Final Story- A Taco Truck and the American Dream

By the time Cristo Reyes and Javier Velasquez leave their homes in Corona, Queens, it is 10 p.m. and too late to kiss their children goodnight. They live up the block from each other and together drive 20 minutes to a brightly lit and abundantly packed truck that slightly smells like fuel, cleaning liquids and food that is ready to be turned.

Reyes and Velasquez’s popular taco truck is located in the heart of Astoria on Ditmars Avenue and 31st street, almost never seen without a line of hungry customers.

Best friends Reyes and Velasquez have operated their Mexican food truck, El Rey de Tacos, in the heart of Astoria on Ditmars Avenue and 31st Street for almost four years. Astoria, Queens is known as a lively, traditionally Greek and Italian neighborhood that in the past few years can be argued to have been gentrified. Brazilians, Bangladeshis and Colombians are some of the nationalities that have moved into the neighborhood. Astoria is home to some of the most popular and diverse cultural restaurants.

In a neighborhood full of good eats, Reyes and Velasquez knew exactly what they were doing when they decided to operate their food truck in this high volume neighborhood. With the success of El Rey de Tacos, they recently decided to run another food truck in the heart of Flushing on Main Street, in order to support each of their families and send money back to their native country of Mexico.

Reyes, 37, worked as a mathematics teacher in his native country until he and Velasquez were awarded a visa, along with his family, to move to the United States. “I’m here to live the American dream, not pay for one for making the choice to better myself and my family’s financial state. [Velasquez] and I have talked about the increase in costs to legally run our business but I just don’t think it’s worth it and if we can’t agree on how to run our business, we might have to go our separate ways,” said Reyes. Reyes, who was born and raised in Mexico for most of his life, came to the United States with his family 7 years ago in hopes of starting a new life. He worked as a mechanic at a local body shop in Mexico to feed his family.

But the decision of starting up another food truck has caused a riff and tension between Reyes and Velasquez, as Reyes wants to run the truck illegally without having to pay for a permit. Now with street vendor permits set to double in New York City over the course of seven years, Reyes stands by his decision while Velasquez, 35, wants to invest in multiple permits to expand their business.

In New York city, there is a limit on the number of food vendor permits allowed by the city’s health department. The limit of 4,235 permits has caused many vendors to turn to the black market where two-year permits can cost up to $25,000. Legally today, vendors can obtain a two-year permit from the city for $200 with the ability to renew it indefinitely. Under the new proposed legislation, called the Street Vending Modernization Act, however, a two-year permit will cost vendors $1,000.

Food trucks have been a way of entrepreneurship for many immigrants, including Reyes and Velasquez, since running a food truck is much more inexpensive than running an actual restaurant where you have to worry about things such as rent and paying employees. “We always wanted to start our own business but when you look as Hispanic as we do and carry a strong accent, people don’t take you seriously because they assume you know nothing about making money,” said Velasquez.

In the first few months, they realized their truck was the most popular between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., and became a hot spot for people to go to after a long night of drinking or somewhere quick to grab food to catch up with friends. Ever since then, they decided to only stay open during those hours.

“We make enough money to open a few more trucks and [Reyes] wants to go through with that plan but he wants to do it illegally,” said Velasquez. “[Reyes] said, ‘Why should we pay for something we have a right to do? We’re here for the American Dream and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.’”

Without a permit, Velasquez fears that they will have their cart taken away in Flushing and any future ones they decide to start up. “I don’t want to pay over $1000 in fines when I could use that money to legally run my business. I’m scared to work at that location by myself sometimes because I don’t completely agree with running the business that way and who knows if someone comes and catches us,” said Velasquez. He went on to say, “A big piece in the puzzle is a permit and I understand the price for one is planned to increase by a lot but if paying that big price means a better life for my kids and family in the long run, I have no problem in the investment.”

Reyes has a completely different outlook than Velasquez when it comes to running the business that they started. “I work 7 days a week and barely get to see my family, just so I can give them a good living. Why should I have to pay to feed my family? It just doesn’t make sense,” said Reyes.

If Reyes and Velasquez do not come to an agreement and have to part ways, it will greatly affect their business. “We split the costs of whatever we need to buy in terms of food and supplies then split in half whatever we make each night also. We kind of need each other to run both trucks so we need to come to a compromise,” said Velasquez.

