It’s larger than a typical bodega. With its conveyor belt, its checkout space is more streamlined than most bodegas. For those craving Cuban food, it has the pastelitos and bread that aren’t staples in all bodegas. Despite these differences, the special New York City relationship between customers and bodega workers lives on at Orlando Latin Market in Saint Petersburg, Florida. These one-stop shops foster a bond that’s not quite as possible in a grocery store environment, and 28-year-old Dominican-American Amaris Castillo has witnessed this firsthand since her childhood in Brooklyn.
Amaris’ parents – Damaris and Freddy Castillo – have worked in bodegas her whole life, so she grew up seeing the small shops as a second home. In the 2000s, her family relocated to Clearwater, and her father started working at a Mexican bodega. It didn’t quite work out, but years later, he gave it another go. This time, he opened a store in Saint Petersburg, and a decade later, her parents still own Orlando Latin Market. And just like in Brooklyn, people linger around for conversation after their groceries are no longer sprawled on the counter. She recognized the importance of these exchanges and started Bodega Stories – a multi-platform project akin to Humans of New York, but based out of her parent’s shop – to document them.
“Early on, I felt like these stories were valuable. They were gems, so I began Bodega Stories to highlight them.”
“I remember hearing all kinds of stories there, as well as animated banter between my father and his customers,” Amaris told me. “Early on, I felt like these stories were valuable. They were gems, so I began Bodega Stories to highlight them – to push these very human stories out into the world. I care a lot about the preservation of language and culture, so this project has become my small way of doing that.”
Starting in early 2015, Amaris – a Bradenton Herald reporter by night – initially pitched the story to a publication, but when that fell through, she bought the domain name and started publishing the stories she collected on her own. She writes a short article, she takes photos, and she records snippets of the conversation – giving her readers a chance to hear her subjects’ cadence and what words they use to describe their own stories.
Most of the people she interviews are Cubans who fled their country because of Fidel Castro; therefore, her stories are relevant at a time when the United States continues to ease into its renewed relations with the Caribbean island. She spoke to Miguel Capestany – a 62-year-old who opted out of having his face photographed – about the day his life changed forever: January 6, 1962. Capestany, like 14,000 other boys and girls between 1960 and 1962, made his way over to the U.S. through Operation Peter Pan. “That was a very difficult period for me because, when I left Cuba, I was 9 years old and I lived comfortably,” Capestany told Amaris. “And when I arrived here, I had to sleep on the floor… and I missed my family a lot… That was a very difficult thing for me.”
On top of capturing an important part of American and Cuban history, the Peter Pan operation draws a parallel to the current Central American refugee crisis – one that has seen 27,754 unaccompanied minors arriving to the U.S. between October 2015 and March 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Amaris may very well also chronicle the growing influence of Puerto Ricans in Florida. In the last two years, something like one million Puerto Ricans have left the island because of the economic crisis, and many are settling in central Florida. As Politico reports, this group is on track to outpace the number of Cubans in Florida.
So far, Amaris has talked to the bodega customers about a wide range of topics – the people they left behind when they emigrated, their goals of opening businesses, adjusting to life in the U.S., and motherhood. What ultimately shines through in each of these stories is the resilience of people trying to build a better future.