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She started selling arepas from a cart in Queens after fleeing Colombia.  Today, the “Lady of Arepa” looks back on the “triumph” of her flourishing business


Maria Cano – better known as the “Arepa Lady” – has been a staple in Jackson Heights, Queens for decades. After fleeing violence in Colombia, she started selling arepas (corn cakes) in a street cart since the late 1980s, becoming so popular that she and her family were finally able to open two storefronts in New York City. and potentially a third on the way.

However, the origins of his company were not easy.

“When you come to the United States as an immigrant, life is very difficult because you don’t know anyone, you don’t know the language,” she told CBS News in Spanish. “Having young sons who were in school was difficult.”

Cano, now 77, was a former lawyer and judge in Medellin, but as the terrorist grip of drug lord Pablo Escobar continued to expand and government workers became targets of assassinations, she knew it was time to go. Cano left with three of her four sons – all under 18 at the time – and moved to New York City so they could have “better opportunities” in life. The fourth son, who was in college at the time, eventually joined them.

But it was hard to make ends meet to get started, she said. With the help of a friend, Cano was introduced to the world of street vendors, where she learned to prepare her arepas with cheese.

“I had never made areeps before,” she said with a laugh. “But necessity creates solutions. It was something I had to do. Desperate to pay rent, feed my children, and meet the needs of a whole family, I saw an opportunity.”

She started selling arepas from a cart in Queens after fleeing Colombia.  Today, the “Lady of Arepa” looks back on the “triumph” of her flourishing business
Maria Cano has been a staple in Jackson Heights, Queens for decades.

Alejandro Osorio


To make matters even more stressful, Cano and his sons were undocumented and the risk of deportation was another reality they had to live with. Her youngest son, Alejandro Osorio, was around four years old when he arrived in the United States with his mother. Osorio, who now runs the successful family business, told CBS News that the start was a “real struggle.”

“She was working 9 or 10 to 5 a.m. because that’s the only time the cops weren’t really harassing you,” he said, adding that she didn’t have a license. street vendor.

“So she was working those hours to be able to work and even then, like sometimes, they would come and confiscate these products, give you crazy tickets and that’s because she was lucky, she was never arrested” , did he declare.

Cano finally got a seller’s permit about 10 years ago, Osorio said, but it was a seasonal permit. According to New York City’s Mobile Food Licensing page, these only last from April through October. The city capped the number of permits to sell street food to 3,000 in 1983.

Last month, a viral video showing sanitation workers throwing out fresh produce from a street vendor in the Bronx sparked outrage, and for Osorio, it brought “flashbacks” to a winter when he was a teenager. .

“My mother had three carts confiscated [by the NYPD] that winter, ”he said. “And we were like broke, and we had to go to a church to eat. ”

She started selling arepas from a cart in Queens after fleeing Colombia.  Today, the “Lady of Arepa” looks back on the “triumph” of her flourishing business
Maria Cano, a former judge, was known as the “Arepa Lady” in Jackson Heights, Queens, because of her signature arepas with cheese – or corn cakes.

Alejandro Osorio


Despite adversity, Cano and his sons finally opened their first store in 2014 after saving $ 70,000 for six years. (They then moved). She now has two brick-and-mortar restaurants with her nickname and face – one a few blocks from where she used to sell arepas on Roosevelt Avenue and another in Brooklyn. A third location is in the works, according to Osorio.

The Jackson Heights flagship site hosted Mayor Bill de Blasio, MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other public figures who enjoyed munching on the famous arepas. Most of the customers who typically frequent the store today are immigrants or the children of immigrants, Osorio said. He thinks in part that it has helped allay this impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the business because the neighborhood is filled with immigrants.

Osorio believes customers turned to his mother when she worked at the cart because she was a “mother figure” to others.

“People really enjoyed sitting there and feeling like they were back home eating an arepa or a meal from their parents, and you get that love, that warmth of being back home. home, ”he said.

Cano retired in 2017 and returned to Medellin before the pandemic. She told CBS News she was “very proud” of what she helped build.

“It was a triumph thanks to all the efforts we put in,” she said.

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