Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn't Buy Anything

by Martin Espada
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

A political poet, Espada sings of the urban poor and other disenfranchised members of society. A Puerto Rican activist from Brooklyn, Espada has worked as a tenant lawyer and advocate for socially liberal causes. His poetry often describes the struggle of immigrant Americans striving to overcome economic disadvantage, discrimination, or political corruption. In “Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn’t Buy Anything” Espada portrays the struggle some Latinos encounter in bridging two cultural spheres.

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The poem suggests more than it tells about Tony’s life story, which is consistent with Lowell’s description of the tendencies of the imagist poet. Each of the six stanzas presents a snapshot of the boy’s experience as an inner-city immigrant lad. The poet elicits the readers’ sympathies with his vignette of the nine-year-old “puertorriqueño boy.” Tony is “mongrel-skinny” and “had to find work” even though he is just a child. The scene in the bodega shows how Tony learns from experience. He takes lessons from Makengo the Cuban to learn how to do business. Stanza 3 reveals that Tony is an intelligent youth. He is able to leave the projects and attend law school. However, the opportunity does not offer Tony a better life as might be expected. Tony misses Spanish speakers and the smell of cooking in his neighborhood hallways. Divorced from his roots, Tony is lost in a hostile landscape of “white faces.” In these stanzas, Espada is reminding his readers that success and education should not depend on one having to abandon his or her cultural identity.

The bridge for Tony is represented in stanza 5: “Tony went to the bodega/ but he didn’t buy anything.” What the bodega offers the adult, educated Tony is not merchandise but a sense of belonging. The Boston projects remind him of his native Long Island. He is satisfied to listen to the customers speaking Spanish, and he grins from enjoyment, not from a need to charm customers. The people look familiar. They, too, are “island-brown.” Espada concludes in stanza 6 that Tony’s story is a “rice and beans/ success story.” The description is an artful play on words—the rice and beans of Spanish speakers in a Boston baked bean environment. At the close of the poem, Tony is no longer poor; he has risen in society; hence, he lives above the bodega. His sense of belonging is firmly rooted in the society he knew as a child. He cannot turn his back on his roots.

In an interview for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Espada recalled that being the only Puerto Rican in town while growing up in Long Island was difficult. His response was poetry: “I needed a way to respond. I think poetry is a great way to assert your humanity.” Thus Espada’s poem about Tony reflects not only his own experience as a lawyer-poet but also the struggles of those who find themselves isolated or disenfranchised, seeking to reconcile different cultural, educational, or social realms.

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