologisk Institutt (SAI), Norway
The colmado, or the small village or street-corner store, is a Dominican institution. It is typically a general store for basic foodstuffs, cleaning products, toiletries, soft drinks, beer, and rum. When Dominicans from the early 1960s onward started migrating to New York City in large numbers, they took with them a version of the colmado. On the way, they altered the original colmado. The result became the “Dominican” bodega or corner grocer’s in New York City, a new type but nevertheless not so unlike the colmado on the island. This essay explores the making and remaking of Dominican colmados and bodegas. The goal is twofold: firstly, to provide some answers to the questions “How have these businesses been created and run?” and “What are their most important and most striking characteristics?” and, secondly, to demonstrate that the Dominican colmado can be good to think with—more specifically, the hope is to show that the problematic of “the Dominican colmado / the Dominican bodega” offers a window for tracing and understanding in which ways the Dominican social formation has changed since the mid-20th century, that is, since the last years of the Trujillo regime. The patterns of the colmados and bodegas have mirrored broader historical transformations. But these businesses have also helped give the latter processes their form. Businesses and social configurations have been two sides of the same historical process.
Until recently, a majority of Dominicans purchased groceries and food in colmados and in public markets. El colmado, the small village or street-corner store, is a national institution. It is typically a general store for basic foodstuffs, cleaning products, toiletries, soft drinks, beer, and rum. Some offer more items. The colmado continues to be extremely important in today’s Dominican Republic—it is still the most common small business in the country—but especially in the largest cities, including in the capital’s working-class barrios, independent and chain supermarkets have since the late 20th century become far more important and increasingly taken over the selling of groceries. A number of colmados now sell relatively little food and have grown correspondingly more dependent on sales of drinking water, soft drinks, beer, and rum in addition to sandwiches, biscuits, and snacks.
Trade has for a long time played a key part in Dominican society, and to become a colmadero, owning and running a colmado, has often been a dream, carrying a certain prestige, not to mention a certain power in the local community (whether a rural hamlet or few streets or a barrio in a large city). In the mid-1990s surveys indicated that there were around 320,000 small businesses in the country and that over 70,000, or more than a fifth, of these were colmados or smaller versions of the colmado classified as pulperías and ventorrillos; 40,000 were colmados.1 A decade later, in 2005, the number of small firms had grown to about 615,000, and the number of colmados had increased significantly, to almost 67,000.2 Put another way, whether one wishes to understand the history of Dominican food retailing, the Dominican popular economy, widespread Dominican forms of exercising power and authority, or simply Dominican imaginaries, forms of consumption, and everyday life, one ought to take an interest in the colmado.
The colmado resembles a “total” phenomenon (in the Maussian, or classic anthropological, sense of this expression).3 The processes and relationships that give the colmado its characteristic shape should not be reduced to mere economics. They also have cultural, affective, aesthetic, recreational, and political components. The typical colmado is a site for production and sustenance of forms of kinship and gender—and of relationships between friends and neighbors. It is also an arena for the experience of lo criollo, or of what it means to be Dominican, in landscapes shot through with marked and growing globalization and transnationalism. Today the colmado appears economically threatened. But it continues to be massively and conspicuously present in Dominican society. It is a flexible, elastic form. The objective of every colmado owner is quite simply to sell, to make money. He or she adapts to the surroundings.
When Dominicans from the early 1960s onward started migrating to New York City in large numbers, they took with them a version of the colmado, or, put differently, Dominican immigrants in a way replanted the typical Dominican colmado in the Big Apple. On the way, of course, they transformed the original colmado. But they also changed those stores, originally bought from Puerto Ricans, Irish, and Italians. The outcome became the “Dominican” bodega in New York, a new type. (In Puerto Rico and Cuba, a small neighborhood grocery store is referred to as a bodega, and New York’s Latinos similarly call the city’s small groceries bodegas.) But in many ways the colmado on the island and the Dominican bodega in New York are fairly similar. In 1991, Dominican immigrants owned around 80 percent of the approximately nine thousand bodegas and independent groceries controlled by Latinos in New York City.4 In some areas of the city, like Upper Manhattan and parts of the southwestern Bronx, there are today Dominican bodegas on almost every street corner.
This essay explores the making and remaking of Dominican colmados and Dominican bodegas.5 The goal is a twofold one: firstly, to provide some answers to the questions “how have these businesses been created and run?” and “what have been their most important and most striking characteristics?,” and secondly, and more ambitiously, to demonstrate that the Dominican colmado can be good to think with—more specifically, the hope here is to show that the problematic of “the Dominican colmado / the Dominican bodega” offers a window for tracing and understanding the ways the Dominican social formation has changed since the mid-20th century, that is, since the last years of the Trujillo regime.6 The patterns of the colmados and bodegas have mirrored broader historical transformations. But these businesses have also helped give the latter processes their form. Businesses and social configurations have been two sides of the same historical process.
In sum, this examination of the Dominican colmado and the Dominican bodega seeks to avoid a model of “the economy” (or of “capitalism,” or for that matter, of “neoliberalism”) as an economic order governed by universal laws. Instead, it sets out from the premise that all forms of economic action and consumption practice are shaped by, and articulate, historically specific imageries and sentiments—that is, forms of culture and desire. One always needs a cultural analysis of economic projects and activities.7
The Colmado as a “Total” Phenomenon
The word “colmado” is probably derived from the verb colmar (“fill to the brim”).8 In a few areas in the Dominican countryside, people use the word “bodega,” or even “pulpería,” instead of colmado. But most often the category pulpería is associated by Dominicans with a smaller and simpler store than the colmado.
