Heleodora Vivar: A Matriarch Who Defends Her Own

Heleodora Vivar (Photo via Diario de México)

At 74, Heleodora Vivar – mother of seven, grandmother of 18 and great-grandmother of six – is the proud matriarch of three generations of Mexicans living in New York City. However, her work does not end with taking care of her family.

The Guerrero-native is a well-known activist and an advocate for the rights of street vendors, particularly undocumented ones. In the last few years, she has often stood in front of City Hall and marched with her fist in the air. She is also a teacher for youth community organizers and a leader at the Street Vendor Project.

Heleodora does not wish to be a great-grandmother who spends her time sitting in a rocking chair in front of the TV. On the contrary: The matriarch hopes to pass on her steely resolve so that “these youths can grab life by the horns.”

Even though she admits to suffering from the ailments expected at her age, she says that no pain in her bones is sharp enough to make her renounce her daily fight. In the 90-degree weather, Heleodora carries her cart stuffed with goods down the steps of the Washington Heights building where she lives, and walks to her usual corner, on West 177th Street and Broadway.

The vendor figures out a way to set up her jewelry stand, and cheerfully invites passersby to take a look at the hand-woven earrings and necklaces made by Huichol artisans. In addition, she proudly shows off her selection of Mexican silver, and explains how she learned to make bracelets in her spare time.

As the city swelters under the midday sun, Heleodora fans herself with her worn-out cap and works hard without complaining.

“To me, it is a real triumph to be able to be so independent at my age. I have always been self-sufficient; I always taught my children to do honest work. President Trump says that immigrants are a burden to the country, that we have come to take the bread from the people of the United States, but he is wrong,” she says in a determined tone. “Since I arrived in this country in the 1980s, I have never taken a dollar from the government to support my children. I am a mother who works hard, who contributes to her community and who raises good children.”

Teaching a new generation of activists

Heleodora is one of the most visible faces in the fight that street vendors are waging to obtain city permits. The matriarch says that she has never felt intimidated when the time has come to defend her fellow vendors from government officials and police officers.

“This city can be very hard on immigrants, and you need to learn to defend yourself and not remain silent. Yes, you may feel fear, but that is not an excuse to put your head down and accept being humiliated. No sir! You must always hold your head high and be proud, because we are very valuable,” she says.

Heleodora arrived in the Big Apple from Guerrero in 1987 at 42 years old. With her, she brought her seven children, determined to provide them with a life free of poverty. In 2009, she was able to legalize her immigration status.

“When I came here, I worked in factories ironing clothes, but I always dreamed of having my own business, so I started selling food in 1997. Later on, I tried my luck with artisanal jewelry. I have been selling it in Upper Manhattan since 2006. Everyone here knows me by now,” she said.

Her experience serves as a guide to young activists, who one day hope to have her fortitude to fight for fair causes.

Last year, Heleodora taught several workers and activists at a leadership workshop organized by the New York Worker Center Federation (WFC).

“I like to teach. I like to contribute to my community and help make changes. My goal is to fight until the day I die. I want to leave this world knowing that I left a mark, that I did something for others,” she said. “The president needs to learn to see us differently.”

Hands on her waist, Heleodora adopts a defiant stance when she talks about President Donald Trump’s policies and his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Her face reflects anger but also hope.

“The White House, Trump and all his followers have to learn to see us in a different way. I’d love to see the president go through the hardship we immigrants go through. He would not survive one day. It is very easy for him to have an opinion from his air-conditioned office, but the reality is here, in the streets, in the factories, in the countryside, in the restaurants,” she stressed.

“Our children and grandchildren will inherit this country whether he likes it or not. These kids were raised by hardworking people, and many of them have been taught good values. The United States has the face of an immigrant. That is the face the White House does not want to see.”

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