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On Chants & Spells

          In one of those rare moments of childhood clarity, it struck me that the bodega was our family’s true religion. My parents would never admit to this, but I knew my revelation was true. Despite the elaborate crosses that hung by the door, the baby Jesus statues that decorated our nightstands and the itchy Sunday frocks, we were bodegueros – a wayward flock of bodega Catholics. It is not to say that we worshipped the bodega as god. We didn’t setup candles on the counter and prayed to the Saints of cold beers and cheesesteak platters. God was praised through the bodega. Instead of resting on the Lord’s day, we bodegueros praised God every Sunday from the cramped aisles – praying the almighty would allow us another day. 

          Si Dios Quiere, we raise the gates at 7 am. 
   
          Si Dios Quiere, we sell enough to open tomorrow.

          Si Dios Quiere, the inspector won’t come today.

          Si Dios Quiere, we will close and make it home to do it again the next day. 

          God willing, we survive this month, this winter, this year. 

          God willing, these little chants are heard, and our will is granted. 

          Perhaps, as a child, I was more aware of the mysteries of worship than my parents. Perhaps, I saw the bodega for what it was – a church and us the faithful congregation. We would breathe life into the bodega’s dark corners in the morning and it would exhale life into us in the evenings. 

          It was barely enough life. 

         

          When the sun set and the gates closed, the bodega regressed to the abyss with only it’s flickering florescent lights to guide us through the aisles. As a child, I walked through this dark landscape, starting at the kitchen and ending at the counter. I pretended I was a customer on my daily bodega run – unincumbered by the necessity of ritual. There’s no need to dust the rows of canned corn or stock the fridges when you’re a customer. You simply enter, buy, and leave. Do customers know this is our church? Do they know they enter a sacred space where we pray for them to return and the bodega to continue?

         

          I wondered if prayer was ever the right word. These phrases pulsed a sense of hope that had a rhythm, a tone – a magic to them. They felt like chants that connected us – like spells that guided us. I grew in the middle of God-willing and Si Dios Quiere with the bodega as witness. 


***

          I told my uncle, Jorge, that I came to the bodega to work. It was a bright Saturday afternoon and I decided to spend my day off from school at the bodega. They had just lost an employee, so I knew they needed an extra pair of hands. He looked up at me and let out a “hmph” of disapproval and rolled his wheelchair away from me. He doesn’t think I, after ten years, remember the rituals – the dance that keeps the bodega moving. The boxes that must be stacked to the side, the beers that need to be expertly placed in the fridge, the sodas that must be pulled to the front. The sprint from the back to the front to make sure someone is always watching the counter; the eyes that must scan each customer; the ears that must stay attuned to every sound. The stamina to repeat it over and over again from 8 am to 10 pm. I decide to start by wiping down the fridge doors and I walked to the back room to find Windex and paper towels. I pass by my aunt who seemed mildly shocked to see me. “I thought you were a customer” I assured her that I was not and that I came to work. She chuckled and said, “You’ll need to take off that fancy coat if you came to work!” There is an invisible distance between my family and me. The kind of distance cultivated by time and absence. I often wonder at what precise moment was I removed from the bodega’s ecosystem. 

          The new fridges make the soda aisle glow on one side as the cold light hits an assortment of Ajax cans, Marshmallow bags, and Apple Jaxs cereal boxes on the shelves across from it. I generously spray the Windex on the fridge door and glide the paper back and forth, ensuring all the smudges are removed. I adjust the colorful rows of sugary drinks and take care to not leave any gaps. A younger version of my uncle walks into my head with a silk shirt and a gold-plated Virgin Mary on his chest. He reminds me that I should never leave gaps between merchandise. 

 

          The bodega must always look full and abundant – ready to give and receive.

 

          The present-day dissolves with each wipe, and I travel back to the moment when I learned of the power in chants and spells. I was in the same aisle walking on the cracks of the tiles with one foot in front of the other as if I were on a tight rope. The bodega had closed unusually early. My parents rushed out and left me with my older cousin and an employee. My cousin whispered about intersections, guns, and tragedy. I kept walking on my tightrope as I heard my uncle’s name mentioned after ambulance and my father’s name after police. I walked a little slower on my tightrope, wondering whether or not imaginary falls can hurt in real life. I did not know the content of those whispers, but I knew the bodega closed and the rituals had stopped. 

 

          Perhaps, no one knew how to explain to the eight-year-old me that the bullets tore through my uncle’s back, burrowed in his spine, and pierced through his organs. I remember my tightrope act turned into deliberate paces as I started to mutter my own chants. 

 

          Si Dios Quiere, my uncle will be okay.  

          I willed for my uncle to be OK, for my parents to come back, for everyone to be safe. I made negotiations with God, assuring him I’ll work harder at school, I’ll help more around the house, I’ll be a good girl if everyone just comes back. I willed my words to use whatever holy power was stored in the cracks of the bodega to protect my uncle. I thought my prayers could act like spells finding my uncle and covering him with a blanket of my protective wishes.

         

          In an instant, for moments that must have felt like lifetimes, my uncle Jorge died. I did not know he had died as I moved through my imaginary tightrope conjuring the words I knew in English and Spanish into prayers, into chants, into spells. I did not know my grandmother was doing the same from our upstairs apartment and my mother was whispering the same spells from the hospital waiting room. Maybe, our words found their way to one another and used their power to extend the silence in the air long enough for our words to find the sound of the flatline. Perhaps, our words tumble against my uncle’s chest until the flatline transformed into a rhythmic beat. Maybe, my uncle heard the bodega stopped for him, the world stopped for him – everything stopped to wait for his return. 

 

***

         

          My mother would say it’s blasphemous to call the bodega our religion but what else could it be? I tear down the empty Miller Light boxes as I muse over the bodega’s role in my life. It’s my family’s market, job, career, livelihood. Those words fall short because it’s more. The bodega is a purpose – an explanation for being in a new land. It was my witness – a sacred space that helped us survive. 

 

          Isn’t that what religions are for? 

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.