According to Gerald Murray, there are two significant reasons why the colmado historically developed into the important Dominican institution it is today.9 First, urbanization created a market for food. Substantial urban growth started in the 1950s, and it gained major momentum in the 1960s and 1970s.10 In 1920, the Dominican capital had barely more than thirty thousand residents. In 2012, greater Santo Domingo had become the largest Caribbean city and was home to nearly three million people, corresponding to around 28 percent of the nation’s population. Today, over 70 percent of the Dominican population lives in cities. Second, the rapid urban expansion and the creation of new neighborhoods resulted in a situation where more and more people lived and worked far away from what had previously been the principal urban supplier of food to families and households: the public market. The Dominican state’s policy was to provide the many new working-class barrios with streets and parks, but not markets. The niche was filled by the colmados; their owners purchased vegetables, fruit, and víveres (the green plantains and native starchy roots that for a long time have been a staple of the Dominican diet—cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, etc.) in the public markets and sold the products in the barrios.
The colmados were often based on the family’s labor. Often a boy or a young man left the countryside and started working in a relative’s colmado in one of Santo Domingo’s new barrios. It was a pattern—a form of chain migration. As one man in Santo Domingo, an owner of several colmados, put it, earlier, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a poor young man in the countryside generally had two options if he wanted to leave the village and try his luck: joining the armed forces or going to work in a colmado. In the city he slept and ate in the colmado. After a trial period of half a year, his relative started paying him a tiny salary. They worked almost continuously; the store opened at seven in the morning and closed late in the evening or around midnight, seven days a week.
Manolo Troncoso in 2012 was the head of La Federación Nacional de Comerciantes Detallistas, the national association of colmado owners. In addition, he ran two colmados in one of Santo Domingo’s old working-class barrios, San Carlos. He had left his village and begun working in a colmado in San Carlos in 1963 when he was twelve. Eleven years later he had managed to put aside a little and borrowed some money from a brother and a friend, and he purchased his first business, a colmado in San Carlos. Edwin Gómez is approximately twenty years younger than Manolo and owns and runs two small supermarkets in Santo Domingo. He was thirteen when he relocated in the mid-1980s from the hamlet where he had grown up to Los Trinitarios, a poor neighborhood in the eastern part of Santo Domingo. His father, who already lived in Los Trinitarios, had sent for him. Together they established a small colmado—first in the same house where they lived, and then in new, rented premises.
A Dominican colmado is never a self-service shop. Customers enter the store and are attended by those behind the counter. Most often one or two persons work behind the counter, and most, if not all the goods—canned food, rice, bread, beverages, cleaning products, sweets, and so on—are stored behind the counter. Usually the store is small and packed, with boxes of fruits or vegetables or some other commodities occupying a part of the space in front of the counter. More goods may be stored on the pavement in front of the store. The colmado’s bottles of rum and whiskey are typically put a very visible place, for example, just behind the counter.
In order to be able to open or buy a colmado one needs capital. When Manolo Troncoso bought his first colmado in San Carlos in 1974, he paid only six thousand pesos. A good or large colmado in those days, he continued, cost only ten thousand, perhaps twelve thousand. Forty years later, one needed at least half a million, and perhaps between one and two million pesos. Many have raised capital with the aid of relatives and friends. A number have resorted to prestamistas, or moneylenders, although the interest rates are high. A few, especially since the 1990s, have been able to borrow from a bank. Those with established reputations in the business whom the suppliers trust can stock the store on credit.
The colmados in Santo Domingo have mainly been run in two different ways. Some are operated as family businesses, or mom-and-pop stores. Other colmados are run by “un administrador”—an administrator. Some men own several colmados in various barrios—five, six, seven. They use administrators to operate their stores. The latter are not paid a wage. Instead, they have an agreement that gives them a percentage of the colmado’s profits.
Owners who run their colmados through administrators described a constant challenge, a dilemma even. A man is recruited as an administrator because he is regarded as serio (honest) and enjoys the owner’s confianza (trust). He may be a friend or a close relative. But the colmado works almost entirely with cash. Not infrequently the absentee owner may be a bit uncertain or start nurturing suspicions. Do people in the colmado steal from him? Is he being cheated? Edwin Gómez explained that he and his father had owned five colmados when they decided to sell four of them and just keep one and instead gradually develop the latter into an independent supermarket. The reason, he said, was that it had been difficult to find good people to run their colmados and that they had been dissatisfied with the results. As he put it (exaggerating), “The colmados lack control. There is no registration. What you do, quite simply, is leave the money in the cash register, put two or three people to work there, and everybody does as he pleases.” Put another way, sentiments or affective forms operate as forces of production. Colmados are established and developed based on feelings of trust and loyalty. But distrust and feelings of betrayal are also sentiments—and such feelings may result in changes or closings of colmados.
Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, the colmados in the Dominican capital got their merchandise from the city’s wholesalers—the owners and operators of the almacenes. Many of those who were wholesalers had themselves once run a colmado. But this has changed. Many almacenes in the Dominican capital have disappeared. Instead, the colmados are now regularly visited by representatives of the industry or distributors and thus purchase directly from them. However, colmaderos still go at least weekly to one of the public markets to buy víveres, vegetables, and fruit.11
The majority of the colmado owners are men, and most of the employees are men. But this does not mean that a colmado owned or operated by a woman is surprising; far from it. Many Dominican women run small businesses, and many own and run their own colmado. In the mid-1990s, research indicated that 42 percent of the country’s small businesses (outside of the colmados) belonged to women, while only 18 percent of the colmados were owned by women.12 There are at least two reasons why the business has been, and continues to be, dominated by men. To be able to open a colmado, one needs a certain amount of capital, more than what is required in order to be able to start in a number of other businesses. Women have generally had less access to capital than men. Second, employees and assistants in the colmados not only sell the merchandise but also carry, transport, and store it.13
Many customers are women and children from the area buying food for the day’s meals. The majority purchase only few things, often just one or two items, and in small amounts. The Dominican colmadero opens bags, boxes, and cans and sells, for example, a single cigarette, a few spoons of coffee, or a bit of tomato paste in a paper. Often a small boy or girl is sent to the colmado to get a single missing ingredient. Those in the colmado know their customers, or at least many of them. Often there is a sign on the wall that states that the store does not provide credit. But in spite of this, many colmaderos offer some their customers (such as those who live in the area and have a form of income, such as a regular weekly or monthly wage) credit.
Some go to the colmado to eat a biscuit and some cheese or salami or a sandwich, and in the evening, particularly on the weekends, some barrio colmados function as a meeting place for the neighborhood’s men. They chat, joke, play dominos, drink beer and rum, and listen to popular music. Some colmados have a couple of chairs and perhaps a table, or a place right outside in the shadow, and they play music. The colmado has always been a key site of popular culture. People discussed the local and national politics, elections, religious life, and sports. The colmados played a significant part in the historical transformation of the popular Dominican bachata music into the influential transnational style that it is today. This guitar-based music with its melancholic ballads, so popular among the rural and urban poor, up until the late 20th century was not viewed as a musical genre worthy of respect and attention by the nation’s elites or music industry. In addition, bachata was for many years excluded from FM radio and from television. Therefore, one of the few opportunities for listening to and enjoying this music in public was in neighborhood colmados. According to Deborah Pacini Hernandez, “In the 1950s almost every colmado (neighborhood store) and barra (bar) throughout the country was equipped with a jukebox . . . Trujillo’s brother-in-law Francisco Martínez de Alba imported thousands of these jukeboxes and placed them in colmados, free of charge, in exchange for 50 percent of the earnings. It was a highly desirable arrangement, because the jukeboxes did not require any capital investment by the owner of the colmado except for the cost of buying records.”14 The colmados with their records players, sound systems, and jukeboxes served, in other words, as key locus for the cultivation and dissemination of bachata music.
As should be apparent, the colmados were, and remain, above all neighborhood institutions. In the colmados, ordinary Dominicans make and remake neighborhood relationships, reproduce already established friendships, and develop new ones. The owner of the store and the customers greet one another and find time for a chat. Through the conversations news and gossip about the area’s families and businesses circulate. The stream of encounters in the colmado helps convert the small rural village or the immediate vicinity in the barrio into a community—a loosely organized order of shared pieces of information and meanings.
Writers on the Hispanic Caribbean have argued that there is a cyclical theme in many Cuban and Dominican national discourses that culturally constructs the nation (or what happened/happens on the island) in terms of complex encounters or struggles between two sets of historical forces—on the one hand imperialism, slavery, and foreignness and on the other independence, freedom, “nativeness,” and lo criollo.15 In the Dominican case, Lauren Derby has traced a powerful vernacular discourse on forms of food and the nation. This discourse shaped and used an opposition between big sugar and the conuco, the peasant’s small plot of land, a source of independence and of Dominicans’ preferred foods.16 Small farming produced, and continues to produce, the Dominican víveres—roots, tubers, and green plantains. The plantain continues to be perhaps the most important, the most creole or Dominican, foodstuff. Historically, the colmados sold these products. A set of strong connections exists in many ordinary Dominicans’ cultural and affective world between nativeness, the conuco, the víveres, the plantain, the colmado, lo criollo, and Dominican identity.
One sees the traces, and the lasting power, of these visions and stories in today’s Dominican society. The anthropologist Steven Gregory in the early 2000s studied an area of the country that since the early 1980s has changed radically and strikingly through development of international tourism. The colmados in Boca Chica, he writes, “were viewed by residents as particularly Dominican cultural spaces and contrasted to the tourism-oriented bars and entertainment venues.”17 Few foreign tourists and expatriates frequented the colmados, even those located in the heart of the tourist area.
The Situation after 2000: A Changed Landscape
The years from 1991 to 1993 signaled the beginning of a restructuring and significant opening of the Dominican economy under IMF stabilization programs supported by a series of neoliberal reforms,18 and in 2004, the Dominican Republic, along with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, signed DR-CAFTA, a free trade agreement with the United States.
A handful of larger independent supermarkets were opened in some of Santo Domingo’s “nicer” central areas in the period from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, but more significant change did not begin before the early 2000s. From the early 2000s onward, the Dominican capital saw the creation and development of a rapidly growing number of large supermarkets owned and operated by chains. These large stores were first opened in the central parts of the city but during the last years have increasingly conquered the barrios and the outer and poorer areas as well. That said, the food retailing system in Santo Domingo and the country as a whole remains highly diverse and fragmented. Large and small independent supermarkets, tens of thousands of colmados, a large number of pulperías and ventorrillos, and a multitude of public markets continue to play a part, and the chain supermarkets are not all owned and run by only one company. The two market leaders, respectively, are the Grupo Ramos (which runs the hypermarkets La Sirena, the supermarkets Súper Pola, and the discount chain Aprezio) and the Centro Cuesta Nacional (with the labels Nacional, Jumbo, and Jumbo Express). Both are Dominican-controlled companies (although both were started by a Spanish immigrant, one in 1935 and the other in 1965). In 2015, the Ramos group operated forty-seven food retail establishments in various parts of the country, and the Centro Cuesta Nacional twenty-seven. The majority of the stores were located in greater Santo Domingo.
