Undocumented and Unemployed: The Street Vendors of Queens
The stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens teemed with people weaving their way through carts and stands that offer everything from sweet-scented roast corn to masks.
Jackson Heights was part of the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the pandemic in New York. The effects of those early months still reverberate among the immigrant workers who lost their jobs and got sick at alarming rates.
“The people who survived are struggling to put food on the table,” said Yatziri Tovar, a spokeswoman for Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group.
More than 60 percent of their members lost their jobs. At least 50 have died.
When the coronavirus hit New York, she was paying $60 weekly to sublet a room on Roosevelt Avenue. She paid for four months until her savings ran out.
The landlord evicted her, and though friends had urged her to fight the eviction — a moratorium is in effect until the end of this year — she felt intimidated.
Gerardo came to New York from Mexico in 2006, after his trucking company was targeted by people who he said assaulted him and stole the best truck in his fleet.
He settled in Jackson Heights, where he now lives on a tree-lined street with his wife and two sons. But those hard-won comforts are now at risk.
His wife lost her restaurant job. His clients asked for refunds of their down payments. Unable to qualify for grants or loans, Gerardo sold one of his cars and ran up his credit cards to pay them back.
She now belongs to a coalition of street vendors, advocates and politicians urging officials to pass a bill that would set up an Excluded Workers Fund, which would tax the city’s wealthiest to provide financial relief to undocumented workers.
“There has been very little relief, so we have had to figure this out on our own,” said Jessica Ramos, a state senator sponsoring the bill.
Manuel was hoping to make money to help his children back in Ecuador. He had been a lawyer and owned a drugstore there, he said, until he began receiving death threats from a former client.
“My life was in danger,” said Manuel, 60. “I couldn’t run my business. I couldn’t take care of my children.”
Photography and video by Juan Arredondo.
Written by David Gonzalez.
Edited and produced by Jeffrey Furticella and Meghan Louttit.