Reyes agrees that they need each other to run the trucks but does not think it is impossible to do it without Velasquez. “If worst comes to worst, I’ll only run one truck and close the other. Then slowly when business picks up even more I’ll think about expanding again. I can’t have a business partner who’s not on the same page as me,” said Reyes.

Street vendors have been pushing the City Council to lift the decades-old cap on permits to sell halal food, hot dogs, pretzels and tacos on city streets. The city has limited the number of food carts and truck permits to a number that has not budged since the 1980s.

With the Street Vending Modernization Act, more people may be able to follow the road of entrepreneurship and run their business without having to run into the Black Market.

Arranged Marriage, Arranged Life

Most young adults in their early 20s are trying to find themselves, graduate college and step into the real world. But for 22-year-old Sabina Uddin, the only child born to Bengali immigrants Abush and Shereen Uddin who live in Ozone Park, the thought of graduating in two months gives her little to no excitement. Her parents, instead, are the excited ones, having arranged her marriage against her will.

Sabina Uddin, 22, performs a dance routine at a family wedding, her last performance before her own wedding which was arranged by her parents against her will.

Arranged marriages are a common practice in the Bengali-American community. The parents of prospective brides or grooms set out to find their child’s respective counterparts. The bride is usually chosen for the prospective groom by his family, though sometimes in cases like Uddin’s, a groom may be chosen for the woman. Brides are to be of equal social status and lesser age. In Bengali tradition, when it comes to marriage, it should be a match between the two in financial matters, educational level and religious beliefs. But it does not always work out that way.

Parents often get involved in marriages and are driven by greed. There is an imbalance because a bride’s family who is not as wealthy, will try to marry her into a family where the groom is financially well-off. It is the mentality in the Bengali tradition that the man should be the primary breadwinner and support his woman. Due to this mentality, a prospective bride’s family usually seeks a groom who has a higher education level and has a higher salary than the bride.

In many unfortunate cases, Bengali men living in the United States are forced to marry women back in Bangladesh whose families are not very wealthy. The fact that the man is a U.S. citizen promises enhanced opportunities for the couple in the eyes of the bride’s family.

For Uddin, however, the roles are reversed.

“I don’t even know his name,” she said “All I know is that he barely has an education. He works in a farm and his family is poor and this marriage is supposed to get him access to citizenship in this country so he can provide for his family back home and eventually bring them here too.”  Uddin’s parents are aware of the prospective groom’s financial and social status, but they see the marriage as a way of keeping the tradition alive of marrying within the race and religion, and getting people back in their homeland out of poverty by bringing them to the United States.

In Bengali culture, marriage is more of a civil contract than a religious sacrament in Islam.

“Being married in the Bengali community really means the interests of the families involved are more important rather than the two people who are supposed to spend the rest of their lives together,” said Uddin, going on to explain that the bride’s worth is acknowledged when she gives birth—but only if the newborn is a boy.

“Bengali women are taught to act shy around men and their elders. It is engraved in their minds that their job is to cook, clean the house and serve their husbands,” said Uddin. “Marrying this guy will turn me into the typical stereotypical Bengali woman, and since I was old enough to understand the degrading role of women in this culture, I knew I wanted to break away from that stereotype.”

While arranged marriages are still the predominant custom in Bangladesh, this practice is slowly changing in the United States, where dating and individual choices are becoming slightly acceptable.

“Recently there have been more and more couples who are both from Bangladesh who are getting married by their own choice of partner,” said Rashiq Gulshang, an imam who lives in Ozone Park, where the community is predominantly Bengali-American.

“But I have yet to see a couple where one person is not Bengali or Muslim. It has been a belief for so long that you should only marry within Islam and with someone who is from Bangladesh. It may be okay for people from other countries and religions to marry outside of their race and religion but in Islam it really is not.”

“I have so many Bengali friends and cousins who are dating people who are not Muslim or from Bangladesh and they have to hide it from their parents and families,” Uddin said.

Many young Bengalis hide their dating life from their families out of fear of disapproval from their families. The promise of a future becomes an issue for couples when one of them is Bengali as they face cultural and societal barriers.

“I know so many couples who dated for years and suddenly broke up because the Bengali guy or girl wasn’t ready to tell his or her parents about their non-brown boyfriend or girlfriend. It was like, damn, it’s so sad that race and religion seem to dominate love because of how old-fashioned our parents are,” Uddin said.

Although Gulshang does not necessarily support marriage outside of Islam, he believes that this generation of young adults will break the mold and change the culture of marriage in the Bengali-American culture.