What this means is that the economic condition of the majority of the colmados in the largest cities, and especially in the capital, has become significantly more difficult and precarious. The supermarkets, which outcompete the colmados through lower prices and high-profile marketing, are increasingly taking over the sale of groceries and food, not only to the middle class but also to significant parts of the urban masses. Many colmados in Santo Domingo’s barrios now sell relatively little food. As Manolo Troncoso, the president of the national association of colmado owners, put it: “The colmado today isn’t like it was previously. Today the neighborhood only uses the colmado to buy water, soft drinks, juice, bread, biscuits, many small things.” But in spite of this perhaps exaggerated claim, Manolo nevertheless remained convinced that the colmado does have a future in the Dominican society—that it will continue to adapt and survive, albeit in altered forms.
Two such adaptations are already visible. First, a large number of colmados in the Dominican capital now offer delivery service. The colmado has one or two light motorcycles and one or two young men who deliver merchandise to the house or apartment. The customer calls the colmado from her home, and the man arrives with the order shortly afterward. The latter is paid a low salary by the colmado owner and is from time to time given tips. Colmados in Santo Domingo began to develop this delivery service in the early 2000s. Supermarkets do not deliver. The population in the Dominican capital buys drinking water, most often in containers. Today in many barrios, the colmados typically deliver the drinking water to nearby households. Some customers live in apartment buildings, perhaps on the fourth or fifth floor of a building without an elevator; the man carries the water into the kitchen and replaces the empty container with the new one.
The other adaptation has existed much longer, at least since the 1970s or 1980s. Dominican law does not prohibit consumption of alcohol in the store. Some colmados, a minority, have been converted into what Dominicans call súper colmados. These are colmados cerveceros, cheap, popular places to drink beer or rum, almost like bars. The music from the súper colmado may be heard in the vicinity till late in the night. The súper colmado, in brief, is a place not only of recreation but also of considerable discussion, negotiation, disagreement, and moral nuisance in Santo Domingo’s neighborhoods.
The conditions of the colmados have changed, and the future of the colmado appears uncertain—but the country nevertheless continues to be dotted with colmados. As one interlocutor, a man in his thirties and an owner of a small supermarket in a working-class quarter in the eastern part of the capital, put it: “The colmado will survive! This country has a kind of colmado culture.”
The prices are indeed a bit lower in the supermarkets than they are in the colmados, and a large proportion of the Dominican population remains poor. In such a landscape, the colmados have three advantages compared to the supermarkets. First, the colmado continues to open boxes and bottles and to sell merchandise in small quantities. Second, in order to be able to take advantage of the supermarkets’ offers, one needs cash; the colmado provides credit (at least to some). If you are paid your wage once a month, you may lack money the last week before your next payment; the owner of the colmado near where you live knows your situation and your family and lets you purchase foodstuffs on credit. Third, the colmado is situated close by, often on the same street, if not in the same building. If one lacks one’s own vehicle, this is a considerable advantage. In addition, the colmado has other qualities. It is a place to meet, to hear news, to eat, and to cultivate friendship and belonging.
From Santo Domingo to New York
Large-scale emigration from the Dominican Republic to the United States began in the early 1960s after the assassination of General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, who ruled the country as a dictator from 1930 to 1961. Most of these Dominicans settled in New York City. Since then the growth of the city’s Dominican population has been staggering, now accounting for around 7 percent of the total population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007 more than two-thirds of the city’s Dominicans lived in the Bronx (38.9 percent) and Manhattan (28.8 percent). Most Dominicans residing in Manhattan live in the neighborhoods north of Harlem, in Washington Heights and Inwood—and most Dominicans residing in the Bronx are found in the borough’s southern and western parts.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a significant number of Dominicans in New York were factory workers, employed in light manufacturing, particularly in the garment industry.19 But during the 1980s, Dominican immigrants in the manufacturing industry declined. In 1979, 49 percent of all Dominican workers were engaged in manufacturing; in 1989, only ten years later, the number of Dominican immigrants in manufacturing had declined to 26 percent.20 After that the figure continued to drop. But more and more Dominican New Yorkers moved on to other parts of the economy. A growing number found jobs in the service sector, and many became self-employed. In 1991, the sociologists Alejandro Portes and Luis Guarnizo estimated that twenty thousand businesses in New York City were owned and operated by Dominican immigrants. Dominicans particularly owned bodegas, small and medium-sized supermarkets, car services, beauty parlors, restaurants, travel agencies, and sweatshops.21 Until the early 1980s the number of businesses in the city owned by Dominicans remained small.22 Most have therefore been bought or opened since then. But there is no doubt that Dominican immigrants have been developing their own small stores and enterprises for quite a long time. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dominicans ran businesses in Queens, particularly in Corona, and Dominican-owned businesses were found in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Upper West Side and in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn.23 In a 1976 New York Daily News article about the new Dominican core areas in Washington Heights, journalist John Lewis claimed, “Evidence of the changes can be seen everywhere. Irish grocery stores are now Spanish [sic] bodegas. Along the central shopping district on W. 181st St. several older, well-known stores have closed because the merchants said that they could not compete with Hispanic merchants who cater to the needs of the growing Hispanic population.”24
A central part of the history of how New York ended up with a considerable number of Dominican-owned small businesses is the history of the Dominican bodega. A Dominican veteran bodeguero and small-business activist and leader in Upper Manhattan claimed in the early 2000s: “Yes, I’ve always said that the basis of the emergence of today’s strong Dominican community in New York was the bodega. The bodegas produced the large homes that Dominicans now own in New Jersey. The bodegas created the large [Dominican-owned] supermarkets.”25
Dominican immigrants entered New York’s small-business economy at a time when it was undergoing significant change. During the 1960s and 1970s, many neighborhoods were losing their traditional retail businesses as white owners retired or moved away to the suburbs. But at the same time, the population of potential customers in these same neighborhoods was growing owing to new (post-1965) waves of immigration.26 In other words, the city was a profitable frontier for immigrant entrepreneurship, and among those who were willing to pioneer were Dominican immigrants.
