Checking in with the Subway’s Churro Vendors

Vendors are facing increased scrutiny thanks to more police presence in the subways. Photo by the author.

Lorena*, who is 41 years old, stands behind a subway pillar facing the L train, bundled up with her churro cart at the Myrtle-Wyckoff station nearing dusk. Her days usually start at 6 a.m. every morning to make food for herself and her husband in her Brooklyn home. By 8 a.m., she’s on a Bronx-bound train, where she buys 100 churros for 35 dollars from a place she calls “the company.” She doesn’t know the name. Her workday, however, doesn’t actually begin until six hours after she’s woken up, at noon, when she posts up at different stations in hopes of feeding hungry New Yorkers in transit. Her favorite stations are in Manhattan, but today she’s in Brooklyn owing to the service changes on the L. Lorena sells her churros at three for two dollars, and usually makes about 50 dollars a day, so she supplements her cart with
duritos, or wheat wheels, chocolate bars and some cut fruit to double her earnings. 

She works three to four days a week, and when she doesn’t vend food in subway stations, she collects cans in the cloak of night. Her only other option for income is to clean people’s homes, but that pays ten dollars per hour, and it doesn’t cut it. 

Her workdays end at around 6 p.m., twelve hours after she’s woken up and begun her day, and she gets home at 7 or 8 at night. Whatever she doesn’t sell gets thrown away, and the next morning it starts all over again. 

Lorena is from Ecuador and moved here in search of a dream for a better life — not for her, but for her three children back home. 

Ecuador’s job economy is down, she tells me, which is the reason why she’s come to the United States in order to “salir adelante,” get ahead in life. Friends guided her in this direction, setting up high expectations for a certain quality of life here, “but now that we’re here, it’s very different [than we expected], but it’s too late now.” She hasn’t seen her children in the seven years she’s been here and plans on staying three to four years more. 

“I don’t even know what the door to their school looks like,” she tells me. Her voice begins to crack. “That’s why I left my country, to give my children an education,” she says. Lorena’s eyes are welling up, and a knot begins to form in my throat. “That’s why we fight through this life: Until my children finish their schooling, so that they don’t have to suffer the way we do.”

Two of her three children are studying economics, and she talks to them every single day. 

Lorena has a license that protects her as a food vendor, the mobile food vending license, which is sold from 10 to 50 dollars, depending on whether it’s a seasonal or full-time permit. But she does not have the mobile food vending unit permit

I ask her why she doesn’t have one, and she tells me the office she visited, the DCA Citywide Licensing Center on 42 Broadway, persuaded her against buying a permit.

“They told me it would be too difficult to get a sticker [for my cart], that I wouldn’t be able to buy it but that I could rent it to sell fruit,” she says. “It’s a little strange.” [Editor’s note: We are awaiting comment from the New York City Department of Health.]

Media outlets have turned their attention to churro cart vendors this past week after actress Sofia B. Newman posted a series of videos on Twitter that went viral of a churro vendor, whom we now know as Elsa, being handcuffed and dragged away by three NYPD officers. A fourth, in plainclothes, is seen lugging her cart out of the station. Elsa was taken to the precinct, given a civil summons and released. This came after Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced he would “expand the force by 20 percent, hiring 500 more officers,” according to a New York Times article, in attempts to control fare-evasion.  

Some people, like Lorena, have every intention of living and working in line with the law, and still, the system seemingly works against her. Others, like Martin*, the only churro cart vendor at the Broadway-Junction platform, where Elsa was handcuffed and dragged off on November 9, don’t have any kind of licensing. 

When I first asked Martin if I could interview him, he was nervous; he had just been issued a ticket. He asked me, “What’s going to happen to me when I go to court?”

Martin doesn’t tell me his age but says he’s very old, and doesn’t feel well that day. He works an average of ten hours daily, and at best makes 80 dollars per day. Losing his cart means losing his livelihood. He’s here from Ecuador alone, with no family to speak of or care for him.

“I’m old now. I can’t find work in anything else,” he tells me, struggling to speak. “If I don’t have this, I don’t have food to eat.”

Coexisting with the police on subway platforms has proven stressful. He tells me he’s gotten four tickets alone this year, and some days cops sweep in and take away their merchandise, making it a big financial loss for Martin, who regularly doesn’t make enough money to even cover rent. 

“When the cops come, they take all my churros, and my cart too,” he explains. 

With limited resources, capital, and support, this work is all he has, and yet, instead of the city opening pathways to facilitate his work, he is made to feel like a criminal for it. 

“It’s unjust. We’re not criminals,” he tells me, his voice clearer than before, “we’re not stealing anything; we only seek the bread of the day.”   

Lorena tells me something similar. “I’m not causing any harm,” she says, “but they [the police] don’t think this. I’m just undocumented, but I’m working on that.”  

“Police tell me they know I’m undocumented,” she adds, hinting that police use knowledge of their status as undocumented citizens to instill fear unto them. 

I walk through the station on Broadway-Junction, seeking more churro vendors, aside from Martin, but I only find a young man selling chocolate bars and bottled waters. He declines my request for an interview, but tells me he doesn’t struggle with police interference. 

Grub Street reported another arrest of a churro vendor that took place November 11 at Myrtle-Wyckoff, a day after I met Lorena, she had to sit in jail overnight.

When I asked her if she was scared of performing this type of work, Lorena told me, “Sometimes I’m very scared. Sometimes there’s no work, but what can we do? We have to risk it.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.