Abandoning work and lying low under self-imposed lockdown as the coronavirus runs its course are luxuries largely beyond the reach of those working in El Salvador’s informal economy—a hefty 7 out of 10 Salvadorans, according to an October 2018 study by the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development. These are people without social security, a pension, or—with the exception of a few domestic workers—fixed income. If the image of street vendors has come to embody this hapless sector of the Salvadoran economy, then those working in San Salvador’s Historic Downtown are its face. In 2015, then-mayor Bukele’s office estimated there were some 8,600 stationary vendors downtown, and another 10,000 mobile merchants on the streets of the district, including those with carts and those carrying their products by hand. For them, staying home is a non-starter; if they don’t sell, they go hungry. 

“Can you imagine what would happen to us if we didn’t go out and sell? They would let us die,” an elderly woman selling medicine said. “If they keep me from working, I’ll raise hell,” a shoe shiner protested. “People with money buy things for their stashes, but we can’t even get to the supermarket,” said a lingerie vendor. For now, the government has not banned commercial activity in the streets, but the looming shadow of the crisis keeps these workers on edge.

On Sunday, March 15, president Nayib Bukele ordered all businesses to send home employees over 60 years old, due to their heightened vulnerability to infection from the pandemic. He said that the elderly should stay home unless in need of “the essentials.” To many, however, spending all day selling goods in the streets of the ever-renovating downtown is, in fact, strictly necessary. Since the announcement, crowds in the district have thinned, except during peak hours. Despite arriving the following Tuesday morning to find the main plazas cordoned off with yellow tape to block off the crowds, the vendors of clothing, sorbet, hammocks, bread, coffee, and trinkets kept coming. For now, they’ll keep taking to the streets to stave off hunger in the time of coronavirus.

 

Delmy Cornejo, 43, lives in the San Antonio neighborhood of Soyapango and travels on foot as a lingerie vendor, earning $10 on a good day. “They’ll have to pull us off the job by force,” she said. “You have to earn your meal every day. People with money buy things for their stashes, but we can’t even get to the supermarket.”
 
Delmy Cornejo, 43, lives in the San Antonio neighborhood of Soyapango and travels on foot as a lingerie vendor, earning $10 on a good day. “They’ll have to pull us off the job by force,” she said. “You have to earn your meal every day. People with money buy things for their stashes, but we can’t even get to the supermarket.”
 

 

 

 

Luis Alcántara, 67, hawks newspapers downtown. He makes roughly $3 per day, just enough to pay for a meal. “I’m struggling with bronchitis, but I have to go to work—otherwise, how would I eat? I prefer working over begging,” he explained.
 
Luis Alcántara, 67, hawks newspapers downtown. He makes roughly $3 per day, just enough to pay for a meal. “I’m struggling with bronchitis, but I have to go to work—otherwise, how would I eat? I prefer working over begging,” he explained.

 

 

 

María Mejía, 64, lives in Amatepec, Soyapango. Her only source of income is selling panes mata niños, popular street breads topped with cabbage, mortadella, and salsa. “I sell $20 of product per day, and take home about $5 after overhead costs,” she said. “It’s complicated with the coronavirus, but if I stay home, I’ll starve.”
 
María Mejía, 64, lives in Amatepec, Soyapango. Her only source of income is selling panes mata niños, popular street breads topped with cabbage, mortadella, and salsa. “I sell $20 of product per day, and take home about $5 after overhead costs,” she said. “It’s complicated with the coronavirus, but if I stay home, I’ll starve.”

 

 

 

Eliézer Cabrera, 24, has sold sorbet for two years. He and his partner, 23, have a four-year-old daughter. The $25 he earns every day is enough for them to get by. “If I can’t sell, I can’t feed my daughter, and I won’t let that happen,” he said. “Staying home would be the end of me.”
 
Eliézer Cabrera, 24, has sold sorbet for two years. He and his partner, 23, have a four-year-old daughter. The $25 he earns every day is enough for them to get by. “If I can’t sell, I can’t feed my daughter, and I won’t let that happen,” he said. “Staying home would be the end of me.”