“The generation that forces arranged marriages is getting old and the newer generations are starting to take over,” he said. “I already see a change in some aspects of the Bengali culture and I won’t be surprised if one day I am asked to marry two young adults where one of them does not rely his or her faith in Islam.”

 

Marriage in the Bengali-American Community (STORY 2 DRAFT)

The 20’s are the years where most young adults are trying to find themselves, graduate college and step into the real world. But for 22-year-old Sabina Uddin, the only child born to Bengali immigrants Abush and Shereen Uddin, graduating in two months gives her no excitement. That same excitement that she should have in accomplishing a major life goal is instead shared among her parents who have arranged her marriage, all against her will.

Arranged marriages are a common practice in the Bengali-American community. The bride is usually chosen for the prospective groom by his family and in cases like Uddin’s, a groom may be chosen for a Bengali woman. The parents of prospective brides or grooms set out to find their child’s respective counterparts. Brides are to be of equal social status and lesser age. In Bengali tradition, when it comes to marriage, it should be a match between the two in financial matters, educational level and religious beliefs. But often times, that is not the case.

In many unfortunate cases, Bengali men living in the United States are forced to marry women back in Bangladesh and the fact that the man is a U.S. citizen promises enhanced opportunities for the couple in the eyes of the bride’s family. This promise correlates to greed. For Uddin however, the roles are reversed. “I don’t even know his name. All I know is that he barely has an education. He works in a farm and his family is poor and this marriage is supposed to get him access to citizenship in this country so he can provide for his family back home and eventually bring them here too,” said Uddin.

In Bengali culture, marriage is more of a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament in Islam. “Being married in the Bengali community really means the interests of the families involved are more important rather than the two people who are supposed to spend the rest of their lives together,” said Uddin. Uddin goes on to explain that the bride’s worth is acknowledged when she gives birth—but only if the newborn is a boy.

“Bengali women are taught to act shy around men and their elders. It is engraved in their minds that their job is to cook, clean the house and serve their husbands,” said Uddin. “Marrying this guy will turn me into the typical stereotypical Bengali woman, and since I was old enough to understand the degrading role of women in this culture, I knew I wanted to break away from that stereotype,” added Uddin.

While arranged marriages are still the predominant custom in Bangladesh, this practice is slowly changing in the United States, where dating and individual choices are becoming slightly acceptable. “Recently there have been more and more couples who are both from Bangladesh who are getting married by their own choice of partner,” says Rashiq Gulshang, an Imam who lives in Ozone Park, where many Bengali-Americans live. “But I have yet to see a couple where one person is not Bengali or Muslim. It has been a belief for so long that you should only marry within Islam and with someone who is from Bangladesh. It may be okay for people from other countries and religions to marry outside of their race and religion but in Islam it really is not,” says Gulshang.

“I have so many Bengali friends and cousins who are dating people who are not Muslim or from Bangladesh and they have to hide it from their parents and families,” says Uddin. Many young Bengalis hide their dating life from their families out of fear of disapproval from their families. The promise of a future becomes an issue for couples when one of them is Bengali to do cultural and societal barriers that he or she has to face. “I know so many couples who dated for years and suddenly broke up because the Bengali guy or girl wasn’t ready to tell his or her parents about their non-brown boyfriend or girlfriend. It was like, damn, it’s so sad that race and religion seem to dominate love because of how old-fashioned our parents are,” says Uddin.

Although Gulshang does not necessarily support marriage outside of Islam being that he has lived his whole life through the religion, he believes that this generation of young adults will break the mold and change the culture of marriage in the Bengali-American culture. “The generation that forces arranged marriage is getting old and the newer generations are starting to take over. I already see a change in some aspects of the Bengali culture and I won’t be surprised if one day I am asked to marry two young adults where one of them does not rely his or her faith in Islam,” says Gulshang.

 

UN Blog Post- Breaking News

While famine looms in Somalia, malnutrition and disease are rising sharply among Somali children, according to UNICEF. Children are suffering from health issues such as severe malnutrition and cholera.

“More than 35,400 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition were treated with life-saving therapeutic food at hundreds of nutrition centers across Somalia in January and February,” said Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General. Those numbers are reported to be a 58 percent increase over the same period of time in 2016.

“Children are dying from malnutrition, hunger, thirst and disease. During the 2011 famine, around 130,000 young children died, about half of them before famine was declared. We are working with partners around the clock to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” said Leila Pakkala, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.

