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Brooklyn College Food Vendor

A typical day: A Brooklyn College student (left) and Mario Rojas (right)
(media credit: Loretta Chin)

By LORETTA CHIN
Originally published on Brooklyn News Service
February 3, 2013

The sun shone brightly on crowds of Brooklyn College students as they exited the black wrought iron gates of the beautiful, grassy and tree-laden campus on Bedford Avenue. Waiting outside, rain or shine, are several shiny metal food vendor trucks with menus designed to lure hungry students over for a quick bite to eat before their next class or before boarding a bus home.

Mario Rojas, 41, a slightly built man with a graying moustache, goatee and bronze-rimmed glasses, leans back against his rectangular-shaped steel food truck; it is strategically located at the corner to catch foot traffic from every direction. One side is flipped up to provide shade to Rojas as he waits patiently in his usual outfit of blue jeans, baseball cap, gray Polartec zip-up hoody and latex gloves. Students from the diagonally opposite corners of both the nearby Midwood High School and West Quad campus buildings wait patiently for the street lights to turn green so they can flock to his small truck in droves. It advertises breakfast and lunch specials with pictures of hamburgers, hot dogs, knishes, beef patties and more, but Rojas also sells soft tacos, which attracts many Latino and Hispanic students who welcome the idea of eating familiar food and conversing in Spanish with him.

A young Hispanic girl from the neighboring Midwood High School was walking briskly by and talking on her cell phone, when she stopped suddenly to greet Rojas in Spanish and asked for a beef patty. “He cooks the gyros good, the tacos too,” she said. Rojas smiled and gave a small laugh as he opened up the hot patty and put some shredded cheese and hot sauce on it before wrapping it up and placing it with a napkin in a brown paper bag.

People pass his truck all the time, but how many have wondered about the man on the corner who works from morning until night and is always there to provide relief to the hungry. This is his story, but it is also just one of many immigrant stories in New York City.

Rojas was born in Mexico and lived in a small house with his parents, four brothers, and four sisters. About 40 families also lived within a small radius of his house in this poor town where the summers would swelter to over 100 degrees. They grew a variety of fruits and vegetables, and raised chickens and other farm animals to sustain themselves, but longed for a better life.

Rojas was 17 years old, with a third grade education, when he decided to leave the poverty of his home and walk across the border into the United States to pursue the American dream. He has been back and forth a few times, returning with his wife on his last trip back to the U.S. 17 years ago. At that time, his mother sold some of her land to put together the $5,000 as payment to arrange to have Rojas and his wife come to the United States. “Now, it costs $7,000 each to come to the U.S.,” Rojas said.

Rojas struggled to make a living when he first arrived here. He worked at a supermarket and then a restaurant in Manhattan, but was fired one day over a disagreement with his boss. He was out of work and out of luck until a vendor, who currently works down the block from him, helped him out by making a deal with him. He told Rojas that he would sell him his truck and allow him to use his permit for two years if he paid him $23,000. Rojas took the offer, but once the two years was up, he was asked to pay an additional $15,000 to use the permit for another two years.

Ironically, Rojas was able to obtain an operator’s license as long as he paid taxes, but he was unable to get a permit because there is a 10-year waiting list for one. “The city is so hungry, so hungry,” said Rojas. “They need money, money, money, money, but they won’t give me my permit,” he continued, stating that the permit only costs $200. “If I had my own permit, I wouldn’t have to pay $15,000, but the city has a very bad system. They give the license to a lot of people, which only costs $60,” Rojas said with bitterness in his voice. “This city is a very bad city,” he said. “I have a tax I.D. and pay taxes so I can get this,” as he held up his license, “but they won’t give me a permit.”

On a typical work day, Rojas wakes up at 4:00 a.m. to get to his truck; it is kept at one of more than a dozen garages located around the city that caters to his profession. He prepares it for the day and gets to his corner by 7:00 a.m., then works through the day until about 6:30 p.m. at night. He works Mondays through Fridays when the schools are open and when they are not, he goes to other locations in the city.

“It’s hard work,” he said. But then he also said, “I like it. Nobody tells me do this, do that.” He said it was a little difficult when the weather is cold. “Oh, oh,” he said animatedly in his Spanish accent. “Over here, the weather changes so much – hot, cold, hot cold.”

And it’s not just the weather. When the high school lets out, large crowds of students surround his food truck and often take snack bags that hang off the truck when he is not looking. It’s a small problem compared to his other woes. He complained about his expenses and said that he has paid $10,000 in tickets over the last two years, which has caused him hardship. “Sometimes, I don’t pay the bills and I have to pay a $25 late fee for rent,” said Rojas.

He got a $1,000 ticket last year because he forgot to bring his license with him to work one day. “What did you give me the ticket for?” Rojas asked the inspector. “Because you don’t have your license,” the inspector replied. So Rojas was given the ticket, but he went to court to fight it because he said he had his license at home and was going to get it.

The judge didn’t care that Rojas had the license at home. “You’re working with no license so you have to pay the ticket,” the judge told Rojas. Rojas complained the he got numerous other tickets from the many inspections that are carried out every two weeks to see if he is in compliance with city codes and regulations. “I don’t know. It’s crazy,” he said. It became an issue not just for him, but many vendors who were complaining about the city’s aggressive ticketing policies.

He said that he attended monthly meetings at the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, which advocates for people like Rojas. The problem seems to have abated lately because of the attention.

Rojas gets by with help from his wife who sometimes assists him when she is not at work.  She  works as a housekeeper two to three days a week in the neighborhood. He says that she makes $10 per hour but sometimes she is not treated well. Together, they have four daughters, 17, 14, 10 and 9, and live in a one-room apartment for $1,100 a month in a neighborhood not too far from where he works.

He said that he set up his business three years ago and was doing well, but within one month, another bigger truck set up right next to him and took a lot of his business. He looked bitter and resentful as he said that since the other truck came, he can barely make enough to pay the rent and telephone bill.

Rojas gets very busy when classes let out. “Hello. How much for a hot dog?” a girl asked. Rojas told her it was $1.50 and she ordered two. Then, a crowd of about a dozen noisy students wearing Team Hyper Bowl sweatshirts approached Rojas. “How much is the ham omelet?” asked one. “How much is the chicken wrap?” asked another. They lined up as Rojas did his best to keep an eye on his truck and prepare food for the crowd.

Michael Kinsley, 14, a freshman in high school, came by to see what Rojas had to offer. “How much is a cheeseburger?” he asked. “$3.00,” Rojas said. Kinsley hesitated and then ordered the cheeseburger. It was late and the sky has turned dark. Kinsey, who was just coming out of track practice said, “I knew Mario since 6th grade when I used to come here from Marine Park Junior High School to hang out here.” “He makes good food. It tastes good,” he continued. Rojas smiled as he placed the burger on the grill. An aromatic cloud of steam rose from the burger as it sizzled and cooked. “You want ketchup amigo? Hot sauce? Barbecue?”

It’s been a long and busy day for Rojas, but only one of many as he does what he must to make a living and raise his family.

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