The Abuelas Who Hand Out Fliers in Queens

Rosa Díaz hands out fliers on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. (Photo by Mauricio Hernández via Queens Latino)

Rosa Díaz hands out fliers on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. (Photo by Mauricio Hernández via Queens Latino)

For years, Rosa Díaz and Blanca León have come to the same corner of Roosevelt Avenue to hand out fliers. They have a lot in common: Both are over 60, live alone in New York, have grandchildren and great-grandchildren they have never met in person, and must work on the street because they need the money.

“When it is snowing or raining, there’s no work for us, so we have to make the most of it now,” said the women almost simultaneously.

We found Díaz and León on St. Valentine’s Day standing on the street where they work as the thermometer barely hit 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius).

Restaurants were full but, outside, there was a resigned murmur from the people who handed out fliers. Within two blocks, there were more than 10 women over the age of 60 working alongside other flier distributors.

Díaz, 64, works to help her family in Lima, Peru, including three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. “My dream is to be able to see my family. I haven’t seen my children in 11 years and I don’t know most of my grandchildren, let alone my great-grandchildren,” she said tearfully.

Handing out fliers is one of the least protected jobs in the city. Barely regulated, the $9-an-hour gig is a thankless one too, as most people decline to grab the leaflets.

Díaz worked at the Lima airport until it was privatized. She was 48 years old then and was unable to find more work. “In my country, you are considered old after 45. I decided to come to the U.S., where older people have a chance to work too,” she said.

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Blanca León hands out fliers while braving the low temperatures. (Photo by Mauricio Hernández via Queens Latino)

Blanca León hands out fliers while braving the low temperatures. (Photo by Mauricio Hernández via Queens Latino)

Blanca León

A mere 30 feet from Díaz stood 63-year-old Blanca León, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She arrived in New York nine years ago, and has been handing out fliers for the last seven, always on Roosevelt Avenue. The first two years the leaflets were for an English school, and the last five for a dentist’s office located on the corner of 82nd Street. “They don’t let me go to the bathroom at the office I work for. Because I am out on the street, I am forced to find somewhere else to go. Luckily, they let me use the restroom at a Peruvian restaurant where they know me.”

To make ends meet, León must also collect cans on the street and sell water in parks, as she does not have a work contract or other jobs. “Distance has made my five children grow apart from me, and now I live alone in New York,” said León, who came in 2007 to be with her granddaughter. However, she and her daughter moved out of the city.

“The boss calls us only when he needs us. If it is snowing or raining, there’s no work. Other times, I only get two or three hours of work, so I don’t make enough money. Fortunately, my father left me a house in Guayaquil that I will be able to move into in the future,” she said.

With a mix of sadness and excitement, Blanca León and Rosa Díaz follow their grand- and great-grandchildren’s growth through Facebook. It is their only contact with their families.

Also on 82nd Street, another older Peruvian woman who chose not to identify herself performed the same job. “I work because I get bored at home, where I live with my family. I don’t like to be indoors, much less having to depend on anyone.”

More than 5,000 unprotected workers?

“Publicity distribution is one of the most unfair and unprotected sectors among New York’s labor legislation,” said Virgilio Aran, founder of the Laundry Workers Center United (LWCU) organization and an advocate for housekeeping workers. “There is no legislation protecting people who hand out leaflets, and many of them see their wages stolen. Three years ago, I was working to defend the rights of people who distribute fliers, and I can assure you that 100 percent of them are not paid fairly or are victims of wage theft. Although there isn’t an exact number, I estimate that more than 5,000 people work performing this task in Queens.”

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