According to Christophe Boulierac, another spokesman of the United Nation, the Somali children who are affected by these intestinal diseases are only in their early childhood. The climate of Somalia could be a major reason why so many young children are suffering from malnutrition and diseases. Somalia has been suffering from the worst drought the country has experienced in 20 years, which has caused those who live there to drink non-potable water. This has resulted in the outbreak of cholera and other serious infectious diseases.

“Over 3,000 people a day are being forced to abandon their homes in search of water and food. This is the highest displacement we’ve witnessed since the 2011 famine, and it’s spiraling higher each day,” says NRC’s Country Director in Somalia, Victor Moses. “The indicators are lining up dangerously with what we saw in the lead up to the 2011 famine.”

In order to combat the famine that has taken over Somalia, UNICEF and its partners are implementing a massive scale up plan. The organization is working to extend the reach of both facility-based and mobile nutrition, water, sanitation and health services. They also have teams in the hardest hit areas who are working with local authorities, partners and communities to treat and prevent malnutrition, acute watery diarrhea (AWD) and cholera. UNICEF Somalia has raised its 2017 funding requirement from $66 million to $147 million.

Bengali-Americans in Ozone Park and Identity (Story 1)

When Sayara Uddin, 22, was asked to give a brief history about her mother land Bangladesh, she froze. She did not budge. Knowing the history of the country one’s family comes from can come easy to many people, however some Bengali-Americans in a predominantly Bengali community in Ozone Park, Queens, find themselves struggling to find their identity in the city that is referred to as a melting pot.

Poverty and corruption have taken over Bangladesh for many years, corruption being the most pervasive, hence the reason why the country remains uncivilized and there is lack of peace.

Bangladesh routinely finds itself among the most corrupt countries in the world. Even in the country’s police force, there is a high risk of encountering corruption due to low salaries, lack of training and expertise. When it comes to the government, there is no transparency between the people and the government. There have been efforts, however, to try to use information technology in order to enhance the transparency and efficiency of some government services.

The Bangladeshi tax administration is another example of corruption in the country. Irregular payments in connection with tax payments are common. It is common for businesses to negotiate their tax liabilities with the tax administration, whereby both parties enter into implicit agreements which involves regular informal payments.

The press in Bangladesh is considered to be partly free. The media is moderately active and public criticism of the government is common. Legal and regulatory framework allows for some restrictions, and physical attacks and harassment against reporters have recently increased, thus making Bangladesh an unsafe place for reporting at times. While freedom of association and assembly is guaranteed by the constitution, it is not always respected in. Freedom of speech and expression are restricted as well.

“Being born and raised in New York, I feel like I’m so Americanized that I have no idea about the history of the country my family comes from or even the slightest idea of what is going on there,” said Uddin. “But if you ask almost any other Bengali-American my age to tell you a little bit about Bangladesh, I bet they would struggle just like I did.”

Many young Bengali-Americans find themselves in a similar position as Uddin. Their lack of knowledge on the country most of their family comes from speaks volumes on the struggle of identity for those who were born here or spent most of their life here.

“I came here from Bangladesh when I was 17 in 1988 because my family knew coming to the land of opportunity meant wealth and a better life for us,” said Delwar Rahman, 46, who has been living in Ozone Park since coming to New York. “But I don’t know very much about Bangladesh or its history. I feel like growing up, all I saw was poverty and the only thing explained to me and taught in school was that the government was the root of all evil and corruption plagued the country since basically the beginning of its time.”

Rahman goes on to explain that because he has been living in America for almost 30 years now, he does not ever really find the need to look into what is going on back home. “It’s sad that I have nothing positive to say about Bangladesh, or anything to say at all when my kids ask me about Bangladesh because they want to know how life is there. But the truth is, when you come to America and live in New York especially, the only thing you can really think about is hustling and working day and night to provide for your family.”

The common ground many Bengali- Americans in Ozone Park share are their cultural values, the food they eat, the language they share and the experiences of being an immigrant and starting a family in the land of opportunity while barely being in touch with their roots.

The attitude that many Bengali-Americans like Uddin and Rahman have is that if they no longer live in Bangladesh, the corruption and poverty happening there does not impact their lives. What they may not be fully aware of is the fact that when they are addressed to speak on the issues or history of their country, the Americanized mentality conflicts with an inner struggle of identity. Thus, many Bengali-Americans shy away from even wanting to learn about their homeland.

