Fabiola Goyo, 34, has crossed seven countries and numerous states to get to where she is now. Her arepa stand, El Arepazo Venezolano, is located on the corner of 78th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. The journey to the stand started when Goyo left Venezuela with her friend Yaneth Colmenarez in 2018, in search of a better life and job opportunities. Their first stop was Colombia. Goyo worked a variety of jobs there, from waitressing to making empanadas. The two friends soon decided to open up a stand selling Colombian arepas which helped them get by.
They worked that stand for two years, yet Goyo hoped for more. She considered moving to Spain. She also considered coming to the United States, but a visa was practically impossible to get because she did not have enough income to qualify. But then she began seeing stories on the news and social media about Venezuelans making it to the U.S. and finding jobs. The journey would be risky, but she thought it was worth it.
“We prepared ourselves for the trip and for the places we would pass by. To get to the United States we’d have to cross the jungle [Darién Gap],” Goyo says. “I asked people about their journey to the United States; it was difficult. But I did not want to stay [in Colombia] and wonder what would happen if I did not go.”
Goyo and Colmenarez made their way through the jungle and through seven countries before arriving in theU.S.. They’d walk from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. traversing swamps and withstanding rains.
“It was a horrible experience, I don’t wish it on anybody. But I was always focused on coming here,” she says. “I consider myself a religious person, every step I take I put it in God’s hands. All I did was focus. Even when my body couldn’t, I realized my mind was the strongest of all.”
After crossing through Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico in a month and a half, Goyo and Colmenarez finally made it to El Paso, Texas. A family friend was supposed to shelter her and Colmenarez but backed out. They did not know where else to go. At a church that was helping migrants, officials told them that free buses were leaving for New York. So they hopped on and made their way to the Northeast.
“When we arrived in Manhattan’s [Port Authority Bus Terminal] we thought ‘now wha’t?’ We [along with three other Venezuelans we met on the bus] slept in a park the first night in the city. We had found a place to sleep, but we had a really bad night,” Goyo says. “I was very exhausted from the trip, without clothes, without food or money and not knowing how to speak English. I didn’t even know how to say ‘I need water.’ [At a pit stop in D.C.] we were given a list of shelters in New York City and the next day we decided to go to one of them.”
During the 20 days Goyo was in the shelter, she was able to find a job and get a place to live with her friend. She got a cell phone and began studying English through an app. Goyo and Colmenarez applied for a job at a Lebanese restaurant in Manhattan as prep cooks. They worked there for seven months, and as their English got better, they asked to be promoted to waitresses but were turned down.
Suspecting they would not find better sources of income in the near future, Colmenarez reminded Goyo of something they’d done to get by when they needed money: an arepa stand. The two, along with another Venezuelan friend, Juan Pablo Sabogal (whom they’ve known from Colombia and who’d arrived in New York a few months after them), decided to become street vendors.
“Queens had the largest Venezuelan population, we could not set up in another borough because this is where the Venezuelan market was. At the time, we lived in the Bronx and it would take us an hour and a half to two hours to get here,” says Goyo. “We traveled by train with our things until we met someone who let us store our equipment and later rent an apartment in his house.”
El Arepazo Venezolano has been open for a little over three months and has become popular among the Venezuelan community.
“I was walking by and I had a craving for Venezuelan arepa. There are alot of arepas here, but none with the flavors of Venezuela,” says Merely Pineda, a Venezuelan customer. “The flavors taste like home, as if you were making your own food. The food is very delicious.”
Each arepa is made from scratch using corn meal. Goyo makes the stew that goes inside the arepa: sometimes it’s chicken, fried pork, egg, ham or even beans. These fillings are’t canned; Goyo prepares each one every morning, and most gets sold out on the same day. Each arepa is also topped with fresh cheese. There are also empanadas on the menu made with the same fillings as the arepas and fried on the spot.
“I can’t believe it, the popularity we’ve had with Asians, Americans, Italians, Venezuelans, Mexicans — it’s been so good,” she says.
Venezuelans usually eat these in the mornings for breakfast or for a light dinner. However, El Arepazo Venezolano has customers coming in throughout the day.
While she is miles away from home, Goyo believes her arepas taste just like those in Venezuela because she makes them from scratch.
“I was recommended to this place by a friend; I am Venezuelan and the food tastes just like what I find back home. They have great flavors and it’s prepared just like they do in my country,” says Laiman Avila, whose favorite arepa is the one stuffed with beans or as Venezuelans call it, caraotas. “People should come, the flavors are great and the service is amazing.”
While she has had a lot of success with the stand, she knows that her street shop is not legal.
“We do this consciously, I am aware that I am not able to get a license to sell food, I am aware that suddenly I can get fined. I’ve researched, and I have heard it is difficult to get a license as a street vendor,” she says. “But my main goal is to attract customers because if I have my customers, I have the possibility of expanding to a place.”
Goyo hopes to open a spot of her own in the near future. For now, she is happy to see how far she has come in her short time in the U.S.
“Coming through the jungle was not easy; being in this country is not easy. Here you have to work very hard to make your own life,” Goyo says. “If you have a dream you want to come true, achieve it, because that’s what they are for, to work on them and achieve them.”