Behind These Street Vendors’ Masks, Stories of Survival, Creativity and Community

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San Francisco entrepreneur César Agusto comes from a family of artisans in Ecuador. During the pandemic, he pivoted to selling face masks to make ends meet after shutting down his brick-and-mortar shop. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí)

Editor’s note: To protect the identities of some individuals interviewed for this story due to immigration status, only first and middle names were used.

One evening back in June, José Antonio’s cell phone rang. He saw it was his boss calling and realized it could only mean one thing. It had been weeks since they had a new client. For almost his entire adult life, José Antonio has worked as a carpenter. He managed to keep his job through past crises, but he knew that this time he wouldn’t be as lucky.

“I felt it in my fingertips. But I didn’t even want to think about it because it brought me down,” he says in Spanish. “When I lost my job, all I could think about was how I could buy food for my family. We had no savings, nothing. I had to think fast.”

Looking for ideas, the 41-year-old Oakland resident and father of two went on a walk. Once outside, he realized that he forgot his face mask. That was it: face masks. That was what was going to get him through this.

“Necessity, brother. Necessity is the biggest reason that exists in the world. The need to bring home something to eat everyday,” he says. “When you’re in that spot, your brain thinks a lot quicker.” He had no resources to open up a store and doesn’t qualify for federal benefits. But he knows Oakland well, especially his own neighborhood, Fruitvale.

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A friend who was traveling to Los Angeles for the weekend told him that he was buying boxes with hundreds of face masks on his trip. Turns out these weren’t simple KN95 or blue surgical masks, but instead a wild collection of designs and prints with the logos of European soccer teams, the faces of Mexican banda music superstars and even Spiderman.

He bought a small foldable plastic table and pieces of cardboard where he organizes dozens of face masks, each wrapped in plastic. He placed his stand on several blocks throughout Fruitvale until he decided on a parking lot outside a supermarket, near International Boulevard.

“People treat me well here, the manager of the supermarket here has been good to us and lets us street vendors sell here,” José Antonio says. He keeps to himself while he works, except to speak to customers. However, he’s started to notice that almost every week, there’s a new face mask seller in Oakland.

“There’s a lot of competition, but still space for everyone. Many travel all around the Bay looking for a place to sell,” he explains. A few blocks down International, there’s another mask seller. Get on BART for one stop, and you might meet several more near the Coliseum.

After losing his job as a carpenter, José Antonio began selling face masks in Oakland. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí)

“People ask me if this is how I do my part to stop the pandemic. And I tell them, of course! Of course I am!” says María. She sells her face masks in San Francisco’s Mission District, near 23rd Street.

María is retired and has lived in San Francisco since she arrived from El Salvador 35 years ago. Selling masks helps her cover some expenses, but she started selling so she could have a reason to leave the house, at least on the weekends. “I started to do this because I could no longer stay inside my house everyday. Being alone in the house for five months is so boring. So I wanted to move around, figure out something that would keep me sane,” she says.

An experienced street seller, María has sold all kinds of things. Clothing, imitation jewelry, accessories. “But never face masks. I had never even held one until this year,” she laughs. And now she’s honed her skills to find the most unique designs that catch a pedestrian’s eye.

What’s one of her most popular masks? A face mask printed with the Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele, smiling at the camera. “So many people ask for him. People ask for masks with their teams’ logo, their favorite brands—they ask for every type of design! Every type of taste you can imagine!”

While she values the aesthetic value of each mask, María cares that each mask actually protects her customers. Sitting on a chair next to her stall, she sees countless used surgical face masks flying through the street. She controls her frustration when she sees someone without one.

“One day a man buys me a face mask. The next day, I see him crossing the street with no mask. We can’t force anyone to do anything,” she says. “We can only control what we ourselves do, and for me, that’s making sure people have access to masks they can reuse, that they feel safe with.”

María sees her face mask business as a way of keeping her community safe. The Mission district, where she's based, has one of San Francisco's highest COVID-19 rates. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí)

The risk of working all day outside is very present in María’s mind. Everyday, she hears in the news how the Mission is one of the neighborhoods in San Francisco most affected by coronavirus. According to the city, the current monthly case rate in the Mission is 89 cases per 10,000 people, one of the highest in San Francisco.

But she still decides to come out and sell face masks. “I protect myself,” she says. “And I help others protect themselves.”

“You Don’t Let Doors Close on You”

Throughout the Bay Area, dozens of individuals have set up informal stalls on the sidewalk, parking lots and swap meets to sell face masks, an indicator of indispensable and undeniable necessity during the pandemic. Many have little to no experience selling in the streets, but selling face masks has been the only opportunity available during one of the worst economic crises in recent history.

“You don’t let doors close on you. If you want to survive, you have to hustle,” says González, who sells masks on Alum Rock Avenue in East San José, and asked to go by only his last name. He worked as a gardener for 15 years before losing his job during the summer.

“Ever since I came to this country, I’ve reinvented myself many times. To survive. Not to save money, but to survive. And now, face masks help me survive in so many ways,” he says.

And while he does not count with a Nayib Bukele mask in his inventory, he still sells masks decorated with the face of another Latin American president, that of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of México. Not the most popular design, he notes.

He takes great care in showing each mask, never removing them from the plastic wrapper. The masks up for display are not for sale. González explains that they’ve been out all day, exposed to all those that pass by. Whenever he sells, he never lets his guard down. The 95116 and 95112 zip codes that make up East San José registers the highest case rates in all of Santa Clara County.

“You don’t let doors close on you. If you want to survive, you have to hustle,” says San José face mask vendor González, who lost his job as a gardener during the pandemic. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí)

Over in Fruitvale, José Antonio shows the same resolve against similar odds. “I have a responsibility to my family,” he says. Fruitvale has also borne the brunt of the pandemic in Oakland.

One of the challenges health officials have faced in Fruitvale is making sure that COVID-19 prevention information reaches the Indigenous community, mostly composed of Mam-speaking immigrants from Guatemala. While public health information is available in both English and Spanish, there’s much less in Mam.

Some of the most popular designs at José Antonio’s stall are those embroidered with patterns popular in northern Guatemala, made by Indigenous artisans. “Having this design on is like wearing a small part of your tradition, but presented in a way where it now seems very normal,” he explains.

“Many of the people I know don’t want to be targeted when they show that they’re Indigenous,” he continues. “But when they wear a mask with these designs, no one points them out.”

What Your Mask Says

While some mask designs, like those emblazoned with sports teams logos, can be found in every street stand, it’s the handmade masks bearing embroidery crafted by Indigenous artisans that differ from stall to stall, from city to city.

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“Folks come and feel the texture that is handmade. It’s so different from what exists in stores, all that factory-made stuff,” says César Augusto, whose stand is located on Mission and 23rd in San Francisco. Earlier this year, he was forced to close his store on 24th Street, where he sold craftwork by Indigenous artisans from all over the Americas for 17 years. He and his wife transformed their business into two booths, each full with artwork, earrings, and clothing.

“In a way, it was a good thing that we closed. It came at the right time. And now, I can breathe a little easier because I can start again, opening a new path for my wife and I,” he explains. Augusto migrated to the U.S. from Ecuador, where he was raised by a family of artisans. Holding a face mask his family sent him, he ponders on the value this piece of fabric has in his life now.

“They’ve become their own type of craftwork. I never imagined this would happen,” he says. The mask he’s wearing also comes from Ecuador, embroidered with Quechua patterns. A customer passes by and asks if he’s got any masks printed with the flag of Honduras. Turns out that they just ran out.

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“People always find ways to show the world where they come from and who they are, even during a pandemic,” Augusto says.