When I was a child, Papi never told me how he arrived in the United States. It wasn’t because I hadn’t asked him.
Hidden on the cargo section of a plane, my father made his way across the border.
One time, he evaded detection from law enforcement in the luggage compartment of a train headed to the United States.
In another version of the story, he swam through a rio to get to the US.
“When I arrived in this country, I got here illegally. I didn’t have any documentation. I crossed the border of Mexico like thousands and millions of people who came to this country illegally looking for a better life.”
In 1990, my father was one of 85,000 Ecuadorians that lived in New York City. By 2015, the Ecuadorian population had nearly tripled to 223,000 people.
“I lived with my uncle and my cousins in Manhattan in a really small apartment with two bedrooms. There were six of us in that apartment. He gave me a place to stay and I lived with him for 8 or 9 years.”
Queens has become an enclave for many Ecuadorians. More than 122,000 live in the borough.
My dad rents an apartment in Lefrak City, a large housing complex situated in Corona. It’s the same apartment from my childhood, but he lives there with his Ecuadorian wife and their daughter now.
He used to take me and my sisters along Roosevelt Avenue to shop and eat. Hidden underneath the 7 line, Roosevelt Avenue is a hotpot of many different Hispanic cultures. The Spanish on the street is interrupted by the sound of subway trains passing overhead.
On the corner of Warren St. and Roosevelt Avenue, there are a half a dozen food carts lined up along the entire block. They each look different but serve the same food of Ecuador. The employees are nearly all Ecuadorians. So are the customers who dine out in droves throughout the day.
The carts serve food of all regions, from Quito to Guayaquil. You can order a shrimp ceviche from the costa at one cart and get pork fritada from the Sierra at the next.
“I was born here, but I’ve lived in Ecuador. My parents are from Guayaquil.”
If you’re lucky, you can find Senora Lamolina cooking brocheta over homemade ovens made from shopping carts. The chicken, onions, and peppers slowly cook to a crisp on the aluminum foil. The aroma of the seared meat on wooden sticks hangs in the air.
Lamolina was hesitant to speak with me when I started interviewing her. Like most of the employees I spoke to, she came to this country illegally. Asking too many questions made her uneasy.
“Well, an angel brought me here. I can’t tell you more than that.”
Everyone I spoke to believed they were better off here than in Ecuador.
“To get to know (the United States). Now that I have the opportunity, here I am.”
“The economic situation of our country—the same motivation for most people that immigrate here. Of course, to improve my financial situation and my family’s situation.”
“I immigrated to this country to have a better life. To help my siblings and my father who were still in Ecuador. And to improve my financial life.”
There is a rich history behind every employee that works at the food carts. If you ever find yourself on Roosevelt Avenue, stop by the carts. I suggest you try the pork fritada, it’s my favorite.