Bodega's diverse Latin American roots spur growth and creativity in new restaurant

Oct. 1—On a Friday afternoon, a steady stream of customers came and went from La Bodega Latina on Congress Street. The cashier chatted in Spanish with a young woman sending money to her family in the Dominican Republic. Latin pop songs played over the sound system. Ricardo Agrinsoni, 28, bought two bags of plantains for pollo con tajadas. His mom is from Honduras, his dad is from Puerto Rico, and he often buys ingredients at this small grocery store to cook family favorites.

"Everything from the back-home countries," he said.

A mile and a half away, Cabana was opening for the night. The Latin American bar and restaurant was filling with the sounds of cocktail shakers, classic Cuban music, the chatter of customers. René Emilio Peña, who owns both La Bodega Latina and Cabana, had yet to arrive. But he starts every day before the bodega opens at 8 a.m. and ends every night after the restaurant closes at 11 p.m., and the staff knew he would be there before long.

"When he speaks about either of his businesses, you can feel how passionate he is," Cabana general manager Brigid Litster said.

The bodega has provided essential support for the Latino community in Portland for more than two decades and recently passed from Peña's father to him. The restaurant opened last month and celebrates the diversity of Latin America — and Maine — that has always been visible on the bodega shelves.

Between the two, Peña works long days. But he focuses on the pride, not the struggle.

"I feel accomplished," Peña said. "Yes, I'm tired. Yes, I haven't slept. But I'm feeling accomplished."

About 27,000 Latino people live in Maine, according to Census data, but this large community is not always visible, said Julia Trujillo Luengo. Trujillo Luengo, who now works for the state, used to run Portland's Office of Economic Opportunity, which works to integrate new Americans into the community.

She called Peña "a pioneer."

"To see a lot of these kinds of businesses succeeding across the state," she said, "it brings a lot of hope for younger generations, and it really contributes and helps us to try to tell the story that Maine is much more diverse than we think."

A CONSULATE IN PORTLAND

Peña, 31, grew up in the grocery business. He worked alongside his dad in bodegas near Boston, where he learned about the demanding life of an entrepreneur.

"I never had a summer off," he said.

He also grew up watching TV, especially the Univision variety show "Sábado Gigante," and wondering about everything he couldn't see behind the scenes. He used his grandmother's sewing machine to make dresses for his sisters and his mom. In 2009, he moved to Miami to study fashion design. He left his studies to avoid debt and got a job in costume design at Univision, working on shows including Nickelodeon's Spanish-language hit "Grachi."

"I ended up at the same TV channel that I saw myself as a kid," he said.

But over time, he said, he realized that he wanted to be his own boss, like his dad. In 2013, he moved to Maine to work by his father's side at La Bodega Latina, which his dad had bought in 2012, more than a decade after it first opened. Peña said his family saw Portland as a place where small businesses could grow.

"I said, 'Why am I helping another person when I can help my family?'" he said. "I put all the effort into moving here and working my way up in the family business."

Life in Portland, however, was very different from life in Miami. Peña said that at first he felt depressed and alone. But he felt more at home as he got to know customers and made friends in the community. The state also was slowly becoming more diverse. Maine's Latino population, per census data, grew from 1.3 percent to 2 percent between 2010 and 2020.

He convinced his dad for the first time to pay for advertising and launched social media accounts. During the pandemic, his dad retired — although he is still present enough that his son uses air quotes when he says this — and Peña took the helm. On the store's Instagram account last year, he introduced himself and his family's roots in the Dominican Republic: "This year as I took the role of owner of La Bodega Latina I decided it was time say it loud, dance it and teach others that being Hispanic is the Best!"

Isabella Borrero, a liaison for Spanish-speaking students and families in Portland Public Schools, said the little store is a landmark in Portland — you might give directions by saying, "It's two blocks from the bodega." It is also a touchpoint for Latinos, a place to post flyers, share resources and find community. People might go there to buy familiar products that are hard to find in Maine (for Borrero, who is from Colombia: frozen pulp to make fresh fruit juices), socialize with Spanish speakers, add minutes to cellphones or send money to family overseas.

"It's almost like a consulate for the Latino community," Borrero said.

At the bodega register, Kevin Dumas chats with shoppers in Spanish and English. He says he shopped at the bodega long before he started working here, and it's where he buys his favorite snacks and drinks.

"Mango juice," he said, pointing to the beverage cooler, which also contains something else he loves, a Puerto Rican malt beverage, Malta India.

Dumas helped Enehider Diaz find a box of Embajador for hot chocolate. Diaz, 62, said his daughter, who lives in New York, is mailing him a box of the chocolate from the Dominican Republic, but he didn't want to wait on the package.

"I had my last cup yesterday," he said.

He lives in Randolph, but was able to stop and buy the chocolate at the bodega while in Portland for a construction job.

"Maine is the only place they don't sell it that much," Diaz said.

'THE WIDER BRUSHSTROKE'

Cabana, on Middle Street, came together quickly. Peña had dreamed of opening a restaurant even though the risk made his dad nervous.

Peña instead saw an opportunity for growth and creativity, and he joked that customers liked the music in the bodega so much that it was only right to give them a real spot to enjoy it.

His cocktail bar and restaurant celebrate the range of Latin America. The weekend brunch menu, for example, includes quesito (a Dominican pastry), chilaquiles (a Mexican breakfast favorite made with tortillas, eggs and salsa) and Costa Rican gallo pinto (rice and beans, served at Cabana with plantains and eggs).

"Latin America has a lot of different cultures," Peña said. "We're not just Latin or Hispanic. We're Salvadoran, Mexican, Costa Rican, Dominican."

Peña opened the restaurant in August, and said he feels even more rooted in Maine.

"Coming from an immigrant family, being from the LGBTQ community, being a Latin owner, it's been a blessing to actually be supported," he said.

To Trujillo Luengo, whose job now is to implement the state's economic development plan, Latino restaurants in Maine offer a form of cultural education. She mentioned Maiz, which sells Colombian street food, as another example.

"What's really interesting in the last few years is that we are beginning to dig a little bit deeper and really see the diversity among the wider brushstroke of the Latin world or the Spanish-speaking world," she said.

It's a diversity that's always been on display at the bodega.

When Peña hired his core team at Cabana, their first assignment was to walk around the store and take pictures of ingredients that could inspire the menu. Brigid Litster and Eduardo Licona had shopped there before, when they opened a taco shop on Vinalhaven and made a monthly trek to Portland for supplies. Litster remembered Peña helping her load 50 pounds of chiles into her trunk the first time they met. Now, Litster and Licona work at Cabana, as the general manager and creative manager.

"It's not exclusive, it's inclusive," Litster said. "If you come in here and you only speak Spanish, there is always someone who can communicate with you. If you come in here and you don't speak Spanish, there's someone who can communicate with you."

Right now, the menu concept is "women of Cabana," with drinks such as the Camila (mezcal, rum, chamomile tea, grapefruit bitters, smoked chamomile flowers). Peña said the night's playlist usually starts with Cuban classics, moves into Latin pop and then ends with reggaeton beats. The first time he played Joseito Fernández's version of "Guantanamera" there, he knew his vision had become a reality.

Peña does not have any experience running a bar or restaurant, so he relies heavily on his core team. They describe him as a boss willing to bus tables and eager to learn. He sets a familial tone; bar manager Ethan Cory said he'll shut down an argument by saying, "Don't talk to your sister that way."

It makes sense given one of Peña's goals for both businesses: to make them feel like home.