It’s physically harder to breathe in Salt Lake City. The elevated valley is 4,000 feet above sea level, and what little oxygen remains is often clogged with some of the worst air quality in the US. But the human body, amazing and adaptable as it is, manages to live under these conditions.
When I was eight years old, my family moved to Utah. We stayed there for ten years, moving to South Carolina after I graduated high school. It was the longest place we’d ever stayed – and to this day, the place I still consider “home.” One of my childhood highlights was going shopping at a small Korean store on 700 East – the Oriental Food Market. At the time of writing, the store has closed its doors for good.
While watching In the Heights (the 2021 movie directed by Jon Chu and based on the stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda), I found myself oddly nostalgic for the musical’s setting. At face value, this was preposterous – I’d lived in the western US for most of my life, and had never set a foot in New York. And yet, there was something in Usnavi’s bodega that reminded me about the Oriental Food Market thousands of miles away. And the more I began reminiscing about my own childhood and community, the more I appreciated how beautifully In the Heights captures the people and places of an immigrant neighborhood. My life experiences were both culturally and geographically different than the ones portrayed in the film, but the musical’s world-building and relatable characters brought to life an immigrant story that I deeply resonated with.
The purpose of this essay is twofold – first, to praise In the Heights for its excellent setting and characters. The other reason, however, is more personal.
In the Heights ends on a hopeful and optimistic note – Usnavi decides to stay in Washington Heights, reuniting with his community and his remodeled bodega. And as a musical and film with a fixed narrative, its ending will stay hopeful and optimistic with every rewatch. The bodega lives on forever.
I learned about the Oriental Food Market’s closing in my junior year of college. My parents had heard about it through the grapevine and brought it up nonchalantly over dinner. At the time, it barely registered for me. We’d been living in South Carolina for three years at that point, and I had no plans to live in Utah in the future.
The more I ruminated on it though, the more I realized I didn’t remember the last time I visited the store. And this thought rubbed me the wrong way. It hurt that I didn’t have definite closure on my memories of this childhood place. As if it was somewhere I thought would exist forever, until it suddenly didn’t.
Thus, the other half of this essay will be a pseudo-eulogy of sorts to that small Oriental Food Market – and hopefully pay respects to a closed chapter of my life.
Small Neighborhood Stores
Above are pictures of the Oriental Food Market and Usnavi’s bodega. There are differences of course – the contrast of different lighting and products, for example. But both locations excel in utilizing as much space for their products as possible. Usnavi’s bodega is covered with a variety of products, with stacks of goods surrounding narrow aisles. This lack of space is the greatest similarity between the two stores – I remember walking through the Oriental Food Market with shelves that piled towards the ceiling, and corridors that could only handle one person at a time. The set design brings a realistic sense of practicality; the bodega is small and family-run, not some generic corporate grocery store.
Another highlight that adds to the realism is how familiar Usnavi and the others are with the store. In the intro song, “In the Heights”, Usnavi goes through his regular routine. He checks the milk (which has gone bad) and sells lottery tickets and café con leche to the regulars. Later, we see how efficiently he and Sonny clean the shop. There’s a sense of intimacy between everyone and the bodega – it is not simply a location for transactions, but a dynamic yet familiar part of the community.
In Salt Lake City, the Oriental Food Market was one of the few places my family would be considered “regulars.” The woman who owned the store grew sesame plants in the front of the store, and we’d always be some of the first to buy sesame leaves when they were fully grown. I can visualize the store in my mind – how we would start by grabbing soft drinks, then frozen foods, instant meals, vegetables, and then snacks.
In the Heights excels at creating a snapshot of an immigrant community – whether it’s the hair salon, the smaller yet homely kitchens, or the community pool highlighted in “96,000,” the set design and selection highlight the Dominican and Latino immigrant experience. Everything is carving out meaning in small places – the movie scenes are crowded yet vibrant. And in these humanized pictures of Manhattan life, I find myself remembering the intimacy I once had back in Salt Lake City.
Piragua and Yogurt
I also want to talk about the pervasiveness of the piragüero – and how his constant presence in the film serves as a metaphor for the tenacity of our culture and identities. To do this, I’ll have to cheat a little bit by talking not only about Salt Lake City, but about Korea as well.
In Korea, there’s a popular sugary drink that we call yogurt/yakult. The most common way to buy yogurt is from yogurt ladies, who walk the streets in beige uniforms and carts. They’ve been a part of South Korean culture since the 1970’s, but their role has shifted and diminished with the rise of delivery services and larger grocery stores. And of course, we don’t have yogurt ladies in the United States, so I had to settle for perma-frozen (and leaky!) yogurt bottles from the Oriental Food Market.
This narrative aligns with the tale of the piragüero. We first see him greeting Usnavi in “In the Heights”, then going about his day selling piragua. In “Piragua”, we hear a little more about his struggles to compete with the Mr. Softee truck. Finally, he appears to have claimed victory, after the Mr. Softee truck breaks down in the movie’s last scene. The piragüero is not someone who is immediately plot-relevant. And yet, he’s not a one-time character either. Instead of being a part of a single “world-building” number and disappearing, he has his own mini-story and cameos through the musical. The character is pervasive – someone who continues to be in the neighborhood. Someone who’s just there, but in a good way. Someone like the yogurt ladies in Korea, who deliver the same yogurt, the same day of every week. The piragüero is representative of the communities and cultures that tenaciously hang on in a world with changing economic and social pressures.
I think that’s why losing the Oriental Food Market eventually got on my nerves. To me, the store was something that would forever be there, always stocked to the brim with yogurt and banana milk. After all, if the nearby Smith’s and Costco were still there after all these years, why wouldn’t it? In the end, the store was a part of my home community that I took for granted.
With hometown stores, yogurt ladies, and piragüeros diminishing in numbers, I find solace in the triumphant ending of In the Heights. Just as the bodega lives on forever, the piragüero will continue to sell his piragua. While my real life community may be gone, this realistic yet optimistic snapshot of Washington Heights can bring back fond memories.
“Breathe” and Today
The Oriental Food Market is now permanently closed. I don’t remember my last visit to it, nor did I ever see it closed myself. One day, it was a store I could always go visit again. The next, it was gone for good.
When watching In the Heights, I found myself relating to “Breathe” in many ways. Nina’s worries about living up to the community’s expectations echoed my personal doubts in my freshman year at Vanderbilt University. But perhaps most relevant is her relationship to her home neighborhood – when she softly sings “I think of the days when this city was mine,” I imagine Salt Lake City again. I imagine being a kid again, picking candy in the crowded aisles of the store.
In the Heights captures a precious snapshot of the immigrant neighborhood – depicting its people, places, and struggles. The set design is realistic and oozes with the personality of its inhabitants. The day-to-day living of people like Usnavi, Nina, and the piragüero is not a one-off world-building number, but integral to the narrative of the musical. The musical is alive with a community that has been underrepresented in media and on Broadway, and this realism allows other immigrants like me to relate to its powerful story.
And most importantly, In the Heights reminds me why I cherished that small Oriental Food Market so much, and why I don’t need to miss it. I loved that store because of the people I met, the experience of buying sweets from back home, and all the other adventures and memories I had. I fell in love with the small community that was built around this store. And while it may not be physically there anymore, it does still exist in my memory as a fond snapshot, just like the beautiful picture painted by In the Heights.
So, I’ll end off this pseudo-eulogy with one of my favorite lines from the musical. So long, Salt Lake City and that hometown store – I’ll remember you.
The neighborhood waved, and said
Nina, be brave, and you’re gonna be fine“Breathe”