Silver Chips Online

Hope blooms in a Hispanic neighborhood

Latina women street vendors try to make a living in Langley Park

By Meaghan Mallari, Online Managing Editor
October 12, 2005
To read the story in Spanish, click here.

The coconut chips, mango slices and cucumber slices are all in plastic Ziploc bags. Umbrellas cover the stands and shopping carts hold the fruit that gets periodically peeled and sliced. Here is a group of women holding on to the culture of their native country while trying to make a living everyday on the four corners of Merrimac Drive and 14th Avenue.

Anairis Reyes, 43, is relaxed as she sits on the top of a motor case that powers her snowcone machine. She wears a T-shirt and jeans, and her hair is cut short. Her eyes are sharp, but friendly, her vocabulary is extensive and her grammar is excellent. However, these qualities are only noticeable in the Spanish language because Reyes cannot speak English. Like many other Salvadoran and Latin American women, she immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of finding a job and found one as a street vendor.

Like the four other vendors, all of whom women, selling fruits and vegetables on the corners of Merrimac Drive, she mostly caters to the dense Hispanic population in her neighborhood, working Monday through Friday, from 5-9 p.m.

The past and the present

Reyes has been in the U.S. for two years and has four cousins, an aunt and two nephews, living near her. Although she has worked to make Maryland her new home, she still carries with her the memories and stories of her native country, El Salvador.

In El Salvador both Reyes and her husband worked for the government: Reyes was a police officer and her husband was in the military. In the late 1970's through the early 1990s, when El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war, death and destruction robbed many Salvadorans of their homes, families, jobs and future plans. Thousands were murdered, and people sunk even lower into the hardships of poverty. Reyes was among those affected. She lost her job and her husband was killed. With no husband and no job, Reyes was in a dangerous position because she had no way to make a living and no one to help support her. So she emigrated to the U.S. and began to start her life anew.

Daily pay is not always guaranteed

In many Latin American countries, and El Salvador in particular, jobs are extremely scarce and families find it hard to survive. According to the CIA, in 2000 the unemployment rate in El Salvador was 10 percent, with 48 percent of the population in El Salvador living below the poverty line in 1999. The U.S. provides a window of hope for the many Spanish-speaking immigrants who come to this country in search of work. In 2000, the Census reported that the 655,165 Salvadorans living in the U.S. were the largest group of Central and South American people to immigrate to the U.S.

For many Latinos like Reyes, it is hard to find good jobs because of their poor English language skills. Many open up private businesses that cater to people from their country. Zulema Zelaja, 43, was born in Honduras and has been in the U.S. for 14 years. She, unlike Reyes, came here illegally, "con la ayuda de dios", with the help of God, she says. Zelaja immigrated to the United States because of the poverty and the lack of jobs in her country. She works from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week. She earns between $40 and $60 a day, but she says, "sometimes you earn money, and sometimes you don't."

The amount of money that these women street vendors earn is not enough to live on, says Santos Sarmientos, who sells mangos at her stand. The most she has ever made in a day was $125, but her usual daily income is about $50.

Although their incomes are not enough to live off of here, many women still send money back to their country, where the dollar's value is augmented. " I miss my family very much, but when I can send them money, it makes me so happy," Zelaja says. Money sent back to family members helps those who have stayed behind survive.

Dealing with the law

Angela Flores is 30 years old, has five children, no husband and she too does not speak English. She works five days a week and earns only about $50 a day. "It's hard because I have so many kids," she explains. Flores sells fruits such as mangos as well as herbs, vegetables and heads of garlic.

It is illegal for the women to set up their stands on the corners of the street and the police have approached them many times, Flores says. The police have told them to move, and used to come around every week. However, recently they have stopped patrolling the area, continues Flores with the sound of relief in her voice.

Esperanza: hope for a better future

These women vendors have learned to adapt to this new lifestyle, working as hard as they can to make a living. Reyes has been taking English classes at the Catholic Center located just down the street from her stand. Reyes says that the classes are hard because in English, there are words that have three different meanings, and it gets really confusing. Reyes says she still has to get used to living here, but she would someday like to become a police officer here in the U.S.

Zelaja knows how hard it is to succeed in the U.S. especially if someone is not fluent in English. However, she does have advice to those starting out the rough life as an immigrant, which is something that she lives by: "Follow a good path, and you will be all right."

As her work day comes close to an end, Reyes gets up from sitting on the motor, pulls the string hard to start it, and begins to prepare a strawberry snowcone for a customer- another $2 earned for the day.

http://silverchips.mbhs.edu/story/5745