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Heleodora: Street Vendors Project

International Women's Strike Interview Project

In this project, IWS-NYC members perform interviews with women organizers from worker centers and cooperatives, as part of a process of militant knowledge co-production. We are particularly interested in unpacking the conditions that both enable and limit autonomous labor organizing and self-determination, as well as the way in which feminist and class struggle co-constitute each other. Ultimately, we would like to address the ways in which both interviewers and interviewees practice — and envision the possibilities for — collective action, as a way of transforming the conditions of the working majority. In particular, those who experience the most acute forms of exploitation and dispossession: women, immigrants, and low wage workers. For other testimonials please click here. For more information on the strike please click here

I invite all women migrant workers to fight. Do not be afraid…the struggle must go on.

I was born in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, in a place called Atlamajalcingo del Monte. At the age of nine I moved to Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero. I spent my adolescence and youth there, and that’s where I got married and had my children. My five grandchildren were also born there and I worked for some time in a hospital.

In 1985, due to changes in government policies, the hospital where I worked was transferred over to the Department of Health so that the State government could manage it. When that happened, our wages were no longer the same and I was earning half of what I used to earn. Then I had problems with my partner and my economic situation changed completely. I became separated from my husband and had to take care of my seven children on my own.

Many of us from my town would say, “Let’s go to the north because they are earning good money over there.” I said, “let’s go,” but when we went over there, we did not take into account all of the important factors: that here you have to pay for housing, you have to look for a job, and know the language. In September 1986, I decided to come to New York City. When I got here, I faced many obstacles searching for work, searching for housing, and because of the language — but I tried to survive. I brought my children over here little by little until all seven of them were here. I also brought my grandchildren, since my grandchildren were born over there. When all of us arrived here, we started working and renting apartments.

My first job when I arrived here in 1987 was in a pasta factory. I was there for about six months and afterwards I went to work for a clothing factory. The conditions for workers in that factory were terrible because we did not know our rights and the owners always made us work more for little pay. I worked for eleven years ironing designer clothes at that factory. All my children and I worked hard. We worked about twelve to fourteen hours a day. Sometimes I would work the entire day and the owners would ask, “Do you want to work tomorrow at 6AM?” I would say yes. I had to work because I needed to.

When I first started street vending, I would sell food in Van Cortlandt, but sometimes the cops in the park would run the vendors out because we did not have permits to sell in the park. I did that for about two or three years. Then my son opened a restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I went to work with him for a while, but he wasn’t doing so well because his wife needed him in the house and there was a lot of competition he had to deal with. The restaurant then closed.

I went back to selling food, but my experiences were the same. We would be chased out by the police. I would go out and as I would start to sell my tamales, the police would arrive and confiscate my cart. There was one time where the police grabbed my cart and threw it around, and because of that, food spilled on the sidewalk. They said, “clean it.” I replied, “I didn’t throw it — you clean it.” They said, “You’re not going to clean it? We’ll arrest you. ”

I said, “Arrest me, so what?” They told me again, “We’re going to arrest you.” I said, “Arrest me. It’s no problem; I’ll come back!” The officers then said, “We’re going to issue you a fine.” Their captain said to them, “No, just leave her alone.” I was not fined. “Do not come back here because we’ll arrest you the next time we visit you,” they warned. I said, “Okay, that’s fine, because tomorrow I’ll be here.” Boldly I said to them, “I’m not doing anything wrong, because I’m looking for a means to survive and to support my family.”

Because of many experiences like this with the police, I spoke with other vendors and learned of a project called Esperanza del Barrio in 2004. I worked with them until 2009. That project, like the Street Vendors Project (SVP), was focused on the campaign to lower the fines that the police give to us, and on winning licenses and permits for street vendors. I participated in that project off and on — I had to support a family, so it made more sense to spend my time street vending. We marched and protested, but then we were back in the same situation, constantly running and hiding from the police. We worked with the project until 2009 when it closed.

I then learned about the Street Vendors Project in 2010. I learned about the SVP through a coworker of mine who worked for them as an organizer. I went to a meeting where they talked about a proposal from the city that all street vendors were to be fingerprinted. We organized a huge protest and it was in that protest that I met everyone from the Street Vendors Project. With that protest, we shut down the proposal.

