Rosa used to sell potato chips and olives in her village outside the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. Now she peddles fruit at a busy intersection in northeast Minneapolis, pacing the concrete median in sneakers and a sweatsuit.
"What kind? Mango?" a man in a Jeep Wrangler called out at the stoplight one afternoon.
"Sí," said Rosa, and he gave her $5. She handed him a cup of sliced mangoes sprinkled with the Mexican spice tajin. It was Rosa's seventh sale of the day. She sells mangoes, she explained in Spanish, "so that I don't steal, because stealing is bad."
This is how many migrants have earned a living in recent months on street corners and in parks, newly arrived from Ecuador and hustling to survive. Asylum-seekers like Rosa, 45, cannot apply for work permits until six months after they make their claims. In the meantime, some women sell fruit to bring in cash while their husbands often turn to construction and factory work.
The practice led to clashes with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board over the summer, when it began receiving complaints from park patrons and licensed concessions operators about the migrants lacking licenses to sell food. A park board spokeswoman said employees tried to tell the fruit sellers that they were not allowed to sell food at the parks without a permit, and that selling food requires a city health department license, but found that most sellers responded with, "No hablo inglés."
Ecuadorian migrants have surged to record numbers in Minnesota and nationwide as they flee poverty and violence by trekking through the perilous Darién Gap connecting Panama and Colombia. The Fort Snelling immigration court has an unprecedented 3,389 Ecuadorian cases pending, a tenfold increase in the last five years.
Park employees and police began distributing letters to the fruit vendors in Spanish about licensing regulations, and shared a list of resources in case they were victims of trafficking.
As unlicensed food sellers continued to multiply, drawing more complaints, staff began a two-week education effort through mid-August that included daily visits to Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha parks, which had the largest number of fruit vendors. But regulators noticed that when the vendors saw staff, they would stop selling and walk away, then resume business as soon as staff left.
The park board placed 17 small signs and six banners reviewed by the health department at Nokomis, Minnehaha and Bde Maka Ska parks to educate park visitors about the health risks of buying unlicensed food and encourage them to buy only from licensed sellers.
Park complaints dwindled with the end of summer, but migrants still do business off park property. A spokesman for the city of Minneapolis said health inspectors are handing out letters about food-selling requirements, and the city is working with Catholic churches to host classes about food safety and licensing. Minneapolis has also received a state grant to help vendors buy equipment to help lower the costs for people to legally sell food.
"We are concerned for the safety of unlicensed food vendors who are walking in the streets, between traffic to sell their food and are educating them on those dangers," city spokesman Casper Hill said in an email.
Back in Ecuador, Rosa recalled, gangsters threatened to rob and kill her and fellow villagers. Three nearby residents were murdered. So Rosa and her family left this year.
"Too much crime and delinquency," she said.
She and her husband went north with their 11-year-old daughter, walking through the jungle in the Darién Gap. "I cried on the way because I was scared," Rosa said. "We [were in] the jungle without eating, without anything … I was afraid of animals. I was afraid of getting robbed."
They came to Minneapolis because her husband's nephew lived here. He found Rosa's husband a job building houses. Her husband had a stroke but recently returned to work. Rosa's two sons, 16 and 20, arrived separately.
Rosa's Ecuadorian neighbor got her into the fruit-selling business, showing her how to buy mangoes wholesale and telling her this Northeast corner was a lucrative spot where it's possible to sell 20 fruit cups in four hours. It costs $2.50 to assemble each cup; Rosa sells it for double, working the 3 to 7 p.m. shift after other migrants work the mornings. She did not want her last name published to avoid compromising her immigration case.
The Biden administration last week announced it would grant temporary legal status to nearly half a million Venezuelans who recently arrived in the United States, giving them swift authorization to work. But that does not help new Ecuadorian arrivals like Rosa. Many still work under the table to get by, and migrants selling fruit are also a familiar sight in New York as masses of immigrants are bused from the southern border.
Some fruit sellers are too busy to talk to a reporter, like the Ecuadorian woman working an intersection west of Bde Maka Ska with a 6-month-old baby strapped to her back. She never rested a moment — walking between the cars, holding up her mangoes.
But Rosa had a little time to talk because it was a cold and blustery day and business was slower than usual. At the stoplight, a man in a Range Rover smiled at her but made no move to buy anything. She held the fruit up toward another car, but no takers there, either.
As the wind blew, Rosa tucked her waist-length ponytail into her sweatshirt and raised the hood over her head. She sat on her cooler, one hand over her face.
"I trust that God is protecting me," she said. "Thank God I haven't had to worry about anybody telling me to go."