After traveling seven thousand miles to sell their wares, the indigenous Otavalo people have gotten used to turf wars, tussles with Turkish police, and even the occasional military coup.
It’s midnight on a humid Friday in mid-July. Twenty-three-year-old Maribel Romero, a street vendor from Ecuador, lingers as a stream of passersby stroll into Istanbul’s sprawling Taksim Square. Police warned her against working here days earlier, but there’s no better sidewalk around on which to plant a blanket and spread out her merchandise. Before curating the bags, key chains, fruit bowls, wind chimes, and handmade bracelets, she’d scurried away from teargas and Turkish military forces attempting a coup to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I saw all the people running my way and was happy because I would sell a lot,” recounts Maribel. “But then I saw they were crying, and I also started to run.”
Maribel (who wished not to be photographed for this story) and her older sister Silvia, who Maribel says is like a second mother to her, are both stout and under 4’9” tall. They are indigenous to Otavalo.
Istanbul, site of the seventeenth-largest economy in the world, lures many migrants with work opportunities that don’t exist in their homelands. That includes a number of Otavalo people, who invest in a round-trip plane ticket that costs at least $1,000 per person. Silvia Romero says they borrow money from family members or take out loans from Otavalo banks.
About twenty Otavaleños are here now, each anticipating a three- to nine-month stay, organized in cliques with family ties.
“In Ecuador, we only earn money for food, utilities and for my children’s school,” says Silvia, 33, who back home knits winter caps and sews coats for about $30 a week. In Istanbul, they’ll do a bit better.
“Sometimes I sell one bracelet, sometimes I don’t sell anything,” Silvia explains. Their sporadic income can vary from five to two hundred Turkish lira (TL) per day, between $1.69 and $67. Silvia and her husband send a remittance to their children in Ecuador of about $200 a month via money transfers, leaving themselves just enough money to continue restocking.
This pricey odyssey becomes profitable for the vendors once they have each saved enough money to bring home about three hundred meters of Turkish fabric, costing approximately $400. Once home in Ecuador they use the material to make in-demand, traditional Otavalo skirts, which they then sell.
Silvia arrived here in March to join her husband Alfonso, also 33, after two years apart. His long absence has been spent selling decorations and knock-off shoes on the Istanbul streets. Silvia has left behind their fifteen-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son; however, she brought their two-year-old son Neymar along, so that his father could see him for the first time since he was two months old.
They continue working regardless of the increasing tensions throughout Turkey, a country grappling with a refugee crisis, Syria’s civil war next door, deteriorating security, and a military intervention attempting to overthrow its government.
Because street vending is illegal in Istanbul, the Romero family frequently flees the municipal police and invades contested spaces owned by other territorial Otavaleños. Alfonso says his fellow Ecuadorian migrants all sell virtually the same trinkets at the same tourist hotspots. They become fiercely competitive with each other, constantly changing prices to outsell each other. Some refuse to reveal who their suppliers are. The more well-traveled, experienced salespeople are protective of the spaces where they sell, hesitant to share pavement with newcomers like Silvia and Maribel.
An Otavalo named Luis Ramos, forty, says he’s been working in Istanbul since 2011, doubling as a street vendor and performer. Unlike Silvia and Maribel, who are his distant relatives, he says he doesn’t make the trip back and forth between Istanbul and Ecuador because the plane ticket is too expensive. “I prefer to live here with my family,” Ramos says. According to him, the first Otavaleños came to work in Turkey after the European Union imposed visa requirements on Ecuadorian citizens in 2003, making Turkey an easier option than the EU. He says most of the Otavaleños he first traveled to Istanbul with were, like him, street performers. “They don’t come here anymore because there is no work playing music on the streets,” he says. “The police don’t let us.” He takes short trips to Georgia and Russia so he can feed his performance bug while supplementing his income.
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One of Istanbul’s trendiest sections, Karakoy overlooks Constantinople and edges the Bosphorus Strait – the continental divide that separates Istanbul into its European and Asian identities. Once a thriving port, Karakoy is named after the Karaite Jews that settled here and transformed it into a de facto financial district under Ottoman rule.