The Dominican immigrants have in a way transplanted the Dominican colmado to Manhattan and the Bronx. On the way, they have changed the original colmado, but the differences between the colmado on the island and the “Dominican” bodega in New York should not be exaggerated. Dominican New Yorkers typically contrast them along four dimensions: 1. The two stores do not look the same; they have dissimilar storefronts, and the bodega in New York is usually located in a five- or six-story building. 2. The bodega in New York is largely self-service; the colmado is not. 3. In the Dominican colmado, a person may come in and ask for, for example, “ten pesos’ worth of sugar.” In the bodega it is different; here, a customer must buy the whole bag. 4. The typical bodega in New York preserves the food it sells better, since regulations are stricter.
But some of the more basic social and cultural features are almost identical. Like his colleague on the island, the Dominican bodeguero in New York greets customers when they enters, often by name. Sometimes he asks a customer, “And how’s the family doing?” José Delio Marte, a Dominican immigrant who in 2002 had operated bodegas in Washington Heights for over three decades, said of the colmado and the bodega: “Look, it is the same thing. Physically, they are different. But the practice to greet the customer, to chat with him, to sell some of the same products that we have there [in the Dominican Republic], and the wish to sell—this shows that it is the same thing.”27
The Dominican bodegas in New York’s core Dominican areas display and sell commodities that remind people of the homeland—products like the typical Dominican víveres, Dominican biscuits, Dominican casabe (bread made from bitter tapioca flour), and Dominican sweets. At the same time the Dominican bodega in New York has become a hybrid—or an entirely practical, historical, and transcultural entity. The dominant language in the store is Spanish, but customers can also shop in English. In arranging their signs and storefronts, many Dominican bodegueros in the core Dominican areas in Washington Heights and Inwood draw on national identity. Quite a few storefronts employ the word “dominicano,” or Dominican. Others use the name or logo of a Dominican product, the name of a Dominican place, or the Dominican flag. But even where a storefront exploits the word Dominican or a Dominican symbol, it usually advertises in English as well as Spanish. The result is that the typical “Dominican” bodega storefront in Upper Manhattan is replete with mixtures of Spanish and English, with a Dominican name, image, or flag in between.28 Take the Tenares Supermarket, a large Dominican bodega in the heart of Washington Heights, for example. In the early 2000s, a green banner bearing the characteristic logo of Presidente, one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular brands of beer, decorated the storefront. Other Dominican bodegueros employ another strategy; they have storefronts using the U.S. panethnic terms hispano and/or latino.29
The Dominican Bodega
It would not have been possible for Dominican immigrants in New York to obtain bodegas to the extent they have had it not been for their capacity to raise initial capital by mobilizing family members and friends. Often, one first managed to save some money, then raised more with the aid of relatives and friends, and finally got a loan at high interest from a moneylender. Not infrequently two people were socios, or business partners; each owned half the bodega. Dominican sociedades, or partnerships (on the island and in New York), are essentially based on trust, not legal documents, though some forms and other paperwork documenting the existence of the partnership often exist. The following is an example. Benito Paulino is from the southeastern Dominican Republic and immigrated in 1984. In the Dominican Republic, one of his uncles had run a colmado, and, having been more or less raised in that store, Benito already knew a good deal about operating a corner grocer’s when he emigrated. From 1985 to 1989, he worked as a manager of a Dominican bodega in the Bronx. Soon, however, he sought to obtain his own business. The bodega he purchased in 1989 was located in Williamsbridge in the Bronx, and he bought it together with a socio, his stepfather, who was his half-sister’s father. In all, he and his stepfather had $11,000. They borrowed the rest of what they needed, $45,000, from Cuban moneylenders; for the next two years, they repaid the moneylenders weekly. They paid back more than $74,000 for the $45,000, but after the two years the loan was repaid. In addition to Benito and his stepfather, Benito’s mother worked in the store. It was open seven days a week, from seven in the morning until midnight.30
Dominican bodegueros in New York have generally put in long hours. Some do almost nothing but work in the store and go home to sleep.31 Benito and his family are typical in this way. One week Benito and his mother opened the store each day at seven; at two in the afternoon Benito’s stepfather began his shift, and Benito went home to get some sleep. At four he returned to the bodega, his mother went home, and Benito and his stepfather kept the business open until midnight. The next week Benito started to work at two in the afternoon, while the stepfather and mother opened the store, and so on.32
