"A tamale, please, and a cup of atole,” I said to the Mexican woman on East 116th Street, in the heart of Spanish Harlem. It was 7:45 a.m. on a weekday morning, and people were headed toward the subway to get to work. The woman was standing beneath a blue and white umbrella that shielded her and her collection of pots and pans from the sun. “To go?” she asked in Spanish. I nodded and after wrapping the tamale, still warm in its corn husk, lowered it into a black plastic bag along with a container of atole, the chocolate-tasting drink popular in Hispanic sections of New York City. Starting back along 116th Street, I passed another woman with a similar cart. Both were vendedores ambulantes, street vendors, who earn a precarious living selling home-cooked Mexican food on the sidewalk.
The scene on East 116th Street, however, is not always as peaceful as it was that particular morning. Police officers can approach at any time and give the women a summons, because they lack a license from the city to operate a vending cart. They sometimes throw the food into the garbage, confiscate the carts and arrest the women. Finally, after a number of incidents of this kind, one of the women, a 29-year-old mother of three named Livia, started to organize them in 2003 in an effort to assert their right to respectful treatment. Out of that first step there emerged an organization called Esperanza del Barrio (www.esperanzadelbarrio.org ).
Esperanza’s executive director is Flor Bermudez. I visited her late one afternoon at the organization’s storefront office near 116th Street. “I moved here to New York from Mexico as a teenager,” she said, “and from living in this neighborhood I got to know a lot of the women who sell food that they prepare in their own kitchens, and I saw how unjustly they are treated.” As an example, she spoke of one street vendor who was pregnant, and another who was in her 70’s—both of whom the police arrested. Even worse was the treatment meted out to a 17-year-old girl. Not only did the police arrest her and take her to the precinct, where she was held all night; they refused to allow her mother to see her.
Before arriving at Esperanza, Ms. Bermudez was involved in housing work, but through the Asociación Tepeyac, a Mexican organization in Manhattan that assists low-income Hispanic people, she was asked to take on the job of executive director at Esperanza. With a law degree from Rutgers University, she is well qualified as an advocate for the vendedores ambulantes. Most mornings, in fact, find her in court representing women who have been arrested or who have received summonses for selling their food without a license from the city. The fine can be as high as $1,000, a crippling amount for single mothers with children, as most of the vendedores are.
“When I first came here, I saw the potential for a strong human rights organization centered about the group’s needs,” Ms. Bermudez said, adding that the level of punitive police actions was then at its worst. Demonstrations in front of the nearby precincts led to discussions with the local officers in charge. Early on she applied for and received a grant from the Open Society Institute. With that funding a number of programs were begun, such as a job skills project, a legal clinic, an immigrant antiviolence project and a course in food preparation for mobile vendors. The city has such a course in sanitary food preparation, but it is offered only in English, and when she requested that it be taught in Spanish, “we never received an answer.” Finally, however, staff members translated the course into Spanish, and over 50 women attended the first weekend it was offered. Now, thanks in part to pressure from Esperanza, the city has agreed to translate the course into several foreign languages.
Much of Ms. Bermudez’s effort is also directed toward educating public officials about the needs of the immigrant street vendors. Making matters worse for a time was a requirement that those applying for licenses prove that they were in the United States legally and had work permits—a painful issue at a time of increased deportations of immigrants. One of the group’s victories, though, involved gaining the support of a sympathetic council member who introduced legislation that resulted in the removal of this requirement. Now, a major challenge remains in the need for an increase in the number of licenses the city issues—a step that would legalize the work of many of the vendedores ambulantes, instead of exposing them to arrest, fines and destruction of their merchandise. These are women who pay taxes and are raising children. Ms. Bermudez and her staff want them to be accorded the rights they deserve.