Dynamic Diaspora: Women and Immigration

Part: 6

For Street Vendor, Another Holiday in Shadows

Friday, December 25, 2009

In New York City, a food vendor celebrates her 20th Christmas without the documentation she needs to visit family back in Mexico. To her, the warm rice and hot tamales that she cooks and sells preserve the cultural connection every day.

Christmas dinner Mexican styleNEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--This Christmas, Maria Lucia marks the 20th year of celebrating the holidays far from many members of her family.

The street vendor in East Harlem has lived in the United States since 1990 but does not have the proper papers to visit Mexico, where much of her extended family lives.

She lives here, with her two children, in an enclave of Manhattan where most of her fellow vendors also are women.

Lucia tends her cart on a stretch of Spanish Harlem along with a dozen or so other women who also sell homemade Mexican breakfast and lunch.

Spooning a chunk of rice into a tortilla, Lucia, a petite woman who wears two layered black fleece jackets to battle the chilly air, adds a scoop of seasoned chorizo before carefully folding the bulky gordita into foil.

Since the arrival of cold weather, Lucia has been serving familiar Mexican comfort food for the winter: arroz con leche, or warm rice with milk, and hot tamales.

For Lucia, vending is a better job than the factory where she spent 10 years making clothes. It's also less demanding than the time she spent in Mexico cultivating flowers.

"It's much easier," she says in Spanish.

"Vendedoras," or female street vendors, are the vending majority here, so much so that in 2003 they started a group to support each other called Esperanza del Barrio, or Hope of the Neighborhood.

The group helps vendors, many whom do not have proper paperwork, pay taxes in the United States, avoid fines and handle questions by the police.

Vending often attracts undocumented immigrants because it's one of the few jobs not requiring a Social Security card.

Like many advocacy groups, Esperanza also works to help its members understand immigration law, boiling down complexities and explaining how individuals can remain in the United States, often with families they've raised here.

A Group Formed by Women

A few other groups help street vendors, but Esperanza is unique because of its formation by women, most of them Latina immigrants. Today, about 60 percent of the 125 vendors registered with Esperanza are women.

"I think it's just seen as a woman's thing to do," said Peter De Vries, director of Esperanza. "The guys go to construction, and the girls go into street vending."

De Vries says a vendor's income can vary widely. Women such as Lucia, who help with a cart they don't own, can make $50 a day, "perhaps more, perhaps less." He added that factors like the weather, the police and fines can also make a difference in take-home pay.

Immigrant workers have suffered diminished rights under U.S. employment and labor laws, according to a November report produced by the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. The report indicated that immigrants, 16 percent of the non-farm work force, are often employed in dangerous sectors such as construction, meatpacking and poultry industries.

In the hopes that comprehensive immigration reform will be debated within Congress in 2010, the National Immigration Law Center says legalizing undocumented workers would improve key working conditions.

It also says immigration status should not be shared with federal investigators and workers should not be discriminated against because of their immigration status.

Female vendors formed Esperanza after a number of women encountered problems with authorities. Some were being overwhelmed with fines for operating without a license and losing food to the trash if they couldn't produce proper paperwork.

Maria Yascaribay, who sets up her meat cart about 20 feet away from Lucia, remembers those days well. When she started vending here 12 years ago, the problems with the police were persistent, she says.

Fewer Police Hassles

After the vendedoras created Esperanza, she says in Spanish, "The police don't bother us much."

De Vries, a former Phoenix public defender born in Guatemala, says that since he's taken over as Esperanza's director this year, complaints about the police have ebbed. He leans back in his chair in the tiny office near 117th street. It's cluttered with event fliers and filing cabinets that contain manila folders for each vendor.

The folders keep track of the vendors' tax records and other legal paperwork, piles of black-and-white forms and signatures that make up a complicated but necessary part of vending.

"We just decode the system," De Vries said. Immigrants who only speak Spanish have trouble grasping the process of filing their taxes, getting a license or paying fines that can top $1,000.

Esperanza helps them get an Employer Identification Number, which can be used to pay taxes when a worker lacks a Social Security card. The tiny staff --De Vries and a few volunteers--also helps vendors pay state sales taxes four times each year.

The group also offers its members workshops on topics such as domestic violence, women's health and tutoring for school-age children.

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Series Overview

Dynamic Diaspora: Women and Immigration

Part: 12

Few Care for the Undocumented With Breast Cancer

Part: 11

Nebraska Prenatal Bill Stirs Fight Over Immigration

Part: 10

Visas Out of Hell: Women Need to Know They Exist

Part: 9

Deportation of Mothers in Iowa Tests Local Charity

Part: 8

Women's ESL Dominance Tied to Job Demands

Part: 7

For Street Vendor, Another Holiday in Shadows

Part: 6

Arrested Iowa Meat Packers Live in Legal Limbo

Part: 5

Battered Immigrants in Arizona Find Few Havens

Part: 4

Recession Shrinks Safety Net for Immigrant Women

Part: 3

Immigrant Survivors of Abuse Seek Freedom

Part: 2

U Visas Speed Up for Immigrants Who Flee Abuse

Part: 1

U Visa Recipients Look for Better Enforcement