The Illegal Underground Economy Behind Churros


It’s just shy of 7 a.m. on a muggy Friday. In a bakery in Spanish Harlem, Julio, who declined to give his last name, is scrubbing a deep fryer, his hands slimy with black grease. “I can’t work like this,” he tells me in Spanish. He just returned to his rented kitchen after two days away; his landlord loaned the space to another baker, who made a mess of the place.

Julio is from Mexico City but has lived in New York for a decade. On an average day, he makes 2,000 to 3,000 churros and sells them to vendors who cart them off for resale on subway platforms around the city. He’s been at it for 18 years, first in Mexico, now here. Churros, for the unacquainted, are long, ridged, golden-fried pastries caked in granulated sugar.

Two days earlier, Ernesto (not his real name), who entered the U.S. illegally from Riobamba, Ecuador, is selling Julio’s treats at the Myrtle-Wyckoff L stop. A young man approaches. “Two for $1!” Ernesto says cheerily in accented English. The man opts in, and Ernesto is $1 richer. At the going rate, churros are the cheapest pastries around—a far cry from the $50 black-market cronuts on Spring Street. If he sells his daily quota of 300, Ernesto will take home $80 for a 12-hour day. He does this seven days a week.

Usually, Ernesto works at Broadway Junction, but that day he had to flee. “The police don’t let you work there, so you have to go from one place to another,” he says, noting that he’s all but abandoned Manhattan because of anti-vendor police vigilance.

As Ernesto talks, I munch on a churro. It’s hot out, so even after they’ve been out of the fryer for hours, the treats keep their heat pretty well. The outside is golden, sweet, and crunchy, while the inside is soft and doughy, porous with egg, and with a hint of salt. A perfect late-afternoon snack.

Ernesto says he’s been arrested five times in two years, but it’s not so bad: “They take you, say, at 1 p.m., then they release you around 1 p.m.—24 hours,” he says.

Another vendor, Maria (her real name, though she omitted her surname), laughs when I ask if she’s ever been to jail for work. She says she’s been five or six times, most recently about six weeks ago, and the fines vary from $100 to $1,500, though the charge is always the same. Maria came to the United States eight years ago, leaving five children in Guayaquil, Ecuador. When I ask why, she chuckles, cynicism sharpening her tone. “I came here thinking things would be better. But it’s the same—there’s one thing there, another here. There isn’t a difference.”

As we talk, people get off the trains, which scream as they lumber in and out of the station. Maria plans to go home to her kids in two years. She wants to sell three churros for $2 today, but most buyers walk away with two for $1, the going rate until recently, when Julio’s prices went up. Hiking retail prices, it turns out, is easier said than done.

Another day, Ernesto tells me about his family as dusk falls on an elevated platform. His oldest daughter is 15—growing up, he says. The others are 14, 11, and seven. After five years, he still speaks with his wife daily, but says, “The first days, you feel the sadness, the loneliness. Over time, the love doesn’t die, but you feel different. . . . The children start to forget you.”

I start to feel bad for prying and say so. “There are so many stories like this,” he says, “but one has to find a way to work. There are things that happen to all of us in life, as humans. If we work, we have problems. If we don’t work, we have problems. So we have difficulties. In life, nothing is easy. Everything comes at a cost. We are all equal in this.”

He says he occasionally sends his three girls American clothing “for something special, so they know something of what’s here,” he says.

For Maria, it’s about holding steadfast to her independence as she fights for her family: “I’m here, standing right here,” she says, pointing to the platform. “I like this—there’s nothing more to it: to be a vending person, to not be a person bound to a boss.”

When I leave, I buy two more churros and wander into the night, savoring the sugary fried goodness. Despite the bitterness and the sacrifice, something about it still tastes sweet.