Bob and weave: What it takes to be a Hialeah vendedor

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Pickup trucks bursting with the season’s produce line Hialeah’s NW 65th Street on a recent afternoon. Next to one, 18-year-old Hialeah High student Jason Cabrera tends to customers looking for mangoes and watermelons.

His older brother sits at the wheel, his foot on the gas pedal, always ready to move. As soon as Justin closes the sale, they’ll drive on to the next spot. They have no idea what part of the city they’ll be in an hour from now.

The network of street vendors (vendedores) in Hialeah may look chaotic and unplanned, the signs handmade, the location always changing. But beneath the informality are strict laws.

Vendors can’t stay in one spot unless they’re closing a sale and they can’t show their products. Police officers can evict vendors, confiscate their products, and slap them with a $500 fine if the vendor doesn’t move. The laws, started more than 20 years ago, make independent street vending a very complicated thing to navigate.

The Cabrera brothers have been vending with their father for the past five months. They think that being forced to stay on the move helps them reach more customers. But it has cut many longtime vendors off at the knees because they might not have cars and cannot handle the rigor of constant travel. They lose thousands of dollars in product that goes unsold or has to be thrown out when police officers confront them.

That’s what it’s been like for Silvio Membreno, a Nicaraguan flower vendor who has been fighting the statute for 16 years now. He began his business in 1998 on NW 65th Street and 4th Avenue selling roses out of the trunk of his van.  Today, he’s relocated to a stationary shop in Miami Lakes, but he still teaches beginning street vendors how to run their business and works to protect their rights.

Occasionally he still sells out of his car. On the outside, it’s any other hunter green Ford Aerostar, but once Moreno pops the trunk, a fresh floral scent wafts out. Dozens of plastic-wrapped rose and sunflower arrangements sit in white canisters filled halfway with water. Moreno stands by his inventory, flower scissors in hand, ready to trim the stems for customers. As he drives to his next location, Moreno is careful not to make sharp turns and topple over the buckets.

“I say if they give me a license to sell, then why do they put restrictions?” says Membreno.

“The law cannot give me something, charge me to do it, and then tell me I can’t do it. Five minutes later a police officer will come while I’m selling and even though I paid $150 for a license, they will tell me, ‘Listen you can’t sell here’.”

Getting started

Membreno worked for a construction company when he first arrived from Leon, Nicaragua, in 1998. But he felt exploited and undervalued. He worked 60 hours, leaving him little time to see his children. He knew he wanted to be his own boss.

“Working for people is a set back,” says Membreno. “When you work for yourself, you put in more love and you fight harder.”

But Membreno soon ran into obstacles. On Valentine’s Day in 2000, after a year of selling flowers out of his van on Hialeah’s streets, a police officer approached Membreno asking for his credentials. Vendors must have not just a City of Hialeah vending license, but one for the City of Miami, totaling well over $200.  Membreno showed them, then the officer insisted he move since city law even back then prohibited them from staying put.

When Membreno declined, the police shut him down.

“I invest up to $10,000 on those holidays and when the police come to shut me down, I have to throw away all of my product,” says Membreno. “It’s been tremenda groseria, I’ve lost thousands of dollars.”

This happened again and again over the years. By 2011, Membreno was over it. He founded the Florida Association of Street Vendors and teamed up with the Institute for Justice, a non-profit law firm, to fight back. They filed a lawsuit against the City of Hialeah to “vindicate the entrepreneurs’ right to economic liberty.”

They were somewhat successful. In January 2013, Hialeah removed a requirement that vendors stay 300 feet away from competing stores. The bans on standing still and displaying products stayed, and Membreno and the Institute’s efforts to cut down those measures as well have failed.

Membreno is frustrated. The laws make no sense, he says, because they don’t help Hialeah.

I think the city created this law without thinking,” says Membreno. “I don’t think they’re trying to start problems or do us harm.”

He insists that the city does not lose by letting street vendors sell freely. They all have to pay taxes on their sales.

The city says it created these laws to protect vendors from oncoming traffic, and maintain a steady flow of traffic. If vendors are stationed on the street, sales will cause traffic backups, the government says. Membreno disagrees, insisting they are subject to the rhythm driven by the traffic lights. 

“It’s hard on the street, you‘re at the liberty of cars,” says Membreno. “There’s rain, heat. It’s a sacrificed life.”

Paying it forward

Membreno has made it his life’s work to empower others through independent street vending.

Membreno began buying flowers in bulk and selling them to the vendors just getting started at a discounted rate. He says he’s taught more than 100 independent sellers in Hialeah alone how to run their own business. He invites the workers to visit his shop in Miami Lakes, and lets them shadow him while he works.

“Sometimes I go through the streets of Hialeah and I see all the people selling and I realize that they’re mostly people that I’ve taught. That’s a huge source of happiness that I have in my heart,” says Membreno. “If I leave Hialeah tomorrow they’ll remember that I did something, that I fought for something.”

After 16 years of vending in Hialeah, Membreno has relocated to Miami Lakes, where the law allows him to remain in a fixed location. But he still remains close to the neighbors he befriended while in Hialeah. During his days on 65th St, he remembers housing his flowers in Rincon Tropical’s freezer. Today, he repays that kindness with bouquets of red and white roses.