Sunday, October 10, 2010

Street Vending in San Jose, the Muni, and Sonia’s Immigration Policy

Wrapped umbrellas swing from hips. Limes perch in a cardboard box. A green-eyed guy with a backpack blows out a stream of bubbles onto the Avenida Central. Katie, my classmate, and I keep an eye out for the muni. This is our homework—to interview five street vendors of San Jose. Subsequently, I have begun counting the “muni,” 4,6,…18, evading any eye contact, and if they walk our way, we walk the other. A lookout vendor lets out a low whistle and women carrying hangers of bright shoelaces sweep their products into their big purses; the fruit vendors hoist their boxes onto one shoulder and start walking; an umbrella woman walks briskly ahead of another, looking behind her, as two “muni” officers stroll into this new, vacant scene. Street vending in San Jose is like a covert, creative network that appears and disappears in an instant, hanging tenuously under the noses of navy blue and bright yellow uniformed “muni” police officers. These vendors are part of the informal sector (IS), the unregistered, unregulated, yet legal micro-enterprises that take place outside of state control. The vendors buy small products typically from a store, and sell them for (from what I found) double that amount on the street. More women than men work in this sector, and many immigrants (mostly Nicaraguan) work here, those with less access to capital (Cross 1998). If the “muni” catches them (which they do, but not as often as I would think) they take away all of their products. The only enemy and disadvantage they mentioned was the “muni,” the municipality. They said they make in two days what they would make in a factory in one week. No, they don’t prefer that work. They have social security. They work every day of the week typically from 6 am to 7 pm, they say. Sonia has told me that they all work for “the Colombians,” that they are the ones who gain money to buy drugs from this work. One person did say she bought her products from “the Colombians”…

(Let me explain, though, a little bit about Sonia. She is conservative, and racist when it comes to Nicaraguans and immigration, and more than adamant about her views, always ending a dinner conversation rant with “Am I right? Do you agree with me?” directed forcefully at me, her eyes wide. I have given up trying to defend my position (non-confrontationally, diplomatically,) after Sonia has used my slower pace of Spanish speech to regain control of the conversation. Now I just take a mouthful of food and defer to William (her friend that lives with us). When I told her our class was going to San Sebastian (a Nicaraguan immigrant community outside of San Jose) she said, “Oh, are you going to the jail?” When I tried to explain what we were learning about immigration in class, she went on a rant that included motioning her thumb to her mouth “Nicas…borrachos, (drunks)”… “taking our jobs, violence, violence, violence.” Sonia feeds the guard of our neighborhood every night after we finish dinner, (I think as her way of payment,) bringing a full plate outside, calling out “Guarda” from behind the bars (typical of almost every house outside of San Jose) and saying to me, “I don’t know his name, nor do I want to know his name” (He is Nicaraguan). Yet, Iliana, our neighbor who eats breakfast with Sonia and Julita every morning, is Nicaraguan. Sonia has explained this by saying, “It is isn’t discrimination. I have good friends who are Nicaraguan, but our system cannot support them when we have our own people to feed.” Keep in mind, Sonia and Julita are also immigrants, from Cuba. (But I follow the laws, she would say). (You are also lighter-skinned and middle class, I would say). Anyway, I guess most people have some contradictions in their politics.)

We have begun interviewing the bubble guy… “How long have you been working here? Do you sell other things, besides bubbles? Where are you from?” He pauses in answering our question in order to blow out a long, stream of bubbles. “Sabanilla.” “What hours do you work?” He screws the top on his bubble bottle, and pulls up the straps of his plastic bag, encasing his bubble collection. In the same swoop, his friend comes over and grabs it up and starts walking. “Todo el dia… 6 a las 7, todos los dias.” The bubble guy is steadily looking past us, half-smiling like he is pleased with himself, and I turn to look. The muni have just appeared. He explains that the muni know his face because they have taken his stuff before, so now he works with his friend as a form of protection. As we are walking down la Avenida Central, we start to get frustrated. Where are all the street vendors? It is then that we realize we have been walking in stride with two muni officers across the street. We stop and wait until the “Sombrillas, Sombrillas…” chatter starts up and products appear as if out of nowhere. We talk with a thirteen year old girl selling bra straps; we talk with a woman who has been working on the street for 40 years, her dad trained her when she was four; we are denied by an umbrella woman because she says she is on lookout duty for her group; we talk with a Nicaraguan lime guy who we can’t understand between the car traffic and his rapid slurred speech; we talk with a shoelace woman who we see ten minutes later now selling umbrellas. As the rain starts to pour down, it seems as though everyone is selling sombrillas. I put up the hood of my rainjacket (and yes, Lynne, it is still the one that is too small for me that I took from one of your camp children and sewed up) and tuck my soggy interview paper into my jacket.

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