Like the colmado on the island, the Dominican bodega in New York has been a site of popular culture and the making and remaking of belonging. People share gossip and news from the area and the homeland and visit the bodega to pause over a snack or a drink.33 In the early 2000s, Mario Solano ran a small bodega on a street corner in Washington Heights. The area was mainly residential but also had a few small shops and commercial establishments. Most of the customers were Dominican immigrants; they lived in apartments close by or worked in the vicinity. Mario allowed neighbors to post small papers with advertisements inside the store. Most advertised a room for rent. He also distributed advertisements for events and fiestas organized by Dominican New Yorkers with ties to the Dominican community of Cotuí. Although Mario had lived mostly in Santo Domingo before he came to New York, he had ties to Cotuí, and some of his close friends were from that town. A Dominican woman who lived close by made empanadas in her home and sold them to Mario. Another woman made chicharones. He sold the empanadas and chicharones in the bodega. He himself prepared ham-and-cheese sandwiches in the store. His most important commodity, however, was beer, and he allowed customers to consume their beer inside the store, although he knew that this was illegal and therefore constantly feared a sudden inspection by the police. On Saturdays and Sundays, men from the neighborhood dropped in or gathered for hours at the back of the bodega to drink and listen to bachata.34
If there has been a center in the making, remaking, and transformation of the Dominican bodegas in New York, it has been this relationship between making money and making and remaking ties between kin, friends, and neighbors. Dominican immigrants who have obtained and developed bodegas have drawn on their personal networks. Many of the stores function as neighborhood institutions: they have helped produce and sustain the same kinds of informal bonds—ties between kin, friends, and neighbors—that made it possible to start and develop them to begin with.
However, this does not mean that the Dominican bodega economy has constituted an “enclave,” a form of isolated or parallel sociocultural universe. Dominican bodegas and other small businesses have been purchased, sold, and run not in isolation from New York’s ethnic and racial diversity but as part of it. Bodega owners and employees have had to interact with representatives of the city’s police and other authorities, with representatives of large and small companies, and with landlords and moneylenders, and these have most often not been Dominicans.
Many of the relationships that have given shape to the Dominican bodegas have been transnational. Dominican bodegas have been bought, sold, and operated through practices and processes that connected communities and households on the island with stores, individuals, and networks in Manhattan and the Bronx. José Delio Marte illustrated this through drawing a colorful picture:
If we analyze it, we can see that our businesses, the sort of businesses we all do, go from hand to hand. If you are my brother and I have a business and the business is good, and if you would like to obtain your own business, then—what I do—I say: “Well, let me give them a call, let me go to the bank and ask them to give my brother a loan.” Or I say to my brother: “I sell you 50 percent of the business and keep the other half. You give me a sum weekly—you send it to me in Santo Domingo.” In the Dominican Republic, there are hundreds of people like that, people who have retired and own 50 percent of a business here, or they own one third, and they are sent their money monthly. So, the last one who has arrived is the one who remains, he’s the one who is here. And when he leaves, a new person begins. When he is finished, a new person comes, and that’s how it is. The family—all the members of the family are dreaming. I have seen families in Santo Domingo—for example, in San José de las Matas I met a boy, he’s fifteen years of age. When he is twenty-two, he will take over a bodega in New York. He said, “That’s how we do it. Carlos has finished. He gave the bodega to Juan. Juan will give it to Francisco, who is now nineteen.” Then Francisco must give it to the fifteen-year-old I met. Juan gave me my 50 percent. Francisco will give Juan his half. In Santo Domingo, there are businesses which operate that way.35
The bulk of New York’s Dominican bodegueros, like so many others in the post-1960s United States, have made only modest sums. Many have mostly only managed to survive, and a large number have failed and lost their money. A tiny minority have experienced great economic success. In the early 2000s, a large proportion—more than half—of New York City’s small and medium-sized independent supermarkets were owned and operated by first-generation Dominican immigrants. Dominicans started taking over independent supermarkets around 1980. A great majority of those Dominicans who two or three decades later controlled supermarkets had begun in a bodega, as an employee or as an owner and operator of a bodega.36
In sum, after 1950 Dominican society changed in significant ways (although the country also saw significant historical continuities—much remained the same). In 1961, the protracted Trujillo dictatorship ended. The nation saw rapid urbanization and a massive emigration to New York. The Dominican colmado and the Dominican bodega were central parts of these historical and social transformations. Through a myriad of colmados and bodegas, ordinary Dominicans had easy access to food and other products. At the same time the colmados and the bodegas made it possible for the Dominican (urban/diasporic) popular and poor masses to cultivate and experience community and belonging in a shifting, interconnected, and profoundly globalized world.
Discussion of the Literature
The scholarly literature on the history of the Dominican colmado is limited. Few works exist, and there is still not a systematic or more comprehensive academic historical work on the colmado as an economic, social, and cultural institution, or as an element of the country’s rural and urban history.
A research institution in Santo Domingo, the Fondo para el Financiamiento de la Microempresa (FondoMicro), has been publishing since the early 1990s quantitative data on and analyses of the Dominican Republic’s small firms; the reports convey findings from the institution’s annual survey-based investigation into the sector.37 These publications document clearly the colmado’s continued national significance.