 

 

 

Esperanza Pérez, 83, lives in Apopa and sells combs in downtown San Salvador. A longtime traveling saleswoman of all kinds of merchandise, she’s had to reduce her load with age. “Maybe the emergency measures will save a few people, especially among those with fixed jobs and a good salary,” she said. “But for the old and poor, the only option is to take to the streets to pay for that day’s meal.”
 
Esperanza Pérez, 83, lives in Apopa and sells combs in downtown San Salvador. A longtime traveling saleswoman of all kinds of merchandise, she’s had to reduce her load with age. “Maybe the emergency measures will save a few people, especially among those with fixed jobs and a good salary,” she said. “But for the old and poor, the only option is to take to the streets to pay for that day’s meal.”

 

 

 

Tatiana Crespín, 24, travels from her home in San Bartolo, Ilopango to sell lingerie at Gerardo Barrios Plaza in San Salvador. It’s a family business, paying for the lives of her parents, too. “My parents are over 60,” she explained. “I go out to sell and they wait for me. I worry about their health, but also about how to put food on the table. I don’t know what I’ll do if I stop selling one day and can’t help my parents.”
 
Tatiana Crespín, 24, travels from her home in San Bartolo, Ilopango to sell lingerie at Gerardo Barrios Plaza in San Salvador. It’s a family business, paying for the lives of her parents, too. “My parents are over 60,” she explained. “I go out to sell and they wait for me. I worry about their health, but also about how to put food on the table. I don’t know what I’ll do if I stop selling one day and can’t help my parents.”

 

 

 

Blanca Flamenco, 73, lives in Mariona and sells sewing supplies throughout downtown San Salvador. She makes about $5 every day, covering her basic needs. “I won’t stay home. I live alone because my children are dead and nobody can take care of me,” she said. “Let the people with money stay home. When you’re poor, you have to go to work.”
 
Blanca Flamenco, 73, lives in Mariona and sells sewing supplies throughout downtown San Salvador. She makes about $5 every day, covering her basic needs. “I won’t stay home. I live alone because my children are dead and nobody can take care of me,” she said. “Let the people with money stay home. When you’re poor, you have to go to work.”

 

 

 

Eduardo Tunakalet, 50, travels between his home in Sensuntepeque and different neighborhoods of San Salvador selling hammocks and mats. His sales support his wife and two children. “Staying home leaves me and my family without sustenance. I’ll be careful, but I will always go out to sell,” he stated.
 
Eduardo Tunakalet, 50, travels between his home in Sensuntepeque and different neighborhoods of San Salvador selling hammocks and mats. His sales support his wife and two children. “Staying home leaves me and my family without sustenance. I’ll be careful, but I will always go out to sell,” he stated.

 

 

 

Marta Mejía, 64, lives in Apopa and sells medicine on foot. “I haven’t sold anything here today. You roll the dice on a meal every day,” she said. “Can you imagine what would happen to us if we didn’t go out and sell? They would let us die, because we have no other source of income.”
 
Marta Mejía, 64, lives in Apopa and sells medicine on foot. “I haven’t sold anything here today. You roll the dice on a meal every day,” she said. “Can you imagine what would happen to us if we didn’t go out and sell? They would let us die, because we have no other source of income.”

 

 

 

José Alas, 57, sells candy and cigarettes downtown. He almost always makes $5 per day, $3 of which go to paying for housing. “If I don’t leave home, I can’t work to pay my rent—even worse, I won’t eat. Necessity makes you work,” he said.
 
José Alas, 57, sells candy and cigarettes downtown. He almost always makes $5 per day, $3 of which go to paying for housing. “If I don’t leave home, I can’t work to pay my rent—even worse, I won’t eat. Necessity makes you work,” he said.

 

 

 

Javier Jímenez, 50, is a shoe shiner in Plaza Libertad. On a good day, he makes $10; on a bad day, $5. “If they keep me from working, I’ll raise hell,” he said defiantly. “Nobody will get in my way. In these parts, when people start going hungry, they rise up.”
 
Javier Jímenez, 50, is a shoe shiner in Plaza Libertad. On a good day, he makes $10; on a bad day, $5. “If they keep me from working, I’ll raise hell,” he said defiantly. “Nobody will get in my way. In these parts, when people start going hungry, they rise up.”

 

 

 

*translated by Roman Gressier