Photo courtesy of Antonio

By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Antonio doesn’t usually tell people who he was before coming to the United States. In his home country of Ecuador, he worked as a lawyer and in pharmaceutical marketing, owning three successful pharmacies along with his late wife. More importantly, he is a father and a grandfather.

Antonio had a comfortable life in the port city of Guayaquil until he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He underwent numerous treatments, and with nobody to run them, his pharmacies went out of business. On top of it all, Antonio was receiving death threats coming from a family member of a former client from his law practice.

With bills piling up, he packed up his life and moved to Machala, a city about four hours south of his hometown, in search of work. He found none. In 2017, he was finally declared cancer-free and decided to take a chance and move to  the U.S. It took him some time to secure a visa, but in February of 2020 he boarded a one-way flight to New York City.

The United States

Antonio initially found employment working as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant in Flushing. But by March, as news of Covid-19 spread, his hours were cut.

“Work was getting complicated and we all had to wear masks,” he said. “I had to find a way because they were telling me to go for one day only, one day a week in Flushing. First for two days, then for one, then for one afternoon — that’s not work.”

Photo by Andrea Pineda-Salgado for Epicenter-NYC

Because Antonio overstayed his tourist visa, he is considered an undocumented immigrant, and therefore is not entitled to any federal benefits such as unemployment assistance and stimulus payments. With no idea what to do next, Antonio stumbled across a bike in the trash one day. He biked all around Queens until he found a man who was selling face masks in bulk. He bought several boxes for $75 each and began selling masks individually for $2.50 along Roosevelt Avenue.

“I liked that corner, the corner of Junction and Roosevelt because I sold a lot and there were more people,” he said. I stood there until and the lady who sells fruit [in that corner] told me ‘here I can give you a chair. Sell your masks here and bring some more.’ I stayed with the table they let me borrow, I had it for 15 days. Then I was able to buy my own table.”

Every morning Antonio wakes up and studies English using the Duolingo language app. Once his lesson is finished he hauls a cart with boxes that carry his merchandise a few blocks from his apartment to the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue. At 60 years old, this is a tiresome job for Antonio. He has endured working outside throughout a harsh winter and a boiling summer; it’s much different from the life he had in Ecuador.

Photo by Andrea Pineda-Salgado for Epicenter-NYC

Hopes for the future

He doesn’t see himself doing this type of work for much longer though.

“In my country, I had an office and all that stuff.  I can’t afford that anymore. I hope I can get myself a good job. I have to look for one because this is not — this is only an emergency job, in my opinion.”

As the pandemic begins to end and restrictions are lifted, Antonio won’t have nearly as much business. He hopes to soon begin the process of revalidating his degrees. But first, he needs a work permit.

“We do have some rights, universally as humans, no one can take that away,” he said. “But life would be so much better with a work permit and the ability to work with dignity.”

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