Maria Cano, better known as “Arepa Lady”, is a Jackson Heights staple for many decades. After fleeing violence in Colombia, she started selling arepas (corn cakes) from a street food cart since the late 1980s, becoming so popular she and her family were eventually able to open up two storefronts in New York City and potentially a third on the way.
However, her journey was not an easy one.
” “When you are an immigrant to the United States, it is difficult. You don’t have friends and don’t speak the language. It was difficult to have young children who were in school.
Cano, now 77, was a former lawyer and judge in Medellin, but as drug lord Pablo Escobar’s terror grip continued to widen and government employees became targets of assassinations, she knew it was time to go. Cano left with three of her four sons – all under the age of 18 at the time – and settled into New York City so they could have “better opportunities” in life. Their fourth son was still in college, but he eventually joined them.
But it was hard to get started, she explained. Cano met a street vendor friend who taught her how to make her famous arepas with cheese.
” “I’d never tried arepas before,” she laughed. But necessity is the best teacher. This was what I had to do. “I saw an opportunity when I was desperate to rent, feed my children, and provide for the family’s needs.
To make matters even more stressful, Cano and her sons were undocumented and the risk of being deported was another reality they had to experience. Alejandro Osorio was just four when her youngest son arrived in the U.S.A. along with his mother. Osorio now owns the family’s successful business and told CBS News it was a struggle in the beginning. “
“She used to work from 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. because that’s the only time cops wouldn’t really harass you,” he said, adding that she didn’t have a street vendor license. She would have worked those hours in order to get work. Sometimes they’d come and take your products and give you tickets. But she was lucky and she didn’t end up getting arrested.” he stated.
Cano finally got a vendor permit around 10 years ago, Osorio said, but it was a seasonal one. According to New York City’s mobile food vending license page, those only last from April through October. The city put a cap on the number of permits for selling food on streets to 3,000 in 1983.
Last month, a viral video showing sanitation workers throwing out a street vendor’s fresh produce in the Bronx sparked outrage, and for Osorio, it brought “flashbacks” to one winter when he was teenager.
“My mother got three carts [by the NYPD] that winter,” Osorio said. We were so broke that we needed to take our food to church.
Despite the adversity, Cano and her sons finally opened their first storefront location in 2014 after saving up $70,000 for six years. They later moved. Two brick-and mortar restaurants now have her name and face, one in Brooklyn and the other on Roosevelt Avenue. Osorio said that a third location was in development.
The flagship Jackson Heights venue has welcomed the likes of Mayor Bill de Blasio, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other public figures who have enjoyed munching on the famous arepas. Osorio stated that most of the people who frequent the shop today are either immigrants or their children. Osorio believes that the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on the store was mitigated partly because there are many immigrants in the area.
Osorio thinks that his mother was the “maternal figure” to customers who gravitated towards him when he worked at the cart.
“People really liked to sit there and feel like they’re back at home eating an arepa or a meal from their parents, and you get that love, that warmth from being back home,” he said.
Cano retired in 2017 and returned to Medellin prior to the pandemic. CBS News reported that Cano is “very proud” about the things she has helped to build.
” “It was a victory because of all that we did,” she stated.
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