Martín Espada’s poem “Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn’t Buy Anything” is composed of forty-four lines of free verse. The lines are divided into stanzas of varying lengths, from only four lines in the final stanza to the longest, eleven lines, in stanza 2. The poem describes Tony’s maturation from elementary school to law school. Each verse encapsulates some feature of Tony’s development as he seeks his place in the world.
The opening five lines introduce a fatherless Puerto Rican boy trying to survive the “Long Island city projects.” He takes a job at a local bodega (grocery and liquor store) and learns how to be polite to the abuelas (grandmothers) who are regular patrons and how to grin at the customers in imitation of the shop owner Makengo, who knows how to charm his clientele. Each successive stanza recounts another point in Tony’s education. He receives a scholarship to law school away from New York but feels out of place. The academic environment of graduate school and the upwardly mobile condominium communities seem inhospitable to the young man. He searches for a sense of belonging and finds it in a Hispanic neighborhood on Tremont Street. Tony finds refuge in a Boston bodega where people speak Spanish and are as “island brown as him.”
The inclusion of Spanish words and phrases shows the blend of English and Spanish that comprise Tony’s world. The vocabulary of the poem is accessible, the language of common people, while the diction is suggestive and imagistic. The work possesses a contemporary sensibility with its references to New York, Boston, Long Island, and Tremont Street. The irony of the poem is that Tony has the ability and opportunity to escape the Long Island projects, but as an adult he returns to a similar neighborhood because that is where he feels at home. Espada suggests that true success for Tony means returning to his Hispanic roots, where the language and people are familiar—where he finds a sense of belonging that he does not find in academic or professional communities. He returns to the bodega, but he no longer needs to buy or sell anything.