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Bodega or Jail?

“It looks like the old west!” was Romulo Ortiz’s comment when I gave him the above photograph I’d taken of Ortiz Grocery in Mattapan, MA. He didn’t create its rustic sign – it was there when he bought the place. Other than that and a stormy sky, I’m not sure what he means by “the old west.”

He came here over two decades ago from Santiago de los Caballeros, the Dominican Republic’s second largest city. He was a lathe machine operator there. “I went to college for industrial mechanics, but didn’t finish.”

Coming to New York, he worked in a parking garage until his brother Mauricio got him into the bodega business. Romulo purchased one bodega, kept it a few years, then sold it to buy the current one.

Romeo Ortiz
Romeo Ortiz

“I have many of the same customers,” he says. “I know the neighborhood, I trust the neighborhood.” He’s respected enough by the community to defuse difficult situations. “Some people used to hang out in front of the store, scaring the customers away. I talked to them in a nice way. Please move from here, this is my business. They moved away. I learned that in school, how to talk to people. I been here nine years. No robberies.“

Although he seems good at daily bodega management, he wants to trade it in for another one because it is just not bringing in enough. “I liked my old job better. Too many hours here. Start at 7, close at 9:30. Sometimes being here, it’s like a jail.”

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Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog Stylus.

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