I started working with the Street Vendors Project after that and since then, I’ve been on the Board of Directors. I tell everyone that this is my last year and I do not want to continue because of medical problems I now have. However, I feel sometimes that I must continue, because I see the injustice that street vendors have to deal with. There are many poor street vendors who go out and put a small table in the street, then the police arrive and take away the fruits and vegetables they are selling. They leave them like that or sometimes they take their table too. On top of that, many people like to say that street vendors are criminals, but we are not criminals — we are just trying to make a living and survive. There are many unfair things like this happening.

As someone who is on the Board of Directors of SVP, my responsibility is to represent the street vendors and fight for them, help the vendors come to agreements, and take on initiatives. Right now, we are focused on the campaign to gain more permits for street vendors. I participate in projects depending on the events and activities we have going on, and help with organizing and planning the events, activities, and meetings. Sometimes I am in the office quite a lot and other times I go one day a week.

We have about 2,000 members and I think 50% of those members are active in our project. Our members’ level of participation depends on their consciousness and the responsibility to raise their consciousness falls on us, the Board of Directors. I have noticed that there are more women than men in our project and women do participate a lot.

Some women are afraid to participate because they have spouses who do not want them to participate and they are marginalized. I think they are manipulated by their spouses. Sometimes some women say, “Well, I don’t know what my husband would say if I were to get involved.” I see that they are not very free and they are not able to decide for themselves. I say to them, ” you’re not going to do any wrong, you’re going to learn how to fight, to defend your rights, and to care for your children through struggle.” Sometimes they say they cannot stay at a meeting late because they have to go home to make dinner. It is obvious then that they are being manipulated. You don’t see a man saying, “I’m leaving the meeting now because I have to make dinner for my wife.”

I had formed a women’s committee, but because we have been so focused on the campaign for permits, there are not too many women coming to committee meetings anymore. I formed that committee because I want women, all of us, to participate, open our mouths, and say what it is that we do not like. I would say to them, “Let’s fight, let’s search, let’s see if we can find someone who will sponsor us and we can open a cooperative, let’s find someone who will teach us how to run a cooperative.” My hope is that, perhaps, in the future, that committee will grow.

In addition to our campaign for permits, we go out every month to talk to the vendors, invite them to our events, and do outreach on all the streets where there are many vendors. We talk about the organization, what their rights are as street vendors, what support the organization can give them, and we explain that we are fighting for everyone. We are fighting not only for vendors in the project, but for all vendors, because when we achieve something, everyone will benefit — for example, when we won the decrease in the fines, that was a win that benefited many street vendors who are not members of the project. Our struggle is the struggle of all the vendors and it does not matter if they are members of the Street Vendors Project or not.

The Street Vendors Project is part of the Worker Center Federation. We attend their meetings and, like other groups of workers, we attend to get to know each other and plan our campaigns. The Federation gives us orientations on our rights, prepares leaders, and helps one understand how to participate politically, because there are many who do not know how to participate and organize. That is what happened to me. For example, when I got here, I did not know what my rights were and how to participate in an organization. I came here and thought that because I am from another country, I have no rights. Now I have learned that humans in this world have rights as human beings and that we must fight. Workers must struggle against the theft of wages and abusive bosses.

The Federation teaches us how workers are to be supported and guided, how workers can participate in their organization and how they can help other workers. For example, there was a restaurant called Liberato in 2014 in which the owner was stealing wages from the workers. We went there and protested alongside the restaurant workers, as different types of workers. That is the purpose of the Federation — to unite all workers because each class of workers has its own problems.

With this new administration, there are many people who are very scared and that is why our membership has decreased. I went to march in Washington when Trump assumed the presidency and I liked that many people in that moment were very active. Now things have calmed down a lot. The protests have become stifled. I do not know why, but if you ask me, we must continue to struggle. I invite all women migrant workers to fight. Do not be afraid. I have had many bad things happen to me and yet here I am: the struggle must go on.

I want street vendors to win permits so that they can work without any worries, so that they can be part of the formal economy, and perhaps for the workers to own their own workplaces. Ultimately what I want — and it is my dream — is for the SVP to become strong and for it to secure a future for workers and their families. I want all these women workers to study and eventually for there to be a way for all these women to continue to train themselves and improve their future. I want a future in which street vendors can work with dignity and respect. I hope we keep fighting for ourselves because no one else is going to fight for us, the poor.

Heleodora: Street Vendors’ Project
Interview courtesy of Daniela Martínez

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