One Start Up Trying to Make Things More Convenient Sparks a Battle over the Culture of Bodegas
As I wander the aisles of my bodega, my steps keeping in tempo with the congas playing over the speakers, and eavesdropping on the chisme, I could swear I am back with my abuela in Chile. My abuela swears by the bodega around the corner from her apartment, and will only trust Antonio, the owner, for advice on what to buy. Whether they are in Newark, NJ or in Santiago, Chile, for many like me, the daughter of Latino immigrants, bodegas represent an important way to stay connected to previous generations. That is why when I heard that Silicon Valley spat out a start-up so incredibly lousy that the Twitter-sphere blew up, my usual optimism morphed into outrage.
The story featured ‘Bodega’, a start-up that raised $2.5 million in their latest round of financing. Bodega plans to replace the traditional bodegas — the real bodegas — with large vending machines on every street corner, in the form of “five-foot-wide boxes that look like they came out of an Ikea catalogue”.
As news of this attack on bodegas spread, and Paul McDonald, founder of Bodega, was surprised by the overwhelming negative reaction to his venture. Some even called him the “killer of mom-and-pop shops.”
For those of us who shop at our local bodegas every day, it’s easy to understand the outrage.
McDonald’s glorified vending machine represents all that is wrong with the cut-throat culture in so many hi-tech companies today. The paradoxical use of the bodega name for a company boasting about replacing bodegas is simultaneously culturally appropriating the word and malicious.
A bodega isn’t just a store, it’s an experience. It is not a “simple word” as McDonald suggests. The word bodega embodies a culture and a heritage. McDonald’s attempt to co-opt the vernacular demonstrates his indifference to the culture of the bodegas and the immigrant communities they serve.
Families who immigrate to the US, no matter where they come from, arrive in the USA to start a new life here, with better opportunity, and to enjoy the freedoms that make our country a beacon of hope and freedom for the entire world. And, while immigrants embrace their new American identities, we all take comfort in the shared traditions and sense of community we brought with us.
McDonald does not understand that the bodega offers a connection to the past and a way to bring our traditions into the future.
To be fair, McDonald’s Bodega isn’t the only threat to this mainstay of immigrant communities. As more and more large retail stores pop-up, soul-less, cookie-cutter boxes devoid of character and charm, neighborhood stores disappear. This vending machine isn’t just devoid of character though, it is also devoid of human contact. It washes away our colorful diversity and replaces it with a box, a code, and a camera.
The neighborhood bodega already faces difficulty accessing capital and obtaining state-of-the-art retail technologies. If Bodega and the other retail chain solutions are successful, they will destroy the neighborhood bodegas and degrade our communities in order to make a buck.
McDonald’s Bodega start-up misses the point of innovation entirely, and in doing so, threatens the continuity of the culture and heritage of millions of Americans across the nation. The very nature of ‘Bodega’ implies that immigrant communities and the unique neighborhood retailers who serve them are disposable.
A bodega is a place where the merchant is a confidante, the line at the cash register is abuzz with local gossip, and the shelves are lined with products that speak to me. I can’t imagine my neighborhood without one. McDonald’s ‘Bodega’ is no bodega. It is a knife aimed at the heart of immigrant communities.