Stores and Bodegas in Havana

Photo: El Toque

By Eduardo N. Cordovi Hernandez

HAVANA TIMES – There was a robbery at my bodega store, a few days ago. Not so many years ago, you’d often hear: There was a robbery at my bodega store yesterday or They stole from my bodega, last night! However, bodega stores, where people purchase their rations, are practically empty nowadays.

The beginning of the month when supplies come in, or at the end, when people that didn’t have any money and asked to borrow some or had been eating their reserves at home, are the most difficult for bodega store workers. Long lines form, during rest of the month they kill time telling stories or play checkers or chess.

Things were different when I was a child.

Bodega stores aren’t pretty anymore. You don’t really feel like buying anything. You buy because you have to, which, in all fairness, is how it should be!

In Havana, we say: mi bodega (my bodega). You can only buy at that one. My bodega store is on 19th and Tejar streets, and it’s name is its name. Even though they have street names in my neighborhood, we call them by their address. We didn’t used to though.

Now, my bodega store is Pancho’s old bodega, and Pancho stopped owning it in 1968. That year, the Revolutionary Offensive happened which put every timbiriche (small shop) and private business in the State’s hands, that is to say, under the people’s control.

But after going on six decades, we still keep calling them by their original names. Just like we call the Avenida Camilo Cienfuegos “Dolores”, or the one on Avenida Salvador Allende “Carlos III”, or how we call the Yumuri Store “La Casa de los Tres Kilos.”

Tres kilos (three kilos) doesn’t refer to the weight of something you’d buy, but to the low prices you’d find there because a kilo was the popular term for cent. Today, nothing costs cents. Up until the 1960s, you could buy things for less than a medio. A medio was the five-cent coin. The coin that was worth the least, after the cent, which is a very rare coin to find nowadays. It’s also very strange to see a medio and, pesetas – which were worth 20 cents – are in a process of going extinct.

We used to buy at Esteban’s bodega before, although we could shop at any. For example, at Calvo’s bodega, which was walking down Tejar Street, and turning the corner at 20th Street, down. Or at Atilano’s, which was walking along Pocito, on the other corner. Or at Delfin’s, walking up 19th Street, in front of Pancho’s. Or at Matanzas’ bodeguita, half a block between Pancho’s and Esteban’s. Or at Chino’s, on the corner of 20th and Dolores… There was a bodega store on almost every corner. If it wasn’t a bodega, it was a drugstore, bar, cafe, bakery, or a clothes shop. It could be a stall selling root vegetables and fruit, a tiny kiosk, a cobbler’s workplace, a butcher’s…

It’s suspicious that there were businesses so close together making money, in a country where there had been a Revolution to give wellbeing and freedom to its people.

Up until 1965, bodega stores sold everything. It was wonderful! All of the bottles with beautiful labels! Spanish wines, Cuban rums, cognac, cider, uf!

And jams?

Esteban’s bodega is today a root vegetable stand. It was incredible to see so many delicacies there before. Licor bonbons, chocolate besitos, which were mini bonbons; large bobons with cream and a layer of chocolate, others like besitos, but big, and covered with different colored foil. Africanas, petters, Chiclets, hard biscuits, others called achampanados, fairy cakes, pancakes, Maria biscuits, others called Gacusa, chocolate biscuits, chocolate biscuits with vanilla cream, square ones, rectangular ones, round ones… and salt crackers! El Gozo crackers, Gilda crackers, De Barco ones, Soda crackers, Sire… and sweets!

There were so many things at Esteban’s bodega! Other than that, there were balls of yellow cheese covered in red wax. Chorizos, morcillas, wieners, butifarras, salami, mortadella, luncheon meat, jerky and cod hanging up. Canned goods… and that was just everything you could see! Because he had a whole party of soft drinks in the fridge: Cawy, Royal Crown, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Ironbeer, Materva, Salutaris, Piña Lanio, Jupiña, Orange Crush, Ginger Ale, Green Sport… Plus: Beers made in Cuba: Hatuey, Polar, Tropical, Tropical 50, Cristal; La Cabeza de Perro was from the US I think. And Maltas, that were also made in Cuba: Hatuey, Maltina, Trimalta Polar

The quality, quantity and variety of products sold in Esteban’s bodega was greater than at shopping malls where things were sold in foreign currency or a national equivalent (CUC) up until a few years ago, and where you can only buy today (2023) with MLC magnetic cards with prices in USD. With the exception of them only selling imported goods now.

Furthermore, in the past there were payment plans for regular customers. And give-aways: if you bought coffee, they’d give you sugar; if you bought beans, they’d give you salt or spices. As well as free bags that we have to buy today.

A soft drink used to cost five cents. Sometimes, playing outside the bodega’s front door with other kids, any of us would go and without knowing the salesperson, we’d say: Hey, give soft drinks to the kids.

Today, in 2023, a soft drink bottle costs nearly 150 pesos at cafes and snack bars – not at bodega stores! – and if it comes in a can, it costs more. Who would give one of those to a child they don’t know?

News of a robbery at a bodega store was never heard in my neighborhood. Hearing about robberies and thefts today, the following is worth remembering:

In the late 1950s, we used to walk seven blocks or so when my mother would take me to school. We’d see empty liter bottles outside front doors with a 20-cent coin, called a peseta, inside. So, when the milkman came to leave the full bottle, he would be paid and take away the empty bottle. Those were bad times, but nobody stole the empty liter bottles or full ones, or even the pesetas. You could eat lunch with a peseta back then!

Why say anything else…

Read more from the diary of Eduardo N. Cordoví aquí.