Monday, November 16, 2020
Undocumented and Unemployed: The Street Vendors of Queens - The New York Times
No Papers, No Jobs: The New Street Vendors of Queens
Nov. 16, 2020
By Juan Arredondo and David Gonzalez
The stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens teemed with people weaving their way through carts and stands that offered everything from sweet-scented roast corn to masks.
The regular roar of the 7 train often drowned out the sound of haggling.
On one corner, Cristina Sanchez stood forlornly at a produce stand. She had not sold a single thing. During the pandemic she had lost her job, and then her rented room, triggering a frantic hustle to survive: First she sold produce, then tacos, then produce again.
For Cristina, 47, the toll has been great. Her eyes brimmed with tears at the thought of her family back in Mexico.
“I used to send them $150 each week,” she said. “Now I maybe can send them $20.”
She is among the city’s more than half a million undocumented immigrants whose lives have been upended by the pandemic but who are ineligible for most financial assistance, including stimulus money and loans.
With little recourse, many immigrants from Latin America — who already were among the hardest hit by the virus — have resorted to what they did back home: working as ambulantes — street vendors.
But for decades, New York has capped the number of citywide street vending permits — it is currently limited to 2,900 for food and 853 for vendors of general merchandise — creating a black market and making vendors vulnerable to high fines.
Ambulantes are frustrated and feel that a respected way of making a living in other parts of the world is criminalized here.
At the Epicenter Without Work or Documents
Jackson Heights was part of the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the pandemic in New York. The effects of those early months still reverberate among the immigrant workers who lost their jobs and got sick at alarming rates.
“The people who survived are struggling to put food on the table,” said Yatziri Tovar, a spokeswoman for Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group.
More than 60 percent of their members lost their jobs. At least 50 have died.
Cristina arrived in New York in 2004. She worked a series of jobs until three years ago, when she found work folding clothes at a dry cleaners for $700 a week. It was enough to join the line of fellow immigrants that snaked outside the Western Union office each week, waiting to send money to family.
“I’m just trying to move ahead and keep helping my children with their education,” she said. “But now with the pandemic, I can’t help them. There’s no work.”
She lost her job in March. By the end of June, she would have no home.
When the coronavirus hit New York, she was paying $60 weekly to sublet a room on Roosevelt Avenue. She paid for four months until her savings ran out.
The landlord evicted her, and though friends had urged her to fight the eviction — a moratorium is in effect until the end of this year — she felt intimidated.
Desperate, she asked a friend if she could sleep on his living room couch. And, like many other undocumented immigrants in the city, she turned to street vending to survive.
Cristina began selling food with help from Sabina Morales — an experienced vendor who initially supplied her with ripe produce. Her old job has recently given her some work, but she knows she needs to find another source of income, especially once the weather turns cold.
“This has affected my children a lot,” Cristina said, as she started to cry. “I try to tell them that because there’s no steady work, whatever I make is only enough for me to survive for the day.”
A Flood of First-Time Vendors
For each vendor on the street, there are others who benefit from their labor. It is a fluid ecosystem, evidenced by the flood of newcomers like Gerardo Vita and those who support them.
Gerardo was so proud of his adopted country that he had carved out a living showing Spanish-speaking tourists the highlights of Manhattan and Washington, D.C.
“I had tour reservations every day from March through September,” he said. His income was enough to buy two cars and to lease an SUV for tour groups. “But when they canceled flights and closed borders, my world ended all over again.”
Gerardo came to New York from Mexico in 2006, after his trucking company was targeted by people who he said assaulted him and stole the best truck in his fleet.
He settled in Jackson Heights, where he now lives on a tree-lined street with his wife and two sons. But those hard-won comforts are now at risk.
His wife lost her restaurant job. His clients asked for refunds of their down payments. Unable to qualify for grants or loans, Gerardo sold one of his cars and ran up his credit cards to pay them back.
He decided to sell tacos de alambre — made with steak, chiles, bacon and cheese — on the street. The owner of a local deli let him use an enclosed sidewalk stand at night, free of charge. During the day it sells smoothies.
