PORTLAND — It didn’t take John Gonzalez long to learn the value of hard work.
In between playing center field for the Scarborough Red Storm, breaking a state record in the 4×400 relay and finishing his homework, Gonzalez has been an integral part of La Bodega Latina, his family’s take-out restaurant and grocery store on Congress Street, where he has worked since he was 8 years old.
“I’m usually here at least five hours a day,” the Scarborough High School senior said in an interview. He sat behind the counter, dressed in a blue button-down shirt and a tie. He said he has always helped out around La Bodega, but that over the last year he’s taken a bigger workload.
“On the weekends, I’ll come here at 9 a.m. and open the store, and sometimes I’ll close at 9 p.m.,” he said. “But it’s not really boring because the whole family is here.”
Gonzalez said he can usually be found behind the cash register or stocking shelves, though sometimes he has to drive from Portland to Chelsea, Mass., to pick up groceries and other supplies.
He cites his father, Juan, as the source of his determination and work ethic.
Juan Gonzalez and his wife, Rosa, moved their family to the United States from the Dominican Republic when Gonzalez was 2. Juan was in the Dominican Navy, which brought him to docks around North America, including a stop in Portland.
“He loved it here,” Gonzalez said. “He decided to open the store because he noticed a lack of Hispanic stores here.”
La Bodega opened in 1997, as a much smaller version of what it is today, taking only half the space it now occupies. Gonzalez said his family was poor, and that his father worked and saved from nothing to open the store.
Today, the shop brings in a steady flow of customers, many of whom conduct their business in Spanish, and Gonzalez said the family is doing great.
“I found it at first hard to balance it all,” he said. “But my father’s been pretty fair about it. I come in and help a lot, but I’ve still got free time to hang out with friends.”
Gonzalez is headed to the University of Tampa in Florida in the fall. He plans to study international business.
He said he doesn’t expect his family will hire anyone to replace him when he leaves for college – the store employs only one person outside the family – but anticipates his sister, Johany, 14, will have to pick up some of the slack left by his absence.
“She’s going to have to step it up now, and take things over like I did,” he said.
Gonzalez said he’ll miss Scarborough High School, his friends and family, but that he’s excited to give college a shot. One thing he won’t miss? Maine’s weather.
“I’ve got to get away from this cold,” he said.
After college, Gonzalez wants to work in international business for a while, and travel. Ultimately, he hopes to open a restaurant in Florida.
“The struggle my father had to go through, what he had to do to get us here … it’s what inspires me to keep going,” Gonzalez said. “You know how sons are, they want to be even better than their fathers.”
John Gonzalez, 17, will graduate from Scarborough High School on Sunday, June 12. For most of his life, he has worked at his family’s restaurant and grocery store, La Bodega Latina, on Congress Street in Portland. This fall he will attend the University of Tampa in Florida, where he’ll study international business.
John Gonzalez, right, with his father, Juan, in front of their family business, La Bodega Latina on Congress Street in Portland.
• Where: Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland.
• When: 7 p.m. Sunday, June 12.