A regular workday for Miguelina Moscoso begins at 3:30 a.m. in her small two-bedroom apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx.
While her three children sleep, the 46-year-old Dominican mother quietly begins her routine, preparing and frying 140 Dominican pastelitos, cooking a batch of sweet arroz con leche, and squeezing lemons for lemonade.
Depending on the day, Moscoso’s pastelitos may be filled with ground beef, shredded seasoned chicken, or scrambled eggs with melted cheese. She wraps the crispy pastries in foil to keep them warm before placing them inside her styrofoam cooler.
By 9:45 a.m., Moscoso pushes her shopping cart out the door. Her hair pulled into a low ponytail and covered with a black cap, she walks uphill to her vending location on West 234th Street. A small, collapsed table and the cooler are secured inside the cart, while bottles of lemonade and iced tea hang loosely from strings on the sides.
When she reaches the light pole in front of the Unique Thrift Store, a handful of clients begin to shell out $1 apiece for egg and cheese pastelitos.
“One of the things that motivates me the most is that people like what I do,” Moscoso said in Spanish. She makes a conscious effort to keep costs down in order to keep a loyal clientele who may patronize her restaurant one day. “My biggest hope is to have my own place, like Mexicans who have their own stores and sell their tacos; I would like that.”
Two years ago, Moscoso was not quite so optimistic about her economic future.
A week before Thanksgiving 2008, she lost her job in Albasini, a Bronx chocolate factory that had been struggling financially. She was working as a temporary factory worker cleaning big chocolate mixers.
She tried to make ends meet by working temporary jobs in various factories around the city. After six months, she decided she wanted the flexibility of having her own mobile food stand. As a single mother with no relatives or close friends in New York City, Moscoso said she needed work that kept her near her children, Dioneli, 13, Michael, 16, and Carlos, 25, who also lives at home.
Moscoso decided to renew the mobile food vendor license she obtained in 1999 from the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, an investment of $50 every two years. Her license renewal was approved in June 2009, and soon thereafter she started loading up her shopping cart with cooking from her kitchen.
One year later, Moscoso is still waiting to obtain a “unit” permit that would allow her to prepare pastelitos on a mobile food cart on the street. The waiting list is so long for so few licenses that it could take two to three years. The chosen few food vendors are then given six months to purchase the cart and get it inspected. In 2008 Moscoso won this lottery, but her $5,000 small business loan to buy the cart was approved with only a few days to spare, and she missed the inspection deadline.
The first time Moscoso pushed her shopping cart down West 234th St., a group of Thrift Store employees invited her to stop by everyday to sell them pastelitos during their work breaks.
“To this day, I say that thanks to them I’m selling here,” Moscoso said.
From then on, customers arbitrarily take turns using the folding chair Moscoso brings for herself. The big hot sauce bottle is conveniently placed on the table next to them, and before taking the first bite they pour its spicy contents over their favorite pastelito.
For Jonathan Cartagena, who has worked at the store for eight months, it’s all about the egg and bacon pastelitos.
“She doesn’t make them daily, but when we ask her about it a lot, she brings them,” Cartagena said of his favorite pastelito, which Moscoso offers only a couple of days a week. “Eggs are a bit expensive and the bacon is especially expensive, so it’s hard for her.”
Although Moscoso makes the rare exception of offering pastelitos filled with costly ingredients like shrimp and bacon, she also chooses longer trips to a store that provides more affordable prices. The goal is to keep the pastelitos to one dollar apiece to continue attracting new customers.
Around 3:30 p.m., Moscoso pushes her cart home, and then climbs back out to the No. 1 train heading to Manhattan’s Mi País Supermarket on 181st and St. Nicholas. Instead of buying the 10-piece package of frozen empanada dough for $1.99 in the Bronx, she gets the same product for $1.29 at this Latin American grocery store. Other ingredients are also sold at a lower price in Mi País, and Moscoso does not mind making the trip if it means cutting costs.
On an average week, Moscoso brings in approximately $650, of which half is profit, after subtracting the cost of ingredients, plastic ware, ice for drinks and transportation.
With an average net income of $1,300 a month, she covers her $348 rent, which is subsidized by the New York City Housing Authority, and household expenses for the family.
Moscoso said, with hesitation, that she also has dreams of owning a house one day.
“I know maybe what I make is too little, but there is a saying, ‘no wait is too long for happiness,” she said.
This saying is what keeps her going even after almost 20 years of leaving Dominican Republic with her then first husband. Her daughter Dioneli said her mom often mentions returning to her native country, but she does not want to think about it today. When she talks about her family in Santo Domingo, her eyes water. She recently lost an uncle in the Dominican Republic but was not able to go back home for his funeral. She misses her father, she said.
Moscoso hopes her children will have an easier life than she. She is frustrated that she can not offer them more.
“If they would help me, I would make more,” she said, because her pastelitos sell out by 2 p.m. most days. “At times we argue because I am alone for everything. I tell them to help me squeeze the lemons. I could make more.”
On holidays, Moscoso adjusts her routine to make double the batch of pastelitos.
For Norma Ahmed, who lives near the Grand Concourse, Moscoso’s reputation precedes her. A friend told her to go to the store early to experience the pastelitos as part of her trip out.
“I was surprised when I come that day and saw her there,” Ahmed said of the first time she stopped at Moscoso’s food stand.
Ahmed was instantly curious about the pastelitos, and Moscoso humbly talked about her routine as she served other customers.
“As a woman, I hope she goes on to put her little own restaurant or maybe a store front,” Ahmed said. “Who knows where we’ll see Miguelina 5, 10 years from today.”