Silvia and Maribel Romero sell at an underpass in Karakoy. The location allows them to work and simultaneously hide away from belediye – the Turkish word for the municipal police. The Otavalo – and the handful of Turks next to them, primarily selling portraits – risk having their merchandise confiscated each time they set up shop. Yet clusters of Otavalo women line the corridor wearing their traditional long skirts and flowy white blouses, though some of the younger females have dropped the skirts for jeans.
Maribel arrived in Istanbul in May, and is new to globetrotting. She worked from home in Ecuador, sewing woolen hats and vests, while spending evenings with her parents watching TV. “I don’t like it here,” Maribel says. Unlike her older sister Silvia, Maribel is demure and reserves smiles for family and a few other Otavalo. “When I sell, I am happy.”
While they don’t know much about their temporary home, Maribel and Silvia learned the Turkish language’s numbers fast, and can address customers using the conventional niceties. “Buyurun!” – help yourself – they utter every time a passerby stops to take a look at their merchandise.
It is Silvia’s first time in Istanbul, but not her first time traversing the world. She’s worked as a street vendor and in the fields of countries like Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Hungary, frequently shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband Alfonso. “A lot of work, little money,” her husband says over his display of knock-off Adidas sneakers.
The threesome work two shifts, one in the afternoon and one after midnight, until four a.m. They pull their carts, full of merchandise, weighing in excess of forty pounds, up Istanbul’s numerous hills.
They arrive in Tophane, an area nestled between Taksim Square and Karakoy with a mix of trendy cafés and expensive boutiques. The district also has its share of derelict buildings. The Romeros rent a small room in one for the bargain price of 600TL ($202). Silvia washes everyone’s clothes by hand in a bucket in the bathroom. She also does most of the cooking over a single gas burner.
Their apartment, like many old Turkish homes, does not have a shower. “We only have water at night,” explains Maribel. The Romeros have bought five-liter water jugs at a supermarket, two per person, storing the water they bathe with. “When Neymar showers, he splashes it everywhere and we are left without water.” Should they run out of water, the women go to a park nearby to refill them.
When the Romeros have to stock up on merchandise, they walk two or three hours, to Eminonu, inside the city walls of old Constantinople. While for most a walk there would take a half hour, the women’s strides are short, and rambunctious Neymar slows them down even further. Public transport connects Tophane and Eminonu with a tramway, but the family opts to save the few liras for the passage whenever possible.
To further minimize expenses, the family eats two rice meals a day – one at four a.m., the other twelve hours later – costing roughly 70TL ($23.50) a week. While the women cope well with the dietary restrictions and hectic work schedules, little Neymar breaks out in rashes. His clothes are always soiled from sweeping up the dirt off the street – his only playground – and his mood is erratic. In the early hours of the morning, he craves food that is more wholesome. Fortunately, the toddler is loved by much of the Turkish community around the women, and they don’t hesitate to offer him fruit, biscuits, juice and simit – Turkish bagels.
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During their stay, the Romeros and other Otavalo vendors sell in Galata – the former Genoese trading colony adjacent to Tophane, known for its steep streets, and its tourist sites like the iconic Galata Tower. Pushing carts packed with merchandise here is painstaking, and the area is often raided by belediye.
The migrants are always on the lookout for belediye who sometimes arrive en masse in numerous vehicles, or in the form of a single plainclothes agent who will simply start picking up their bracelets, which happened to Silvia once while she was breastfeeding Neymar. “Alfonso!” she said, which was enough of a signal for him to gather his own goods and bolt.
“Sometimes belediye doesn’t want to take everything,” Alfonso says about the raids. “But we always have to run. If they let us run, we run.”
It takes Maribel around twenty minutes to meticulously lay out her merchandise. When belediye storm into the street, she hastily scoops up the trinkets with her blanket, ties it into a tight knot, and tries to run away.
On July 5, Maribel had her first encounter with belediye. At the beginning of the weeklong national holiday, Bayram, celebrating the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the police carried out an operation against vendors to clear the streets.
“Shopkeepers complain to the police,” Alfonso says, “because we sell the same merchandise at cheaper prices.”
