“Me siento latinoamericano de cualquier país, pero sin renunciar nunca a la nostalgia de mi tierra: Aracataca…”
“I feel Latin American from any country, but without renouncing the nostalgia for my land: Aracataca…” ~Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Most are animated, some waver and occasionally one stumbles. Every few feet, a door swings open and a bolero, salsa or merengue tune blares from within. It’s Saturday night in Jackson Heights, and up and down Roosevelt Avenue families flow, children beg their parents for sweets, young women gossip and others hop from bar to bar.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle works Luis Alfonso Marin, a Colombian immigrant who sells butter-laden, mozzarella-stuffed arepas topped with grated white cheese from his cart at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 80th Street. The arepas can come drizzled with condensed milk on top or with a squeeze of the street vendor’s signature spicy green chili sauce to accentuate the savory.
Marin came legally to the U.S. 34 years ago. With interests in theatre, choreography, folk and modern dance, he arrived ready to delve into the art scene. “I got to see so much great art that I would have never seen back home,” he recalled. Yet the mercurial and stratified theatre-dance world, already difficult to navigate for a person who grew up here, seemed overwhelming to a Colombian-born outsider with few connections and little English proficiency. “I got to New York, and I had to make money so I turned to food vending,” Marin said.
Though he had the $50 license, he did not have the mobile food vending permit, for which the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene charges $200 and which is valid for two years. According to Sean Basinski, Director of the Street Vendor Project, the number of permits has been capped at 3,000 since 1981 – black market permits sell for up to $20,000.
In 2004, New York City raffled off permits. Marin applied. “Eight years later, I got on the waiting list. My number was 16. And I waited an additional eight years to reach number 16. It took me a total of 16 years to get the permit to vend legally.”
Permit in hand, Marin ordered his metal food cart three years ago. “My biggest worry now is the interest I pay on the cart,” he said. “It is high for me.”
Marin caters to the colorful night-crawling Queens crowd, selling from late night to early morning. Sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight, he and his assistant Marvin – a 19-year-old Mexican whose plans include going to university to become a neurologist – push the truck from the garage two blocks away to his spot on Roosevelt Avenue. With his kitchen-on-wheels parked, the two set up the grill, turn on the burners, arrange the condiments, heat sausages, cut potatoes and grill his signature arepas.
Arepa lovers appear. Many call out to Luis as they pass by, businesses owners run out to ask for change, and the rest circle around his cart to order. With cheese. Without. Con papas. Red sauce. Green sauce. Mayo. “I am a security guard in Manhattan for a night club,” one regular said. “I come here on my way home, eat one arepa and take another home. His are the best.” A young woman waiting for her order said, “My girlfriend told me to come here. Me? I’m Mexican. I live around the corner. Her brother swears his arepas are like home.” The inebriated sit, others weave back and forth, hold court and pontificate, and most order, chat, eat and move on.
Marin’s default is tenderness towards all. He caters to his crossroads community with grace.