Queens Street Vendors Face Legal and Winter Weather Obstacles Head On

Plumes of smoke surrounded the feet of rushed New Yorkers walking down the Jackson Heights subway station’s steps on a recent October afternoon. Before they could reach the sidewalk below, they were hit with the scent of chicken and beef charring on an open flame, enticing them to bite into juicy meat and savory spices. The street vendors along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens call to anyone on the sidewalk. And these vendors are determined to keep working, despite the upcoming threat of winter or conflicts with law enforcement.

Evelyn Yanez held a pair of metal tongs and flipped skewered cubes of meat and ears of corn as the smoke enveloped her face and rose above her. Alongside her was Flora Acá, la jefa, or the boss, of the business. Every Monday through Friday, the two women can be found behind a red shopping cart cooking meat and corn on a makeshift grill––a wire rack on top of an aluminum pan of coals­­––beneath the subway stop where the 7 train station pulls in at the corner of 82nd Street and Roosevelt Ave, feeding the people of Jackson Heights.

Yanez began working as a street vendor five years ago, joining her boss Acá out of necessity. “I found myself without a job,” Yanez said.

Acá, who does not speak English, has been working as a street vendor for 25 years, since she arrived in the United States from Mexico. Acá, 46, has sold various foods, including tamales and Mexican ice cream, before settling on corn and meat, which required less time to prepare.

Despite decades of experience working as a street vendor, Acá still fears the winter months every year. It’s harder to earn a steady income outdoors during the colder and harsher weather, with fewer people lingering on the street and stopping to eat at her cart. Every year, she worries about how she’ll pay her rent and support her two teenage children. “They don’t sell” in the winter, Acá said in Spanish, referring to the food.

On top of the looming uncertainty of winter, the two women must cope with police patrolling Roosevelt Ave and questioning vendors without licenses. While the city does not require a General Vendor license for food vendors, a license from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is required.

And they’ve been on a waiting list for over a year. The government, Yanez said, doesn’t “want to help,” Yanez said. Earlier that day, Yanez said the police came by to question their business again. She said it happens frequently, as they continually issue fines and tickets to vendors without licenses. They can range from $200 to $1,000, according to the city rules for street vendors, and those fees add up. Yanez and Acá are happy to keep cooking on the street, even through a brutal winter, but wish the police wouldn’t bother them as often as they do.

Cecilia Garcés doesn’t feel she can brave the upcoming winter like her fellow vendors. She has carved out a different place for herself in the Jackson Heights community, selling vibrant red-orange chontaduros, a starchy and savory fruit, from a shopping cart at the Manuel de Dios Unanue Triangle further up Roosevelt Ave.

Chontaduros, or peach palms, are a cornerstone of Colombian agriculture and street food. But fresh ones evade the people of Jackson Heights, where most of New York’s Colombian population resides, and many of whom have not seen chontaduros in decades. For $5, customers stop for a moment to taste its savory flavor and starchy texture. Just like on streets of Barranquilla, Colombia––where many visitors to the stand are from––Garcés sells them in small plastic cups and offers to drizzle them with honey and salt, or to bag fresh ones for customers to prepare at home.

When people approach her cart—protected by a beach umbrella she’s affixed to it—they often have a rare sensory memory of Colombia, awakened at the bite of the fruit. Some people “cry because they haven’t seen the fruit” in many years, Garcés said, speaking in Spanish.

Customers can find jarred chontaduros in brine in grocery stores within Jackson Heights, but they are nothing like the freshly peeled ones that Garcés offers.

No one knows exactly how she gets them—a fact she remains particularly vague about. “We collaborate with a family,” she said. Back at her apartment, Garcés stores the chontaduros in their own bedroom, where she said they fill the room. The police don’t bother Garcés as much as the other vendors, but she also has not had her business for as long as Acá and Yanez. She arrived from Colombia, leaving, she said, “because of the violence.”

New to street vending, Garcés is concerned about her first winter. She fears the cold and has already stopped coming to Roosevelt Avenue as frequently as the temperature cools.

But Sandra Daza has been in the U.S. for even less time than Garcés. She came from Colombia and immediately got to work. On Roosevelt Avenue, across the street from Acá and Yanez’s clouds of smoke, Daza sells ice cream. She sits beside a cooler filled with makeshift popsicles that she makes by hand, held together with plastic cups and wooden sticks. There’s a colorful array of mango, passion fruit, coconut, cream, and other flavors. Daza works for two people who run the stand and taught her how to make the ice cream. “If I sell or I don’t sell, they pay me anyway,” she said in Spanish.

That payment is about $80 a day, she said. She feels she’s found a steady job after immigrating, but ice cream season has come to an end. Like the vendors around her, Daza loves the work she has found in Jackson Heights. She finds the most enjoyment from the “dialogue with people” every day. After selling everything left in the cooler, Daza hoped to continue making a living as a street vendor even as the cold approaches.

In the wintertime, she thinks the key will be hot food. “Arepas,” Daza said, are what she will sell. Arepas are a staple in Colombian culture, made from fried corn cakes and topped or stuffed with meat or cheese. She thinks it will bring hungry people on the street looking for comfort from the cold.

These women along Roosevelt Ave might love the work they do, but above all they are feeding the community so they can feed their own families. Acá stands behind her cart all day, inhaling smoke and flipping meat for her children, just as Garcés sells food for her children as well. “There isn’t work,” Acá said.

When they arrived in the U.S., street vending presented an immediate option—and now braving the cold may be the only option to continue having an income. Nevertheless, they find joy in it where they can.

“We feed the community,” Yanez said.

About the author(s)

Ani Freedman is a journalist and M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School.