Interviews in Spanish translated by Sunehra Subah and Daniel Modesto
Blog in Spanish translated by Madi-Cepeda Hanley
“Here in New York, there is a majority of Poblanos—it is even called Puebla York, precisely because the majority of people from Puebla, from all over the state, have immigrated here.
So, this stand for them—people walk here, the little children walk here and don’t know what is a tlecuile. So the kids who have not had the opportunity to go to Mexico, who don’t know the Nahuatl language, which is an Indigenous Mexican language, now know what a tlecuile is. They stop me and ask ‘what is a tlecuile?’ and I tell them ‘a tlecuile is a base where the comal sits on, the word comes from the Nahuatl language.’ So for me I don’t only bring food [to the stand], but rather I also bring a culture and represent something.”
Every Friday-Sunday from 6-11 PM, Cleotilde Juarez Ramirez, fondly referred to as Coti by friends, can be found frying chalupas along Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens. She had been selling this antojito (little craving/street food) in the city of Cholula in Mexico for 20 years until she immigrated to the United States and began taking care of her family as a stay at home mother. But, after the men in her family were left without work during the pandemic and the government failed to support her children, Coti decided to return to street vending to survive. For two years ever since, Coti has been frying tortillas in manteca (lard), flipping them over and over again, sprinkling them with onion and beef, and making her own green and red salsas from scratch.
“When the stimulus checks started rolling out for families who had become unemployed, obviously we didn’t qualify for that help. I said to myself ‘Ok, fine, we don’t qualify.’
But my children were born here, the three of them. So to me, it was like, they [the government] are excluding my kids. Right. And that was my primary motive.
I said to myself ‘Ok, well if they will not—if the children’s government, which supposedly is representing a free country, is not taking them into account, then I have to do something.’ I am their mother and I will not go chasing the government so that they give me a bag of food or they help me pay rent. No, I retrieved my comales [a type of griddle] from Mexico and I decided to put myself to work. ”
When I first met Coti at one of the Street Vendor Project’s resource fairs in Corona, she explained to me that while selling in a traditional brick-and-mortar store might be easier in some ways, street vending has a very special place in her heart because she is able to recreate memories of her city of Puebla, Mexico.
When you visit Chalupas Poblanas El Tlecuile, you are immediately welcomed by the guaracha music swelling around the stand. A serape blanket is hung behind the sign advertising their social media (@chalupas_poblanas_el_tlecuile on Instagram, Facebook, and (718) 424-3662 on WhatsApp/phone). One group of friends—some of whom traveled all the way from Los Angeles—are dancing a little in front of the stand while others sit, chat, and keep a watchful eye on their children.
“Kids, older, and younger people—everyone sits down to share and talk. And sometimes there’s people who have to wait 20, 15 minutes for an order of chapulas, but they do it with pleasure.
There are people who have made me cry. There is a man who hasn’t been to Mexico for 38 years, and he says “Do you know what you just did”? He moved me because he says you have returned me to my childhood, for example. And there is nothing else like what you are doing here. I congratulate you because you bring us a little piece of our town and it’s very, well, very moving.”
Coti goes on to tell me that customers traveling from far away and having her stand as one of their must-trys is not a rare thing. She mentions that 15 days ago a family came all the way from Arizona, and others visit from Chicago, Philadelphia, Connecticut, “driving so many hours to come and try our antojo.” She says that the stand is about more than just the antojo, it’s also about how she sets up and presents her stand to remind people of home, even when they are thousands of miles away.
In my conversation with her, I share a little bit about my faint memories of street vendors back in Bangladesh, specifically of the carts we refer to as “tong.” I explain that while the cart has wheels and in theory is mobile, it’s understood that the tong will always be there in its spot, making Bengali snacks more accessible for people after school or on their way to work.
“It’s the same with the chalupas stalls. There is a neighborhood in the city of Puebla called El Carmen. For the neighborhood’s party, you’re going to see a street like Roosevelt until North Boulevard. That long. You see many chalupa vendors, many carts. Yes, many, many. Everyone sells because it’s like the attraction of that neighborhood, of that fair.
And at masses, when people leave churches on Sundays, it is very important that there is a little late night craving for street food and weekends. Everyday, it’s a craving. It’s a very popular craving in Pueblo. And here it wasn’t.”
Coti explains that her stand was the first to make authentic chalupas in Queens. The love and labor she has put into her stand is her way of investing into Queens, of making it feel like it’s her own, like it belongs to people like her, which it absolutely does. Queens is built and kept alive by the work of immigrants, and Coti specifically expands on how vendors give back to the community’s economy.
“All the products we try to use are 100% Mexican and we move, in some way, the economy here, of the state of New York, of Queens, because everything I buy is from the market and the small store around the corner…people outside of New York come and they spend their money here, while at the same time, I buy from local stores and that moves our local economy. I think that is very important…
Here [vendors] have become as important as the people [other workers] here…It’s like, it’s a tianguis …you can come here to discover everything I come across–––the variety of snacks, variety of foods, low price, fresh things, freshy made…it’s very, very important. Really. I believe this plays a very important role for the economy of Queens…People need to support us because we are very important and contribute a lot.”
I ask Coti what that support can look like, and what needs to change to allow her to work in safety and with dignity.
“That they give us the right permits…I speak for most vendors, we are not opposed to paying taxes. We are not opposed to collaborating with cleaning by paying for a car to come. What’s more, we could organize to get a car to bring everything that’s needed.
But they ought to give us the proper permits so that we don’t have to hide. The other day, I was the victim of a robbery here. They took my wallet out of the car and I didn’t even notice. The police came to tell me that not only did I not have permission to sell, but that I had to leave now…I’ve heard of other workers who have gone to the police because someone has robbed them and the same police have told them ‘you know what, no, you took us off the street, so now deal with [the delinquency] between yourselves.’”
As we’ve talked about in previous posts in this series, vendors are actively working with each other and with the Street Vendor Project to organize themselves. Similar to what happened just last week with the Corona vendors, the base meeting with the Jackson Heights vendors this past Wednesday was interrupted by the DCWP/police coming to ticket and inspect people’s carts. Echoing Coti’s words, it seems like the police care more about policing low-income people who are just trying to make a living than actually keeping the community safe and investing in the community.
“[If] the people who are up there in the government get to work and really see that if they help us, we can contribute more and better and legally to the economy of this country, so we come to work.”
We have citizen children, who will one day vote. I know we are important. We have to be important. They have to take us into account, it’s about time that they stop being so caught up in their things, and they don’t realize everything that happens down here, no?”
When Coti states that the government doesn’t realize everything that happens down in the streets of Corona, she is emphasizing that the city’s lack of knowledge comes from their neglect of families like hers. So she finishes our interview together by echoing what many other immigrant families trying to survive in Queens and in all of New York feel. After we wrap up our interview, Coti puts a bowl of flautas (traditional Mexican tacos made with fried rolled corn tortillas) stuffed with cheese into my hands because she knows I can’t eat pork. The dish is topped with red salsa, cheese, and green salsa to represent the colors of the Mexican flag. I attempt to hand her coworker money for the food, but she shakes her head and he puts his hands behind his back.
“Family doesn’t need to pay.”