By Jorge Fuentelsaz
New York, Jan 30 (EFE).- The thousands of unlicensed street vendors in New York City, who – far from the tourist attractions of Manhattan – offer all sorts of food, from Mexican tamales to Egyptian kebabs, are tired of the continuous fines they are being handed by local authorities and want to normalize their status.
Despite the snow and the cold that these days are making the Big Apple shiver, Ecuadorians Gladis and Jenny have been working since five in the morning on Crowne Plaza in Queens selling tamales, champurrados, arroz con leche and coffee to the early-bird workers in the area.
“Sometimes they’ve taken our food, (or) they’ve kicked us out, although nothing has happened here because of the pandemic. We don’t have work, we have to devote ourselves to this and I have a 12-year-old boy and I don’t get anything from the government, nothing. And I support him from this (work),” Gladis told EFE, protecting herself from the snow with a big-brimmed beach hat.
They’ve been on a war footing since the outbreak of Covid-19 and last Thursday about 200 people gathered on Herald Square, at the intersection of 34th St. and Broadway, to call on state lawmakers to support two new bills giving all street vendors sales permits based on sanitation and health criteria and not as per the city’s quota for awarding such permits.
“We’re raising our voices so that finally they approve that law and give us permits to work with dignity. It’s the only work we have to put food on our tables,” Clotilde Juarez, a Mexican mother of three US-born kids, told EFE, with great emotion.
Juarez sells chalupas and cornmeal snacks in Queens, “rain, storm or snow.” She said that she started out as a street seller two decades ago and that she had stopped temporarily to work in a laundromat but the pandemic crisis left her without a job and that pushed her to resume selling snacks from her vending cart.
She is an undocumented immigrant, like the majority of the thousands of street vendors who make their living by offering their wares and food items on the streets.
“Everything we do, we do out of simple necessity. It’s our last option, because we know that they’re coming and they’ll take this spot from us, they’ll throw (our goods) in the trash, they’ll kick us our of the parks, but if you’re a parent you have to do it, you have to pay for your food, your rent,” Juarez said.
Speaking at the last demonstration, called by the Street Vendor Project non-governmental organization, was state Sen. Jessica Ramos, the sponsor of a new bill to facilitate the awarding of licenses to street vendors in New York boroughs with more than one million residents.
She told the crowd, megaphone in hand, that for a long time it’s been clear how the current system has penalized these workers and businessmen, noting that the demonstrators had gathered to ensure that the state governor and the city mayor listen to their demands and legalize them so that they can earn their living to feed their families.
In January 2021, the New York City Council approved awarding 4,000 more vendors permits in a phased manner over the coming 10 years, meaning that the city will have 10,000 legal street vendors by 2032.
It’s a bill that Bronx councilor Pierina Sanchez said “sounds good” except when one considers that there are 20,000 street vendors out trying to make a living in the city right now.
Sanchez, of Dominican origin, noted that her father immigrated to New York during the 1970s and earned his living selling wares on the street.
Ramos, meanwhile, insisted that the new law does not seek to award more licenses but rather to establish criteria to guarantee that the food products they sell are healthy.
She said that “we need for everyone to have permits” so that their products can be supervised to “regulate what they’re selling,” and ensure that the food is healthy, thus protecting the public. Order must be imposed on a system that has not been working, she added.
Amid signs calling for more permits and fewer fines, one street seller pushed around a cart where instead of offering food she was offering fines and dozens of real sanctions received by many of the workers who were present.
The cart is a symbol of the thousands of sanctions that New York street vendors are receiving, said Mohammed Attia, the director of the NGO organizing the protest, adding that the current system of permits for street vendors was created “under the influence of racism, xenophobia and discriminatory class structure,” an allusion to the fact that the majority of the street vendors are undocumented migrants.