He works from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., selling to people on their way home from working late shifts, or revelers with a buzz and an appetite. He said the street can be dodgy.
“I know all the bums and delinquents, all of them,” he said.
Gerardo had hoped his tacos de alambre would appeal to customers longing for a meal that reminds them of home.
“This is the kind of creative resiliency that immigrant communities have always engaged in,” said Alyshia Gálvez, a professor at Lehman College and founding director of its Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute.
Gerardo’s sales have not been brisk. His tacos cost two for $5. He needs to sell at least 130 each day, a target he often misses by half.
His wife was recently rehired, but he said he still has to sell food since tourism is unlikely to rebound soon.
“There’s no work anywhere,” he said. “When it gets cold, I’ll put on a jacket and wait for the customers to come.”
City Policies Make Life Harder — and More Uncertain
Like the veteran ambulante that she is, Sabina Morales cast a stoic, no-nonsense look on Roosevelt Avenue. To her side, a refrigerator truck — where she stores her produce — idled.
She has been selling produce in Jackson Heights since she came to New York 15 years ago. And since the pandemic began she has helped others, like Cristina Sanchez, to set up their own stands.
The influx of new vendors, however, has made her work more difficult.
“Before the pandemic business was so much better,” said Sabina, who came to the city to reunite her 5-year-old grandson with his mother. “Now there are more sellers than customers.”
Once a week, she ventures out to Hunts Point, seeking wholesalers offering ripe produce at a discount. Since the subway ended overnight service, she has been sleeping in a friend’s car to wait until dawn before heading back to Roosevelt Avenue.
Unlike most vendors who have neither the permit nor the money to rent one, Sabina has the necessary license to run her stand.
But it comes at a steep price: She said she pays $22,000 every two years to the actual owner of the permit, who only paid the city $200.
She now belongs to a coalition including Make the Road, the Street Vendor Project, vendors and politicians, urging officials to pass a bill that would set up an Excluded Workers Fund, which would tax the city’s wealthiest to provide financial relief to undocumented workers.
“There has been very little relief, so we have had to figure this out on our own,” said Jessica Ramos, a state senator sponsoring the bill.
Many officials in immigrant-heavy communities are also pushing to ease the permit cap to stave off even greater catastrophe. A bill pending in the City Council would add 400 more mobile food vendor permits annually for 10 years.
Sabina hopes these efforts will help, but she worries that as the city tries to return to some semblance of normalcy, old problems will return.
While the police have stopped ticketing unlicensed vendors, they can still be subject to fines from six other city agencies, which vendors said can quickly add up to thousands of dollars.
“When Covid passes, you can be sure they’ll be on us every day with the tickets,” Sabina said. “I just want them to let us work.”
Despite the Odds, a Rookie Pushes Ahead
Manuel Antonio Diaz Cordova is a newcomer to Roosevelt Avenue, but you wouldn’t know that from his animated banter with pedestrians.
He arrived in New York in February, alone, a mere month before the city began to shut down. He worked several odd jobs — including dressing up as Lady Liberty and handing out tax prep fliers — until the lockdown took its toll.
Manuel was hoping to make money to help his children back in Ecuador. He had been a lawyer and owned a drugstore there, he said, until he began receiving death threats from a former client.
“My life was in danger,” said Manuel, 60. “I couldn’t run my business. I couldn’t take care of my children.”
But without work he was soon in debt. One day in March he biked to several pharmacies looking for masks for personal use. When the owner of one store offered to sell him one for $4, his business sense kicked in.
He went looking for boxes of masks and found a supplier who charged him $50 for a box of 50. After trying out a few locations, he settled under the subway on Junction Boulevard.
“I don’t earn much,” he said, “but I can’t complain. I pay my bills and send money to my children.”
Despite the impending winter, he continues to be upbeat, studying for his driver’s license, taking occupational health training and looking for professional work.
“I went to see a lawyer, but he told me I need to know English,” he said. “It’s difficult here, but I’ll keep knocking on doors. If someone gives me a hand up, that would be nice.”
Undocumented and Unemployed: The Street Vendors of Queens - The New York Times