Photo by Jill Chavooshian
Luz Vera vending mangoes in Union Square.
Fruit of her labor is to put kids through college
By Roslyn Kramer
Luz Vera doesn’t speak much English, but her mastery of the American way is huge. Mexican by birth, she has raised five children in New York City while earning a living as a street vendor whose workday starts before dawn. In the summer you can find her furiously peeling mangos on Saturdays at University Place and 14th St., just off Union Square. She piles the cut-up fruit into plastic containers while her 16-year-old daughter, Marlyn, takes money, hands out mango-filled plastic containers and answers questions.
Luz has a few things going for her. She sells the best ready-to-eat mangoes in the Village: The fruit is lusciously ripe, the portions large (a whole mango), and the price a mere $3. Nimble mango-eaters can choose the fruit either cut into a flower shape — more fun, but more drip — or in a more mundane plastic box. The intensity, the speed with which she works nonstop, is compelling enough to attract passersby who pause to watch, if not to buy, some fruit. Other mango sellers pop up from time to time around Union Square, but none with the energy, nor the showmanship, Luz demonstrates as she whips through boxes of mangoes, a luminous smile lighting up her face.
Luz has been selling deep-yellow fruit for 19 years in the June-through-August mango season. Her routine starts Mondays at 4 a.m., when she catches a van to the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. Eyeballing, squeezing and occasionally tasting the market’s offerings, she finally makes her pick, buying a week’s supply of fruit — 100 boxes — then heads back home, again by van, to 117th St. and Lexington Ave. Because of the crowds at Hunts Point, she gets home about 1 p.m. — nine hours later.
That pretty much does it for Monday. Devoted exclusively to mango-buying, it’s a relatively easy day.
However, the rest of the week begins earlier and ends later, at midafternoon, requiring Olympic-caliber timing and stamina. Not satisfied with introducing mangos as street food in the Village, the intrepid Luz has developed another food specialty: tamales. She gets up at 2 a.m. to do the cooking and finishes at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. She packs up, ready to catch the van heading downtown. She sets up her table at 40th St. and Eighth Ave., near The New York Times building, and until about 8 a.m. she sells her tamales to garment district workers.
And then it’s mango time again. A van picks her up for the trip back uptown. At home, she cleans up the equipment she used for the tamales, showers and readies the boxes of mangoes that will occupy the rest of her workday and six — sometimes seven — days of the week.
Luz has sent one of her three sons, Dedeiwy, to college this way; he’s now a Web and graphic designer. Her goal now is to do the same for Marlyn, who is heading into her junior year at high school.
While Luz sprints around Manhattan her husband, Moises Cruz, and two of their sons are busy with another family enterprise: the Net Plaza Internet Café, located one block from home on 116th St. and a unique fixture in the neighborhood. Luz is asleep by the time the family has dinner.
Luz will forever be below the radar of Vanity Fair, but not beyond the recognition of our mayor, who has highlighted the vital contribution immigrants have made to the city. Presumably, this includes Mexicans, who are among the south-of-the-border contingent that has proved so distressing to the good folk of Arizona.
But here in New York, as Labor Day looms before us, the holiday celebrates Luz Vera as much as anyone.