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To organize for your right to vend is not glamorous; it involves community and trust-building, meetings, disagreements, unification around a campaign, administrative quagmires and persistence. This is what a small group of Latino vendors in Corona, Queens decided to take on.

“I get too many tickets because of the ’20 feet rule’ or the ‘10 feet rule’ for vending too close to a business or crosswalk,” said a Latina street vendor. “The rules are unfair and confusing,” she added in Spanish. She was new to the monthly street vendor meetings in Corona. The more seasoned members, like Rosario, explained her vending rights. Rosario sells a few types of Ecuadorian ceviche with her partner, Jorge, on 111th Street. She encouraged the newcomer, “Join the Street Vendor Project. You’ll get a lot of protection if you have a problem, and we are all here for you too.”

Rosario speaking at the street vendor meeting, photo by Sarah Khan“A few years ago, the street vendors fought to decrease the excessively high tickets, and we got those reduced,” said Mathew Shapiro, the Street Vendor Project’s legal advocate, at a June meeting in Corona. Now the organization has undertaken a campaign to tackle the lack of available permits.

These vocal Latino street vendors take matters into their own hands. That is why they requested that the SVP community organizer, Elise Goldin, facilitate a monthly meeting closer to where they worked, along and around Roosevelt Avenue. Every month they gather at The Immigrant Movement International community center. Located on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, the center is not far from 111th Street and Junction Avenue, two street vendor hubs. Harassed by a big supermarket, Jorge said, “Of course we need more permits, that is our campaign. But to do that, we have to get our council members to help us fight for more permits and decrease harassment and all these random tickets.” At this particular summer meeting, numerous vendors recounted similar problems that they encountered daily. “We are tired of talking,” Rosario said. “Let’s act and eat at our next meeting.”

Street vendor Heleadora, photo by Sarah KhanAt the following meeting in July, Goldin and SVP’s summer intern, Rebecca, both fluent in Spanish, facilitated. Amidst music and homemade food that members contributed – rice and vegetables, spiced grilled chicken, Ecuadorian scrambled eggs with choclo (a large-kernel variety of corn), beans, carrots and peas and fresh watermelon – they organized their priorities, wrote a letter to their local (District 21) city council member, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and delivered it to her office the same day. “We need our City Council member to fight for our legal right to vend, and we have to fight united,” said Heleadora with her characteristic patience and calm. A longtime vendor and community activist, she helped found the Esperanza del Barrio, a group of Latina women who fought for the right to support their families and contribute fully to their communities. In 2005, Esperanza del Barrio got legislation passed in the NYC Council that removed the requirement to show working papers in order to apply for a personal vending license in all five boroughs. Their organizing and efforts made a difference to many struggling immigrants.

 “If we win something, even something small, more vendors will join.”

With their letter in hand, the small group of street vendors made the winding walk to deliver it. The walk was long and the delivery anti-climactic. A note on the locked door announced that the office was closed that afternoon for staff development and would resume normal hours of operation the next day.

Street vendors delivering their letter to NY City Council, photo by Sarah KhanTwo City Council staff workers cautiously approached, keeping the door locked, and made Marcelino speak through glass doors. With his voice raised, he tilted his head to speak into the crack, “We are street vendors,” he said in Spanish, “and we come with an organizer from the Street Vendor Project; we are from this organization, okay?” They nodded their consent and gestured to him to deliver the letter. He slipped it through the space between the two doors.

The group’s visit to their local council member represented only the first of many actions. Next on the agenda was a visit to the local police precinct. With their respectful grievance letter in hand, the vendors’ plan was to focus on the same issues, over and over again: decrease police and business owner harassment and obtain respect for their right to vend.

Évelia, a longtime activist for her vending rights, said, “We have to let our fellow vendors who do not come to these meetings know what we, as active members, are doing to support all vendors.”

Heleadora added, “One way to get other vendors who are afraid to get involved is to have them see results – not just talk, but results. If we win something, even something small, more vendors will join.”

Just last week, the New York City Council announced the introduction of a bill, the Street Vendor Modernization Act. This small gain represents the real possibility of more permits – and may be a welcome signal to entice more street vendors to demand their rights.

Sarah Khan

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