The only monograph on the Dominican colmado that exists, El Colmado, was written by the American anthropologist Gerald F. Murray and was published by FondoMicro in 1996.38 The study, which is around 370 pages in length, is based on Murray’s participant observation in colmados in the Dominican capital in the mid-1990s; in addition it draws on FondoMicro’s statistical data. The book contains a vivid and excellent examination of the economic and cultural practices and processes that give form to the colmados.
Some brief references to the Dominican colmado and its significance are found in a set of anthropological monographs written by Kenneth E. Sharpe (on a coffee-producing community), Deborah Pacini Hernandez (on bachata), and Steven Gregory (on a tourist area).39 A classic work, H. Hoetink’s The Dominican People, 1850–1900, contains useful information on rural shopkeepers and the emergent sugar industry’s bodegas, and more generally trade and commerce, in the second half of the 19th century.40 Lauren Derby’s essay “Gringo Chickens with Worms: Food and Nationalism in the Dominican Republic” offers a fine, thought-provoking analysis of central Dominican discourses of food.41 The sociologist Wilfredo Lozano and the historian Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof have produced many-faceted, stimulating analyses of the Dominican capital’s demographic and geographic expansion after 1950.42 The best studies of the country’s economic, social, and cultural history under Trujillo are those by Richard L. Turits and Lauren Derby.43
An early, detailed analysis of Dominican New Yorkers’ small businesses, including small grocery stores or bodegas, is found in the book Capitalistas del Trópico by the sociologists Alejandro Portes and Luis E. Guarnizo.44 The work builds to a significant extent on Guarnizo’s doctoral research.45 Both works provide quantitative data. A more recent study is the anthropologist Christian Krohn-Hansen’s Making New York Dominican.46 This book, which blends ethnographically driven analysis with forms of oral history, focuses especially on Dominicans in New York’s small business economy, in particular the bodega and supermarket and taxi industries.
Glenn Hendricks’s fascinating early study and Hoffnung-Garskof’s A Tale of Two Cities provide valuable contributions to the understanding of the emergence and the transformation of the Dominican community in New York City.47 Both works include some references to Dominican bodegas. Two fine studies of aspects of the social and cultural history of the neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood are the historian Steven M. Lowenstein’s Frankfurt on the Hudson and the anthropologist Jorge Duany’s Quisqueya on the Hudson.48
In 1942, a group of colmado owners in the Dominican capital founded an interest organization, La Asociación de Detallistas de Provisiones del Distrito Nacional. Today it has its own premises in the center of the city and is the oldest association of owners and operators of colmados in the country. From 1943 to 1966 the association published the Boletín del Detallista, with news and information of interest to colmaderos in the capital. The association’s representatives may help identify and locate possible sources for production of oral history. In addition the Boletín may contain valuable material. The organization’s address is Jacinto de la Concha no. 49, Santo Domingo.
The national organization is La Federación Nacional de Comerciantes Detallistas de Provisiones (FENACODEP). This organization, which was founded in 1976, has member associations across the national territory; La Asociación de Detallistas de Provisiones del Distrito Nacional is a member of the FENACODEP. The leaders and representatives of the FENACODEP have a considerable network; they know colmado owners and activists in most parts of the country and may help identify groups and individuals as sources of oral history on Dominican commerce, Dominican foodstuffs, and Dominican colmados. Since 1992 the FENACODEP has published its own newspaper, El Detallista.
Dominican national newspapers (such as Listín Diario, El Caribe, El Siglo, El Nacional, and Hoy) have over the years published a long list of articles with material on colmados and colmado-related issues.
Founded in 1992 and housed at the City College of New York, the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York (CUNY DSI) is the United States’ first university-based research institute devoted to the study of people of Dominican descent in the country. The institute houses the Dominican Archives and the Dominican Library, the only institutions in the United States collecting primary- and secondary-source material about people of Dominican descent. The CUNY DSI has its own librarian and its archivist, and it is a natural place to start the search for written primary-source material.
The history of the Dominican bodegas in New York is probably most productively studied through forms of oral history. Veterans and activists in the Dominican bodega economy may be located with the aid of the city’s Latino and Dominican small business associations. A place to start may be the New York State Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce (NYSFHCC), located at 2710 Broadway (at the corner of 104th Street). The NYSFHCC, which was founded in 1983, has a group of Dominican small business associations among its members.
- Derby, Lauren. “Gringo Chickens with Worms: Food and Nationalism in the Dominican Republic.” In Close Encounters of Empire. Edited by Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore, 451–493. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
- Georges, Eugenia. The Making of a Transnational Community: Migration, Development, and Cultural Change in the Dominican Republic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
- Hendricks, Glenn. The Dominican Diaspora: From the Dominican Republic to New York City; Villagers in Transition. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1974.
- Hoetink, H. The Dominican People, 1850–1900: Notes for a Historical Sociology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
- Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse. A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
- Krohn-Hansen, Christian. Making New York Dominican: Small Business, Politics, and Everyday Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
- Laó-Montes, Agustín, and Arlene Dávila, eds. Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
- Murray, Gerald F. El Colmado: Una Investigación Antropológica. Santo Domingo: FondoMicro, 1996.
- Portes, Alejandro, and Luis E. Guarnizo. Capitalistas del Trópico. 2d ed. Santo Domingo: Programa FLACSO República Dominicana, 1991.
- Turits, Richard L. Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
1. Gerald F. Murray, El Colmado: Una Investigación Antropológica (Santo Domingo: FondoMicro, 1996), 4–7.
2. Marina Ortiz and Rita Mena, Microempresas y Seguridad Social en la República Dominicana (Santo Domingo: FondoMicro, 2007), 15–16.
