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Fighting for Red Hook’s Food Vendors: An Interview with Cesar Fuentes

By Justin Chan | July 12, 2012

Red Hook street vendor

Although Hispanics constitute the smallest demographic in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, one area of the neighborhood has been home to a significant number of Latin American food vendors. Since 1974, these vendors have served athletes and pedestrians who gather at the Red Hook Ball Fields, earning the vendors the nickname, “Ballfield Vendors.” Some vendors hail from Guatemala while others come from Mexico. Though they may share a Latin American connection, each offers a distinct flavor, allowing customers to choose from a variety of platters.

The fabric that keeps these vendors together is Cesar Fuentes, Executive Director of the Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park Inc. Fuentes has worked with the vendors since 1998, advocating on their behalf and pushing forth a permanent operating permit. As a community activist, he has worked with public officials and has helped vendors adjust to the endless number of health regulations that restrict their business.

To learn more about Fuentes and his relationship with Red Hook’s food vendors, check out the interview below:

Can you talk a little bit about your background?

I was born in El Salvador and came to the States at a young age. I went to high school, graduated with an A.A. degree in Arts, a B.A. in Sociology and just graduated with an M.A. in Disability Studies. Besides working with the Red Hook Food Vendors, I have close to 20 years of experience in the disability services field. I currently serve as an assistant director of several day services sites for a local non-profit agency.

My mother was not always a food vendor. However, migrating to the U.S., she had to do odd jobs, [such as] cleaning houses and office, for many years to make ends meet. Cooking and the prospect of a business came later on as a part-time way to make extra money on the weekends. Lately, it is the main means of subsistence for my mom and her husband Rafael.

Pupusas

Did you or your family have any culinary training?

Not formally. Most recipes were passed down from generation to generation, down our family line. Also, my mother has been focusing on learning more about traditional cuisine of her home country and makes a pilgrimage every year to learn from local artisans and indigenous cooks to deepen her knowledge of Salvadoran cuisine.

How did you get involved with Red Hook Food Vendors?

I got involved because I am a child of one of the vendors. I was chosen by the group as their spokesperson and leader 12 years ago, out of a need for someone to lead the group in the face of adversities that occurred at the time. In 2006, we incorporated as a non-profit, and I became Executive Director. My biggest challenge came in 2007, as changes in the neighborhood threatened to close the ball fields. I organized a grassroots movement to help save the vendors from the ravages of gentrification, potential eviction and cease of [our] 30 years of operation. [The] key to our survival was implementing effective marketing strategies that emphasized the image of the food vendor as an “artisan of [his] craft.”

 

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Most of Red Hook vendors hail from Latin America. How do you think their experience differs from those of halal food vendors and hot dog vendors?

Although they may hail from different backgrounds and serve unique or generic foods, there are many more things that unite food vendors in common than set them apart: Their endurance in the face of inclement weather, their resilience in the face of changing seasons, and their plight in the face of enforcement abuses from police, health inspectors, and even fellow business owners who are greedy or spiteful.

Why do you think vendors have been attracted to serving customers in Red Hook?

The vendors began in the mid-70s in response to the needs of hungry fans and soccer players in the park. It just took off from there and the vendors became popular with the Latino crowds in the 90s and, eventually, everyone else in the 2000s.

For more by Justin Chan click here:

Photos courtesy of WallyG

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