Back in the day when our two families were strategizing about where to live and what to focus on in this great big city, we decided to move into two communities where “gringos” don’t live. We wanted to live among the people that we were going to serve. So, I remember Greg and Kyle looking at the classified section of the Sunday paper for houses to rent. They also contacted some real estate agents to help us look for available homes. Guess what we found out? Our targeted communities never had listings and the real estate agents only worked in the neighborhoods where the gringos normally live. We were at a loss for what to do until someone suggested we talk to bodega owners.
Every street has a bodega. It is typically a front room or corner spot of someone’s house where they operate as a little mini-mart. One can find milk, eggs, flour, sugar, popcorn, produce, and snack foods all in a stone’s throw. Some are small, and some are huge, but they all have one thing in common... they know what is going on in the community.
So to continue from the first paragraph, Greg talked to a bodega owner that knew of a bottom floor for rent in the area we wanted to live. Long story short, we rented that home for two years. We never would have found it if we hadn’t talked to the bodega owner. Between the Smiths and the McKinzies, we have had our fun share of moving into different houses here (usually they only let you sign a one-year lease, and then they kick you out because some family member is wanting to move back in). When one of our families needs to move, we check the papers, but we also know now to go corner mart to corner mart to ask the bodega owners of what is available to rent.
As a team, we had the idea to come into a neighborhood and form some of our first relationships with our neighbors. We learned very quickly that this would not happen. You see, when my family moved to a new home in the states, I remember people bringing food to our door to welcome us into the community. I guess I thought it would be similar here, maybe not with apple pie, but something to say, “Hola, we would love to get to know you. Welcome to the hood!” This did not happen at all. We quickly learned that Peruvians are very slow to trust anyone, and they really stay to themselves and the rest of their family (who usually all live under the same roof). Once you form a relationship with a Peruvian, it is an even longer process to get them to introduce you to their family or invite you into their home.
We have had all kinds of outlets to form relationships here aside from the neighborhood. We meet people through our kids’ activities or through CUDA projects to name a couple of examples. But we really haven’t ever been super close with the neighborhood. I have accepted that as the way it is, but I still have my eyes open to forming relationships wherever I can. A couple of months ago, I remember going on a walk with Greg. We were talking about the new team coming in and reminiscing about our arrival to Arequipa. Greg said to me, “You know, if we really wanted to get in with the neighborhood, we could just go to the bodega and offer to work there for free. Everybody from the community goes to buy the bread there every morning. You would learn who everybody is just by hanging out in one place.” This strategy isn’t exactly realistic. We have lived here long enough that we know that they would look at us like we are absolute loons, but the point is a good one. The bodega owners know everybody. They are the ones that know what is going on with everyone in the neighborhood because everyone comes in at least once a day and spills out the scoop.
We have been living in our current neighborhood for over two years now. I frequent the bodega just like my neighbors. I have come to know the owners by name, and they know my children by name when we come in together. They can even tell me if Greg already stopped by to buy ice if I am unaware! I love it. I feel at home.
The other day, something very simple happened at the bodega, but it signified a lot to me. Esther, the bodega owner, handed me an envelope before I headed out with my bag of fresh bread for 33 cents. It was an invitation for my family to attend her youngest daughter’s birthday party. At first, one may think, “What’s the big deal? It’s a birthday party.” But to me, this invitation says that Esther trusts me. She trusts me so much that she is willing to invite my entire family over for a birthday party for someone very special to her. That is huge.
I have made an effort to become a neighbor here. I frequent the bodega, and I sometimes go to Esther just to ask a question about my girls’ school activities when I don’t understand the culture. I appreciate her so much, and I like to consider Esther my friend. I think that she just told me through an invitation that she wants to be friends with me. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I am thinking I might be baking her an apple pie sometime in the near future.