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Spotlight | Vayalo! Cocina

Spotlight | Vayalo! Cocina

Sometimes I feel like I have it tough...I feel oppressed by the workload of running Loyale, my working conditions are distracting, I don’t get enough sleep, but really I know deep down, my life in San Francisco is one of good fortune. A poignant reminder of how cushy I have it, came in the form of a NYT article entitled, Cooking, Dancing, Hoping: A Day in the Life of a Smorgasburg Food Stall.

Amelia Nierenberg delves into how three women who left Venezuela’s turmoil are finding their way forward by making and selling arepas and stuffed hot dogs, two favorites from their homeland. Upon quick glance, this is a story about Ana, Katherine and Paola running a food stall, Váyalo Cocina at Smorgasburg, the weekly outdoor culinary bazaar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But really it’s a touching inspirational tribute encompassing loss, determination, humility, hard work, friendship and how food can comfort us...

“After the Ana, Katherine and Paola came to the United States in 2016, they cooked traditional Venezuelan food as an antidote to their homesickness. If you could make it taste like it did back home, they figured, you could almost convince yourself that you’re there.

In December 2018, almost a year after first hearing about Smorgasburg, they planned a menu, came up with a name and auditioned their food at the organization’s headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Eric Demby, a founder, said he was struck by their personalities. “I go on my gut with all of this stuff,” he said. “They had a really nice spirit to them, and we’re not ignorant to the plight of that country right now. We wanted to give them a shot.”

Their first week at the market, in early April, was a disaster. Customers waited half an hour or more as Ms. Rengifo made each arepa from scratch. By the second week, she had learned how to precook the arepas, but things didn’t go much better; a strong wind took all their napkins, and she cried as she held onto the tent to keep it from blowing away. The third week brought a storm so fierce that the rain came in sideways; they barely broke even. And the fourth week, Mr. Freire forgot to pick them up on time.

Still, their arepas were popular. Made from maize and naturally gluten-free, they appeal to the health-conscious Brooklyn crowd. 

When Ms. Fernández and Ms. Rengifo arrived in the United States three years ago, they had come for a vacation, hoping to withdraw the money they had saved in American banks. They intended to leave Venezuela soon after their scheduled return, maybe for Uruguay or Argentina, where they could continue operating their business and live closer to friends and family who were also departing.

Venezuela has been unraveling for years; decades of corruption have led to a wide economic collapse that has left water pipes dry, garbage piled in the streets and the sick without medicine. The government has persecuted and even killed political opponents who threaten its power. Almost 3.7 million people have left Venezuela since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.

As protests escalated during their vacation, and their family sent frightened messages, the couple decided not to board their return flight. They hadn’t said goodbye to anyone at home. They’d left a house and a business, photo albums and heirlooms.

They waited in the United States, unsure whether to stay or return. Three years later, they have an open asylum claim, citing fears of persecution in Venezuela. They’re uncertain whether they will be allowed to stay, but have decided to build their business nonetheless.

“It’s like purgatory, like limbo,” Ms. Fernández said, her voice breaking. She tries to stay strong for her wife, but sometimes, it’s hard. “I was hoping everything could change, and we could go back. I sometimes feel like I am never going to be able to go back and see my family.”

They’ve done whatever they can to make money: working as nannies and line cooks, cleaning houses and making coffee — juggling multiple jobs, trying to improve their English and scrape together rent. 

Smorgasburg has provided a way forward.”

To read about these women leaving their life behind unexpectedly, working a myriad of odd jobs, and cooking all night, only then to serve their food in the scorching heat every weekend, makes one pause and take stock. Upon reading this article, I know I need to look towards the good I have in my life and feel grateful for the blessings that surround me. I hope sharing this uplifting story will encourage you to do the same...

Photo credit: Nicole Craine for The New York Times

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