Before Maribel even finished setting down her products, she was wrestling her heavy bag from a police officer. Maribel lost most of her merchandise, as well as her cart. Right after the incident, she sat on the street downtrodden next to Silvia and Alfonso.
She had taken out a loan for 750TL ($253) days earlier in order to buy more merchandise in anticipation of Bayram, when she hoped to make lots of sales. To recover her goods, she must go to the police station and pay a 200TL fee and wait a month.
The police’s steady patrolling of Galata confines Maribel to the underpass once she’s back in business. Sales are slower, but she prefers to stay away from belediye.
There are other challenges. Once, Maribel’s cart broke apart and she had to fix it with a series of dexterous knots that would put a girl scout to shame. But most of the time, the Turkish people sympathize with them and don’t hesitate to offer a helping hand. In Galata, restaurant owners offer coffee whenever they see the women selling in the street, and occasionally, a place to hide their merchandise from belediye.
At the end of a long day’s work in the underpass, a Turkish janitor at the overpass allows Silvia and Neymar to use a wheelchair lift to avoid pushing her heavy cart up the stairs. Neymar is ecstatic as the janitor waves goodbye.
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Kadikoy, a neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side known for its young, leftist population, is not highly frequented by the Otavalo. Only a few lone wolves venture here to sell. For those living in the European side of Istanbul, a 12TL ($3.95) ferry ticket to Kadikoy for a day’s work is a considerable expense.
Maribel fears crossing the Bosphorus Strait into Asia, away from her usual selling spots. But eventually, she musters up the courage and boards the ferry.
In Kadikoy the Romeros pull their carts and follow Neymar. Silvia calls after the toddler, urging him to stop playing. At one point she has to abandon her cart and run after him.
By 9:30 p.m. Neymar still has enough energy to pick play-fights with other children as the adults rush through the ferry station. Silvia sports a baseball cap and looks exhausted. Maribel takes in her surroundings with deliberate but shy glances. She cracks a weak smile. The women had come straight from the underpass without taking their usual break between the afternoon and night shifts.
Hostility and territoriality is not only inherent within the Otavalo community, but sometimes between them and their Turkish counterparts. “Why do they come to Turkey?” asks an amazed Fatih Guney, a 28-year-old Turkish street seller, one day in Galata. “How do they find it on the map?” But he admiringly adds, “We did not choose to be born in the countries we are born. I respect them … they have to fight.”
When the Romeros finish off their adventure in Kadikoy, they return to the European side of Istanbul where they will work for a few more hours. Silvia carries a sleeping Neymar tied to her back as she leaves Asia behind.
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During the massive rallies that followed the failed military coup on July 15, the Otavalo scored sizable sales off the pro-government enthusiasts in Taksim Square. In one such night, Maribel earned 400TL ($132), undisturbed by the municipality police who were letting hundreds of jubilant Turks celebrate on the square.
In the days following the failed coup, some Otavalo were seen selling Turkish flags to a city possessed by a scarlet-red nationalist fever. But as the days turned to weeks, and Istanbul regained a semblance of normality, belediye again began to prevent the Otavalo from selling their trinkets in Taksim Square.
“Sales have been very low,” Silvia says. The Otavalo’s solution is to take trips to other Turkish tourist destinations.
The Romeros travel to Izmit, a city 62 miles east of Istanbul, abutting the Sea of Marmara, for a weekend. They take a bus and sell their merchandise on the beach before lying cardboard over the sand to sleep on.
When Maribel joined her sister Silvia in Istanbul last May, her slow, measured movements betrayed skepticism. She relied heavily on her sister, following her lead. Now, after five months of running away from police and engaging in scrimmages with other Otavalo women, Maribel sells her products a few yards away from her sister, and ventures to other locations alone or with a new friend. Her hold on her surroundings has enlivened her spirits, and she is more willing to crack a joke every once in a while. Maribel even boasts one night about how she was able to escape the belediye two evenings prior.
For Silvia, working so far from home with a two-year-old in tow continues to test her. “I am tired,” she says on a Tuesday night in late July. She dreams of a future in which working from home can sustain her family. For now, she has to settle for this, and plans to stay until January so she can save enough for a new front door and windows for her house in Otavalo.
“We have to come out,” Silvia stresses. “This is how it is.”