Interviews in Spanish translated by Sunehra Subah and Lorena Modesto
Blog in Spanish translated by Youssef El Mosalami and Ayan Rahman
“As street vendors, we have to educate ourselves and know our rights and our obligations, so as to not incur something illegal–––so that they [the police/DCWP] do not come to you to put a ticket or a fine in which we are marked for life.
Because when they put a ticket on us it is not taken away, it is not removed, and it is not like we are doing anything criminal. We are doing a decent job for all our families as immigrants and as street vendors.
…And during times of COVID when I joined as a [street] vendor, we were all essential workers. We were excluded in many ways, but we are the people who gave this country a lot of help.”
While on outreach in the Bronx to spread the word about Thursday’s resource fair, Alejandra Marin takes the time to translate rules in Spanish for each street vendor we speak to. She rattles off how far a cart has to be from the curb, how much height a stand can have (including umbrellas), and other restrictions from memory. Alejandra says everything clearly and with a lot of strength in her voice, and she always includes how she herself is a general merchandise vendor and knows how important it is for everyone to unite in this movement in order to, for example, demand that rights and rules are translated and made accessible.
Like many other vendors, Alejandra began vending during the pandemic because of little other option to provide for her family. However, her connection to street vending did not begin with making masks, gel hand sanitizer, and other PPE more accessible for New Yorkers. Alejandra is also the daughter of a flower vendor, and we share with each other how we first got involved with the Street Vendor Project, starting with Alejandra’s father’s story:
“My father was a street flower vendor in which he suffered harassment from the police. They took away his flowers and broke them. They removed the pots in which he had invested a lot of money at that time [to provide] for our house.
And it was very unjust because we didn’t speak English. At that time, there was more discrimination, more racism by the police. It was a crime to sell. It was something that even I, without speaking the language, defended my father because he was not doing something illegal. I considered it that way. I did not know the laws of this country and I was involved in other organizations from different environments that defend immigrants.
And that’s why a friend told me to go to the Street Vendors’ [Project] to fight for licenses and permits for vendors and get it that way. And that was how I am now with you to continue fighting for those licenses and permits for all vendors.”
Because Alejandra’s father did not have someone to translate the law for him, the police’s aggression and destruction of his merchandise went unexplained. This violent and confusing experience is why Alejandra makes sure to do mini teach-ins about the city’s regulations at even our smallest actions. During our outreach, Alejandra pointed out to me how one vendor cleans her section of the sidewalk using a bucket of water; vendors clearly want to do everything properly and legally, but how can they when people like them who speak their language aren’t included in city planning?
“Taking time for an hour or two in certain actions is not fighting day by day. Alongside comrades from other projects, every single activity and effort is to get to Albany, the Congress. Let those laws be passed to give us and grant us the licenses and permits–––not just for one, but for all.”
In addition to being a part of our project’s leadership, Alejandra’s justified confusion, outrage, and passion also lead her to NICE (New Immigrant Community Empowerment), which fights to prevent labor exploitation and ensure that all workers are able to work with safety and dignity. Alejandra recognizes herself as “one of many,” stressing that while she feels she has responsibility on her shoulders to contribute to the labor movement to ensure the injustice that happened to her father is not repeated, she is a part of a larger community of immigrants and people of color who are doing the work.
“I decided I will be on the board of directors, fighting not only for my father, but also for all my comrades and for myself, because I represent one of them [street vendors]…”
Similar to Alejandra’s father’s story of police harassment and racism, I talked to her about how I got involved in the fight for street vendors’ rights after my neighborhood churro vendor Elsa was verbally harassed by the police and had her cart confiscated in 2019. Elsa was also mocked by an officer for being unable to speak English, and then briefly arrested. What followed was a series of rallies of vendors and allies confronting the Transit District 33 cops, the creation of a GoFundMe and The Elsa Fund to support vendors whose businesses were confiscated, and an unstoppable wave of people refusing to let Elsa’s story go ignored. Heleodora Vivar Flores, a vendor who has served on our leadership board for over a decade and lead many of these rallies alongside Elsa, shared a few words:
“Before what would happen is the money had, the little that they had sold, would be taken from them [street vendors]…Well, I think the very little that has resulted from our struggle is that now they don’t do that anymore, they only take our products. Previously, we would sell atole, since we’re Mexican, we’d sell atole and [once they took our merchandise] they’d put bleach so that we couldn’t sell it anymore, or they’d throw the atole away.
Then, what is “opportunity”? They do not give us the opportunity to live well, or rather, even survive. Because we are not working to make ourselves rich or make ourselves millionaires. No! We are working to survive, to sustain our families — that opportunity is not there.”
Each vendor a part of this movement may be “one of many,” but each “one” is critical to creating a sense of care for the “many”–––we can build structures of care and power if we are actively looking out for each other and working together. At our Harlem Resource Fair, it was vendors like Sofiani and Moussa working alongside our Middle Eastern and North African Member Organizer Hannah Towfiek that brought in and fired up the local community. A combination of the months of work Hannah has put into building trust with Harlem along with the siblinghoods Sofiani and Moussa have fostered from being out on the streets day to day is what made that event a success.
Sofiani—-who decided to sell religious and general merchandise including natural toothpaste, essential oils, African soap, and shea butter after not being paid fairly in a restaurant—-spoke to me about his work passing out flyers and doing outreach with Hannah, echoing Alejandra’s “one of many”:
“We’ll get a couple people to listen to you. The same way you guys want to help these people, we want to help each other. When you talk about vending or the market, it’s a lot of people involved–––obviously it’s not just about one individual case. Even if some people are working without a license, when they [the police/DCWP] treat them bad, I’m gonna feel bad also. Because they have families here, they have kids, and they survive by vending.”
Moussa, who sells glasses and croc charms and similarly does street vending for more control over his labor as a single parent, also added:
“We need someone as the head of the house, to fight for us. The police come, they close our table, this is how we make our living, how we take care of our kids, honest work. I’ll pay to get a license, but the city makes it impossible, telling us we can’t unless we were a part of the military. So how can I do my job? So we’re behind you. You say meeting, we’re coming. Wherever it is, I’m coming.”
Vendors like Elsa, Heleodora, Sofiani, Moussa, and Alejandra are doing the work to build and invest in community and structures of care. During our Bronx outreach together, I saw how Alejandra immediately clicked and bonded with another flower vendor who had experiences similar to her father’s. And before Alejandra and I got to know each other during outreach, she had always been a familiar face at all of our general membership meetings. I knew her as someone who made everything feel closer and safer–––who helped define “community” in our space and always greeted everyone with a hug.
And then, this week, while speaking to the Bronx street vendors, one vendor gestured towards me and asked Alejandra “Is she your daughter?” Alejandra pulled me close to her and said: “No, she is my sister.”
This is the feeling of siblinghood and unity, of shared experience, and shared labor that drives our work. For the last post of the Creating Home in NYC series, we are celebrating the vendors who have been organizing and leading alongside us, without whom this work would not be possible. These vendors are creating home with every comforting hug at every meeting, every block they walk during outreach, every flier they hand out, and every story they refuse to be silent about.