 

Bangladesh Story Pitch

Hi Emily,

I am a student in your International Reporting class and since the beginning of this semester, I have wanted to cover Bangladesh as my beat. My fellow classmate, Brandon, is also covering Bangladesh so in order to add more diversity into our reporting, I wanted to take a different angle. Brandon wants to cover the corruption surrounding and within Bangladesh’s government, which specifically impacts the country’s press freedoms as well as labor rights. Taking on the angle of what local Bengali immigrants think of the country’s government is great, but I want to focus on those who are not even aware of what is going on in their country.

When I was doing my beat memo, I myself was not aware of half the information I came across about my country. After that, I decided to visit Ozone Park where there are many Bengali immigrants. I went around asking people if they could tell me the current state of their country and only 1 person out of 20 was able to tell me what was going on. This was very eye-opening for me.

So far, I have conducted 3 interviews: a 23-year-old man whose family moved here from Bangladesh when he was 3; a 54 year-old woman whose parents live back in Bangladesh; a 17-year-old who was born and raised in New York, but his parents are immigrants from Bangladesh.

Each individual had a different viewpoint on Bangladesh and had different levels of knowledge on the state of the country. It was shocking to me how out-of-touch some of us with our own country and roots.

I want to do more interviewing and focus on the fact that a lot of Bengalis do not know what is going on in their country. Had more people been aware of the country’s state, maybe a lot more could be done to fight back the powers that are oppressing the people and the country.

I look forward to hearing from you and getting your feedback on this angle.

-Tafannum (Taf)

Bangladesh Beat Memo

The population of Bangladesh is 156,186,882. Bangla, also known as Bengali, is the official language of Bangladesh, with 98.8% of people who speak it. Another 1.2% speak other languages. 89.1% of people who live in the country are Muslim, 10% are Hindu and the other 0.9% includes Buddhists and Christians.

Bangladesh’s government is parliamentary republic and has a mixed legal system of mostly English common law and Islamic law. Bangladesh’s economy has grown roughly 6% per year since 1996 despite political instability, poor infrastructure, corruption, insufficient power supplies, slow implementation of economic reforms, and the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and recession. Although more than half of GDP is generated through the services sector, almost half of Bangladeshis are employed in the agriculture sector, with rice as the single-most-important product. The labor force consists of people in agriculture (47%), industry work (13%) and service work (40%). The unemployment rate sits at 4.9% but it is important to note that about 40% of the population is underemployed with many people who were counted as “employed” work only a few hours a week at low wages.

The Daily Prothom Alo, in terms of circulation, is the largest newspaper in Bangladesh. It is published in Bengali and read by half a million people every day. It was established in 1998, headquartered in the capital city of Dhaka. The paper has taken to the local culture and is a favorite of locals. The print media is private and consists of hundreds of weekly publications that present many viewpoints, though some outspoken papers have faced pressure in the past. Television is the biggest medium for news in Bangladesh. Radio is also important in the country. The prime role of community radio is to give voice to the voiceless people who do not have access to the mainstream media to express their ideas and views regarding community development. Promoting the right to communicate, speed up the process of informing the community, assist the free flow of information and therefore act as a catalyst of change are few major tasks are to be done by community radio.

There are an estimated 11.4 million internet users in Bangladesh. The use of internet is unrestricted by the government however; some journalist’s emails have been monitored in the past. There are huge online newspaper and news portals in Bangladesh. But all the news portals are not listed by Bangladesh government.

The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal is a business-focused international newspaper based in New York City. The Journal is a global news organization that provides leading news, information, commentary and analysis. Published by Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal engages readers across print, digital, mobile, social, and video. Building on its heritage as the preeminent source of global business and financial news, the Journal includes coverage of U.S. & world news, politics, arts, culture, lifestyle, sports, and health. It holds 36 Pulitzer Prizes for outstanding journalism and even has an Asian and European edition. The Wall Street Journal is the largest newspaper in the United States by circulation.

 

Immigrant Community and Country

This semester, I would like to focus on Bangladesh. The immigrant community that is closest to me is Ozone Park and there are a lot of people from Bangladesh who reside in that area.

I feel like I know nothing about my country aside from the fact that there is a lot of political corruption and a ton of problems in the country. That is a shame because I feel like I should know more about where my family comes from. I’m aware that there are a lot of undocumented immigrants in Ozone Park and with everything going on with our new president, there is a lot of uneasiness in immigrant communities everywhere.