3. Marcel Mauss, “Essai sur le don,” Année Sociologique, 2d ser., 1 (1923–1924): 30–186.
4. R. Martinez Alequin, “Who’s Running the Bodega?” New York Newsday, August 29, 1991; E. Silverman, “The New Nueva York: Taking Care of Business,” New York Newsday, October 21, 1991.
5. The author’s first encounter with Dominican colmados was in 1991–1992 when he carried out his first anthropological fieldwork among Dominicans in the southwestern region of the country, in the community La Descubierta. The village had a number of colmados. Between 2002 and 2008, he conducted ethnographic research on Dominican New Yorkers’ small businesses, including bodegas and small and medium-sized independent supermarkets. In the period from mid-2012 to late 2014, he gathered ethnographic material on different types of small economic ventures in various parts of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital; the research included colmados and small independent supermarkets. Both in New York and in Santo Domingo he has visited and observed stores and talked informally with and interviewed owners, workers, and others. Many conversations and interviews have been about the past—about life histories, about the histories of particular businesses, and about economic, political, and cultural changes in the neighborhood and in society. This essay is based on all this research, in addition to reading of other scholars’ works, as well as a set of Dominican and U.S. newspaper articles.
6. General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina ruled the Dominican Republic as a dictator from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.
7. This general position has been powerfully asserted by, for example, Albert O. Hirschman in his The Passions and the Interests (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); Sylvia Yanagisako in her Producing Culture and Capital (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Kath Weston in her “Political Ecologies of the Precarious,” Anthropological Quarterly 85 (2012): 429–455.
8. Murray, Colmado, 19.
9. Murray, Colmado, 2–3, 29–31.
10. Wilfredo Lozano, La Urbanización de la Pobreza (Santo Domingo: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Programa República Dominicana, 1997).
11. For a vivid, instructive ethnographic description of one such trip to the market, Santo Domingo’s Mercado Nuevo in the north of the city, see Murray, Colmado, 65–96.
12. Murray, Colmado, 123.
13. Murray, Colmado, 122.
14. Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Bachata: A social History of a Dominican Popular Music (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 54.
15. See Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992); and Lauren Derby, “Gringo Chickens with Worms: Food and Nationalism in the Dominican Republic,” in Close Encounters of Empire, ed. Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 451–493.
16. Derby, “Gringo Chickens.”
17. Steven Gregory, The Devil behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 71.
18. Frank Moya Pons, The Dominican Republic: A National History, 3d ed. (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2010), 444–448, 458–459.
19. Sherri Grasmuck and Patricia Pessar, Between Two Islands: Dominican International Migration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
20. Ramona Hernández, Francisco Rivera-Batiz, and Roberto Agodini, Dominican New Yorkers: A Socioeconomic Profile, 1990 (New York: CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, 1995), 42–45.
21. Alejandro Portes and Luis E. Guarnizo, Capitalistas del Trópico, 2d ed. (Santo Domingo: Programa FLACSO—República Dominicana, 1991), 61. See also Luis E. Guarnizo, “One Country in Two: Dominican-Owned Firms in New York and the Dominican Republic” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1992), 110–114.
22. Guarnizo, “One Country in Two,” 110.
23. Guarnizo, “One Country in Two,” 113–114.
24. John Lewis, “Washington Heights and Changing Times,” New York Daily News, January 25, 1976.
25. Christian Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican: Small Business, Politics, and Everyday Life (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 2.
26. Roger Sanjek, The Future of Us All (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 65.
27. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 127.
28. On this see also Patricia Pessar, A Visa for a Dream (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1995), 24.
29. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 185–186.
30. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 66–67.
31. Pessar, Visa for a Dream, 38; Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 54, 113–117.
32. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 113.
33. For more on this, see Milagros Ricourt and Ruby Danta, Hispanas de Queens (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 46–49.
34. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 128–129.
35. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 102–103.
36. For more on this, see Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican, 57–66, 201–229.
37. See, for example, Miguel Cabal, Microempresas y Pequeñas Empresas en la República Dominicana: Resultados de una Encuesta Nacional (Santo Domingo: FondoMicro, 1992); Marina Ortiz and Omar Castro, La Microempresa Dominicana a Finales del Siglo XX: 1993–2000 (Santo Domingo: FondoMicro, 2003); and Ortiz and Mena, Microempresas y Seguridad Social.
38. Murray, Colmado.
39. Kenneth E. Sharpe, Peasant Politics: Struggle in a Dominican Village (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); Pacini Hernandez, Bachata; Gregory, Devil behind the Mirror.
40. H. Hoetink, The Dominican People, 1850–1900: Notes for a Historical Sociology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).
41. Derby, “Gringo Chickens.”
42. Lozano, Urbanización de la Pobreza; Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
43. Richard L. Turits, Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Lauren Derby, The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
44. Portes and Guarnizo, Capitalistas del Trópico.
45. Guarnizo, “One Country in Two.”
46. Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican.
47. Glenn Hendricks, The Dominican Diaspora: From the Dominican Republic to New York City; Villagers in Transition (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1974); Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities.
48. Steven M. Lowenstein, Frankfurt on the Hudson. The German-Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933–1983 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989); Jorge Duany, Quisqueya on the Hudson: The Transnational Identity of Dominicans in Washington Heights (New York: CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, 1994).