Bodegas Confront New Challenges

imageThe Yemeni American Merchants Association

By Itzel Luna

Sylmar, CA.

When Juan Valerio’s customers pick up their morning coffees and sandwiches at his New York bodega, there are no more intimate conversations and warm welcomes. Only smiles hidden behind facemasks and muted transactions through plexiglass. But all that matters to his regulars is that Deli Grocery is open.

“Bodegas are something essential for the area you live in. When you have a business, you view those people like family,” Valerio said in Spanish. “The clients are yours for years. There are people who [used to] come at 6 in the morning to make their coffee, and if that business is closed, those people don’t know where to go.”

Deli Grocery is located in the Bronx in New York City, one of the initial vectors of America’s coronavirus outbreak. Valerio has owned the bodega for 14 years, and the pandemic forced him to temporarily close it for the first time. The Yemeni American Merchants Association, which represents 4,000 Yemeni-owned bodegas, said about 15 percent of their members have shut down because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

“By closing my business, I felt like I abandoned my clients. When it [closed], the clients called us asking why we weren’t opening,” Valerio said. “They needed us.”

What his customers didn’t realize was that Valerio’s father had died of COVID-19. When Valerio reopened his store after a month, he had to adjust to coming home every day and not seeing his father. It’s been difficult. “We weren’t father and son. We were two people that always shared the world,” Valerio said.

He soothes himself with Latino home remedies, like smearing himself with VapoRub and drinking jugo de limon, all while repeating, “Hay que seguir adelante,” or “we must move forward.” This sense of hope and community is what has kept New York bodegas afloat during these difficult times.

Given that most bodegas are family-owned, their success often depends on the entire family. In May, 20-year-old Brooklyn college student Nasim Almuntaser’s father was hospitalized for two weeks due to health issues unrelated to the coronavirus. As schools began to go online-only, Almuntaser, an educational advocate for the Yemeni merchants group, found himself adjusting to virtual classes, working long hours in his parents’ bodega, and worrying about his father’s health.

“There was something that got me to the finish line,” Almuntaser said. “I want to make him happy, and make myself happy, and reach my goal.” Getting his degree.

As customer demand increased, Almuntaser’s family chose to keep their bodega open 24 hours a day. But more hours meant more possible exposure to the coronavirus. At the beginning of the pandemic, Almuntaser had to use the same disposable mask for two weeks. To help protect essential workers, the Yemeni merchants group started the NYC Mask Mission campaign, which distributes free safety kits to bodega owners. They include three to five masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and disinfectant wipes.

Youssef Mubarez and his family own three bodegas in New York; one has operated in Times Square for two decades. Despite the economic hit these businesses have suffered, Mubarez credited the survival of bodegas to their resilient communities.

“It’s this kind of community that drives the bodega owners and workers to stay operational during times of need,” said Mubarez, a spokesperson for the Yemeni merchants group. “At the end of the day, the owners in the stores are there to protect the people who live in their neighborhoods.”

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nasim photoNasim Almuntaser, a college student, has been working long hours at his parents’
bodega while trying to adjust to online classes.

By Alexa Figueroa

Brentwood, MD.

The American dream is a concept that has attracted many immigrants throughout their lives. While the idea has been adapted to fit everyone’s personal preference, owning a business is often a common element. Bodegas, small grocery stores typically based in urban communities, have helped make the American dream achievable for their owners,
as well as their employees. But the emergence of the coronavirus has jeopardized the livelihood of these small businesses and the fate of their American dream.

Juan Valerio, a bodega owner in the Bronx, always wanted to be an athlete, but learned to adapt his American dream to survive. When he came to the United States, he lost his mother, prompting him to become a bodega owner. He believes that being humble is one of the greatest qualities you can have. “Humility is something that you will always value and it will always show you the path. Never forget where you come from,” he said in
Spanish. “If you forget where you come from, the path will be filled with failure.”

Bodegas have become essential during the pandemic by supplying items that may be unavailable at a supermarket during the crisis. “The bodega has already, before the pandemic, served as places to buy groceries, diapers, milk. Some stores serve as daycare centers,” said Youssef Mubarez, a spokesperson for the Yemeni American Merchants
Association (YAMA). “It’s this kind of community that drives the bodega owners and the bodega workers to stay operational during times of need.”

The outbreak has created major challenges for bodegas, and YAMA has mobilized to help Yemeni-owned bodegas and the families of their employees stay afloat. YAMA represents 4,000 bodegas in New York. Fifteen percent of these stores have shut down due to COVID. “We help back home in Yemen for any family members who are being impacted by the pandemic,” Mubarez said. In New York, the group distributes bodega safety kits, including three to five masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and disinfecting wipes.

Many bodega owners, like Valerio, have taken measures to reduce the burden the pandemic has put on employees by being not just an understanding employer but a friend. “I’ve given them fewer work hours, and if they need anything, they can take it from the store,” Valerio said. He’s also taken them home so they have less contact with people in public transportation.

Nasim Almuntaser, an educational advocate for YAMA, believes that being optimistic will help customers and bodega employees stay sane and move forward. “You know, it’s just being hopeful,” he said. “And motivating yourself and doing other things in this pandemic to remain healthy is crucial at this point.”

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