We used to get toasted butter rolls from the Dominican-owned bodega across the street. I eventually came to the conclusion that I was obsessed with coffee and these butter rolls by the time I was three years old. My family tells me that coffee was a part of any baby’s diet on the island, despite how much they halfway believed it would supposedly stunt our growth. Did my family listen or believe in what “los Americanos” said about this mild form of child abuse? No. Therefore, it simply remained a family secret. “El dominicano,” como my father affectionately says, creates his or her own facts and myths, something white Americans may understand historically within the pages of a social studies textbook.
El bodeguero and his brothers, who sold us our daily obsession, went by the name of Los Primos. They used to call my mom Prima. Every single time my mother would visit one of Los Primos at the bodega, they would always receive her with open arms, some urgent bochinche, and maybe even a few discounts. She had an infectious, wide smile and an accent that said I was not educated in a North American institution, but I know how to defend myself before any boss with a superiority complex.
It seemed like everything and everyone we needed was so close to where we lived, including the Chinese bakery on 45th street, which was only a block away. The women who served us croissants, dollar coffee and Asian pastries spoke Spanish. Good for business, right? They often predicted exactly how my family and I liked our coffee in the morning. They knew which pastries we wanted before we even said good morning. Food transcended cultural, linguistic and geographical borders in this part of Brooklyn. Still, I wonder how Dominicans and other immigrants in Sunset Park truly view the prospect of owning a business in their community. For my family, it was clear that arriving and making it in the States meant working for someone else so that you could have enough money to put food on the table and keep the lights on at home. Owning a business, like a laundromat, bodega or restaurant, was not something my family discussed over dinner. I can only imagine how differently things would have turned out if we had cut a “piece of the pie” like Los Primos did.
Either way, everyone smiles in that part of Brooklyn, either at themselves in their own mirrors at home or at one another in public. The gray 45th street sign, etched into the walls of this particular train stop underground, is still the same one from when I grew up in Sunset Park. The Chinese women in the bakery my family and I loved still work there. They do not remember me anymore, but I still remember them. They still speak that same language of food and love from when I was a little girl, except now I can actually reach over the counter to pay them. I keep thinking they will remember me, but when they don’t, I smile. It’s my own little secret now.
*Update: About sometime in August 2020, I took a chance by asking them if they remembered me, and they said they had. My mom, during one of her own visits to the bakery, had apparently decided to strike up a conversation with one of the workers, more specifically with an older woman who had been working there for more than 20 years. This woman said she did, indeed, remember my mom. She said the resemblance between my mom and I is undeniable.