BUSINESS: Transformation of the Street Vendor: A view from the Caribbean Diaspora – By Lear Matthews

Lear Matthews

(Celebrating Immigrant Heritage Month in June)

Transformation of the Street Vendor: A view from the Caribbean Diaspora – By Lear Matthews

Recognizing that the United States is a “salad bowl” of diversity and not the proverbial melting pot, Immigrant Heritage Month was created to acknowledge/celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of immigrants. Opportunities afforded them notwithstanding, despite encounters of xenophobia, immigrants have undoubtedly shaped the economic, cultural and civic engines of North America and Europe. Street vending which has existed as an occupation for a very long time is considered a cornerstone of the historical and cultural heritage of cities and towns globally, with immigrants among prominent purveyors of this tradition.

This article highlights street vending among English Speaking Caribbean immigrants, an aspect of the immigrant experience that has not received much attention. Although focused on the United States, there are implications for other countries of settlement or alleged “host societies” such as Canada and Great Britain.         

Transformation of Street Vending: Hidden in Plain Sight

Street vending has been transformed in metropolitan centers. It has evolved from the plain, minimally regulated wooden push-cart activity to motorized vans, fancy trucks (some retrofitted and painted in a kaleidoscope of artwork), Kiosks and portable stands. The vendor newspaper stand has been replaced by digital technology. Typically parked at a busy intersection peddling their trade, no longer are street vendors predominantly European and Middle-Eastern immigrants, but include those from a wide range of sending countries. Concurrently, they are increasingly subjected to stringent 21st century Municipal regulations such as “quality of life” crackdown laws.

Throughout the metropolitan epicenter, street vendors (begrudgingly part of the hospitality industry) attract a variety of customers. It is not uncommon to see long lines of patrons including workers from private and public service, students, shoppers, tourists, and formally attired professionals in bustling city commercial districts, particularly at lunch time.

The culinary skilled vendor has been a popular daytime fixture cradled in the shadows of aging pristine edifices and burgeoning erected skyscrapers, condominiums and luxury developments – evidence of perpetual gentrification. Some vendors specialize in snacks such as gyros, tacos, hot dogs and churros while others a more varied ethnic menu. One can imagine the exorbitant fees required to operate these marginalized roadside center-city vending sites.

To some established business proprietors and area residents street vendors and their “nomadic” transported load represent an eyesore, while others offer tepid support, but view them as insignificant, less-deserving competitors. Street vending like other immigrant enterprises is a source of sending remittances back to the home country.

Street Vending and the English Speaking Caribbean Diaspora: Sustaining Nostalgia

Caribbean vendor in London, UK

Cities such as New York, Atlanta, Miami, Toronto and London are home to a significant number of Caribbean immigrants of various ethnicities. Like other immigrant groups street vending has proportionately expanded with the growth of this population. Caribbean immigrants are among the more than 20,000 street vendors in New York City. They work long hours under difficult conditions (including harsh winter weather) trying to make an honest living on public sidewalks. However, they fulfill an important transnational role with pride, dignity, work ethic and creditable entrepreneur skill. Providing nostalgic goods and services, they peddle a preponderance of familiar Caribbean products.

Not unlike street vendors in their homeland, they are often disparaged and believe that their occupation has been criminalized. This has led to vendors’ Strikes and debates in City Municipal Councils about their fate. Vendors in both geo-locations sell a variety of culturally familiar edible and non-edible products. They sell both “raw” provisions and cooked food. Some specialize in confectionary, others in clothes or haberdashery. However, night vending is not customary in diaspora communities except for specially permitted cultural events. Most vendors have a “regular” identified location, but those in the diaspora are less likely to move around to multiple neighborhoods.

While “seasonal vendors” in the Caribbean sell kites at Easter, fireworks and children’s toys at Christmas, those in the diaspora include winter hats, ear-muffs, gloves and summer paraphernalia such as Tee-shirts, caps, shorts and bathing suits. Halloween costumes, cultural arts, literature and entertainment products including DVD’s and CD’s with “Oldies” ballads, vintage Calypso and reggae selections are quite popular.

The sale of nostalgic dishes, costumes and other symbolic items increases during cultural events such as the West Indian Day Parade (New York), Last Lap Lime (Toronto), Noting Hill Carnival (Great Britain), Diwali and numerous street festivals. Because these events are essential in sustaining heritage and propagating traditions, vendors play an essential role in providing nostalgic and traditionally significant items to make this a reality. Apart from traditional foods, national symbols sold include miniature flags and heritage paraphernalia representing various Caribbean countries.

Vans, Pick-up trucks and cars are used to transport and display a variety of goods for sale. These vehicles are parked at selected, strategic “spots” at busy intersections. Sale items are generally displayed on make-shift stands or folding tables, but there is usually no prominent signs advertising sale products nor the name and identity of the vendor. Apart from not being required, such exemption is partially due to the buyers’ assumed cultural identification with the seller and willingness to forgo formalities to acquire desired nostalgic goods.

