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If you walk the length of Roosevelt Avenue from 69th Street to 111th Street in the early morning, you may encounter up to two dozen tamale ladies, usually at the major intersections that correspond to the 7 train’s stops. Few have licensed carts; most vend from grocery carts. Many of these women are up at 3 a.m. cooking and packing their steaming goods and are on the street by 4 or 5 a.m. Licensed or not, their business is brisk, efficient and professional. The ladies feed their own and charge prices that day laborers can pay.

It is 5 a.m. on the corner of 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside, Queens. I am here to meet Christina Fox and her favorite tamale ladies. Migrant women – mainly from Mexico and a few from Ecuador – hawk affordable corn tamales (cheese, chicken, pork), hot chocolate, milky oatmeal and rice pudding to anyone on their way to work who is hungry and has a couple of dollars.

The church at 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, photo by Sarah KhanDominating the corner of Roosevelt and 69th is a church building that spans the entire block. Its brick wall contrasts the blue sky and frames the day laborers, migrants largely from Mexico and Ecuador, gathered on the street and corner. The men congregate, alone or in groups, sit or lean against the wall and wait. They look diminished in size, in front of the colossal church edifice. Clothed in construction attire, armed with the tools of their trade, they hope to get picked up by a contractor for a day’s work and wage.

After harassment from police, arrests and contending with angry restaurant owners, Évelia can finally sell her tamales legally.

Fox arrives. She is a driven labor rights organizer for New York Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), which is located a few blocks up the avenue. Harried, she has her hair in a tangled bun, carelessly fastened, and greets me and many of the day laborers, who know her by name or as the kind lady from NICE. The men she does not know she addresses and invites to NICE’s scheduled meetings to find work and learn about their labor rights, whether they are documented or not. We cross the street, not yet congested with traffic, and Christina leads me to her favorite tamale lady on Roosevelt Avenue. She says to me, “Don’t tell the 69th-street tamale lady that I visit the 74th-street tamale lady, and vice versa.”

Christina Fox of NICE with a day laborer, photo by Sarah KhanJust after the bus stop and around a jutting makeshift structure, a bit hidden from the main thoroughfare, we find the tamale vendor with her grocery cart. With each order, she unravels a thick, black plastic bag, reaches in and pulls out a steaming tamale, which can be punched up with red or green chili sauces. She also offers warm, cinnamon-spiced rice pudding as a sweet option.

Another vendor, Évelia, who sells tamales at the intersection of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, began with a grocery cart and no permit. Her story is a typical one. She arrived from Mexico in 2000. “When they arrested me [for operating without a permit], I really felt horrible,” she says. “I cried. But I had this courage inside. I decided to sell the next day.” After harassment from police, more arrests, obtaining black-market permits and contending with angry restaurant owners, she can finally sell her tamales legally. The video below tells her story, in her own words.

Sarah Khan

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