When The Twin Towers Fell Blocks From Her Place Of Work, This Jefa Became Inspired To Turn Her Love For Cooking Tamales Into A Business
Evelia Coyotzi is up and on her way to work before 4 A.M. seven days a week to sell her homemade tamales out of her pushcart parked at the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens.
For 18 years now she’s been serving up a variety of tamales to New Yorkers from 4 A.M. to noon, many lining up to get them before they sell out. Even famed foodie, chef, and TV host Anthony Bourdain included her in an episode of his series Parts Unknown. But it wasn’t just about her food, it was her captivating story as a Mexican immigrant struggling to succeed as a street vendor that makes her an inspiring jefa and hustler.
She grew up in Tlaxcala, Mexico with a single mom and took on the role of caretaker for her siblings.
When her own son was two-years-old she decided to move to the U.S. to try and make more money to support her family. With the help of her brother, who already lived in the States, she was able to become a resident and later her husband joined her.
She worked for McDonald’s and recalls being two blocks from the Twin Towers on 9/11. The location closed after the attacks and she decided to start selling tamales to make a living.
She joined the thousands of street vendors that line the streets of NYC to sell her handmade tamales.
Though there are roughly 20,000 street vendors in NYC and it requires food vendors to have a permit, new permits haven’t been issued since a cap placed in 1983. As a result, there are only 3,100 permits available for city-wide food vending carts forcing thousands of street vendors to turn to the black market. Whereas before the cap vendors could get a two-year permit for $200, now vendors like Coyotzi lease them from previous vendors for upwards of $20,000.
Coyotzi paid $8,000 for a licensed cart which turned out to be fake and told VICE that “she suffered a lot” after more than 15 arrests.
She recalls police officers throwing her tamales away because she didn’t have a permit, a common occurrence for street vendors who are fined $1,000 if they don’t have a permit.
In 2008, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg established 1,000 new permits for Green Carts selling fruits and vegetables but otherwise, no improvements have been made.
The Street Vending Modernization Act was introduced in 2016 and proposed to double the number of permits over a seven-year span but the momentum waned by the end of 2017. In 2016, the New York Times reported that approximately 2,500 people are currently on the list for full-time permits.
Coyotzi pays $18,000 in the black market for a permit and sells her tamales for $1, working long hours every day to turn a profit and cover the cost of the permit.
In the meantime, Coyotzi and her husband Delfino Garcias, continue the hustle, now with six employees.
The “workday” actually begins at 9 p.m. when one of their employees cleans and prepares the chicken and tortas and then another employee makes the tamales, placing about 150 per bin for steaming for two hours. She also prepares the champurrado, atole, and Arroz con leche.
They use a makeshift mixer using a drill to mix the masa for the base of the tamale and the fillings are a variety of seven flavors: roasted pepper and chicken, mole and chicken, green salsa and chicken, adobo with pork, pineapple with coconut, sweet tamales with raisins, and Oaxacan tamales.
She’s barely finished setting up her pushcart before people begin to eagerly line up waiting for her now famous tamales, often selling 2000 every weekend.
Seeing the success she’s achieved and now that her son is already in college studying to become an engineer, she shares that she actually enjoys the work and hopes to one day open a tamale shop.
“In the future, I want to give other women a chance to become a bigger part of the company if they want to. Because there are women who have been working with me for a while now,” she told VICE in Spanish.