Earnest attempts have been made to establish designated areas to accommodate vendors in these communities. An example of this is the Flatbush Vendors Market in a Caribbean immigrant community in New York City. Unfortunately, due to gentrification and suspected political manipulation that program/location was terminated. Nonetheless, much to the chagrin of some and perhaps admiration of others, well stocked Korean Markets, selling a variety of nostalgic Caribbean products enjoy broad patronage from Caribbean immigrant communities. Advocates have exasperated over the economic, political and socio-cultural factors that undergird this long-standing phenomenon.

It is important to note the existence of many established successful ethnically diverse English speaking Caribbean immigrant-owned businesses including a variety of stores, restaurants and other commercial enterprises. The owners seem to have a respectable co-existence with street vendors. Immigrants travel considerable distances to acquire favorite “home style” food and other nostalgic products. However, purchasing traditional foods/dishes from street vendors and “ethnic shops” (catering for a specific home country) is the closest to “dee real ting”. The products they crave symbolically preserve an aspect of their tradition. However, the extent to which 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants crave the “taste” and maintain interest in traditional dishes and other nostalgic products is unpredictable.

Popular food products purchased from Caribbean street vendors include tropical fruits and fruit juices, raw “fresh” vegetables and “greens”, fish and other sea-foods, coconut products, cane juice; ethnic snacks such as channa, cassava bread, badamlachar, plant-leaf “bush” for brewing teas and traditional concoctions for medicinal purposes, “jerk” meats and much more. The purchasing transaction which is determined by the cultural vernacular and informed by norms of the specific Caribbean home country is unique.

As they patronize the vendor, customers who are generally familiar with the nostalgic products are expected to “point out” the items they wish to purchase. They would carefully examine the selected product, checking for freshness (reminiscent of  the home country) while making a judgement about whether it would “cook good”(palatable) or “eat good” (tasty). Patrons anticipate savored “back home” taste, particularly with regards to cooked food. Deprived of this habitual home style preference, they are willing to compromise culturally acquired taste, presentation and quality of traditional foods and other products. There seems to be less bargaining or aggressive negotiating of price than in the home country which may be a function of available financial and other resources. Some in the diaspora may have also modified their public decorum.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

There have been concerns about working conditions, health issues, enforcement of regulations and protocol for street vendors in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a substitute for job loss the number of vendors seemed to have increased in some immigrant neighborhoods during the pandemic. However, a consequence of the pandemic was a change in the type of items sold due to “restrictions in product availability and distribution”.

Although vendor activity was curtailed due to COVID-related suspension of mass cultural activities, buying from them was a viable alternative to acquiring items in stores. Unfortunately “undocumented” immigrant vendors are not eligible for loans and COVID-19 Stimulus Checks. One vendor stated, “is a struggle, but whuh we gon do? We got to make a living”. Advocacy groups such as The Street Vendor Project have been instrumental in assisting them. As we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month let us recognize the dedicated and disenfranchised purveyors of this neglected dimension of the immigrant experience.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Sona Paul  On 06/01/2021 at 2:53 am

    I wonder why the author chooses to focus only on street vendors of Caribbean origin in the diaspora. They are only a tiny segment of the food and restaurant operations of Caribbean origin people in cities like Toronto, Mississauga and Brampton in Canada, and New York, Miami in the USA. I know personally of at least 50 roti shops here in the Greater Toronto area, a million dollar business by any count. Plus there us a range of restaurants, jerk restaurants operated by Jamaicans, a wash of Caribbean groceries all in the food business. They are not street vendors but they way outnumber Caribbean street vendors in number and volume of business.

  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 06/01/2021 at 8:47 am

    This article documents an important aspect of the activities of immigrants in their adopted country. They are people who make an honest living and are no problem to authority. No doubt, we will get more about other aspects of immigrant life and living from the author in another article.

  • brandli62  On 06/01/2021 at 11:09 am

    Curry & Roti is my absolute favourite Caribbean street food! I wish we had those street vendors in Switzerland or Germany!!!!

  • wally n  On 06/01/2021 at 1:18 pm

    Ahmmmm…business idea…when the teaching thinge run out…and you so welcome

  • brandli62  On 06/01/2021 at 5:01 pm

    Wally, thanks for the tip! Might come in handy down the road!

  • geoffburrowes  On 06/01/2021 at 6:27 pm

    Lang time – were you related to “Growler Matthews” a distinguished QC graduate?

  • LAM  On 06/01/2021 at 8:24 pm

    Lear and Ted are brothers.

  • Chris  On 06/01/2021 at 9:54 pm

    “The culinary skilled vendor has been a popular daytime fixture cradled in the shadows of aging pristine edifices”

    What is not mentioned is that street vendors are a source of some serious belly wok. One time a bought tacos from a street vendor in Mexico- it was the end of my vacation.

  • Ingrid Alleyne-Green  On 06/02/2021 at 9:37 am

    Well researched and timely article . In recent times, I have marveled at the long lines that a street vendor (s) attract at the corner of Pennsylvania and Flatlands Avenues. The plumage of smoke emanating from the grill gets one’s attention immediately. Kudos to folks trying to make a living using their talents.

  • Syndrene Harris  On 06/19/2021 at 7:01 pm

    Thank you .The articles wi be added to the library’s collection at the University if Guyana.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: