New York Food Delivery Workers, Neglected in Life, Honored in Death

After the marching band packed up its instruments, Sergio Solano and two other food delivery men walked on white bicycles to an overpass within sight of the United Nations headquarters.

A work colleague, or compañero, as they call each other, meaning “partner” had died less than two weeks earlier in September in another bicycle accident on the streets of Manhattan. Delivering food has proven to be a deadly activity for many of them. Riding their bikes at all hours, they are hit by cars, are at constant risk of having accidents and falling prey to crime.

The spray-painted bike paid homage to Félix Patricio Teófilo, a Mexican immigrant who, like them, made his living by pedaling to deliver food. They chained him to the metal railing near the intersection of 47th Street and First Avenue, where he met his end.

With this solemn march in the drizzle, Mr. Solano, 39, adjourned an evening of mourning, accomplishing what he considers a mission: to shine a light in death on lives relegated to the shadows.

“We never thought we would have vigils,” Mr. Solano said. “That was never our goal.”

A little over three years ago, Mr. Solano and his relatives who are also delivery drivers started “El Diario de Los Deliveryboys in La Gran Manzana”, which translates to “The Journal of Delivery Drivers of the Big Apple”, a Facebook page with both practical and informative objectives.

The page would act as an online support network, a place to alert bike thefts, road accidents and discriminatory encounters reported by Spanish-speaking immigrants who brave the urban frenzy to satisfy takeout cravings from a New Yorker.

Along the way, he would recount the twists and turns of the job.

Soon after the page was opened, it became clear to Mr. Solano that the project would tell a bigger story: Compañeros regularly die on the job.

More than 40 people have died since the page went online at the end of 2020, according to Mr. Solano’s latest count.

In Mr. Patricio’s case, he hit his head on a curb without a helmet in a solo collision.

Food delivery workers were celebrated for a brief period in New York, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced life indoors and their services became essential.

Delivery apps provided a viable income for those who had been laid off or had their hours reduced, as well as those whose immigration status made it difficult to obtain government assistance.

As the pandemic progressed, the dangers of this in-demand job became stark. Activists formed unions and pushed for better wages and protections, an effort that continued through 2023. Under pressure, the city set a higher minimum wage for app-based delivery workers, at starting from around $18 an hour in October.

Yet the risk for many workers goes beyond wages. On the Deliveryboys page, a flood of photos bear the names and faces of the victims.

Most of them are immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala who are part of a cavalry estimated at 65,000 food delivery workers in New York.

This profession has become one of the deadliest.

A city ​​report published in November 2022 said the mortality rate among food delivery workers who do not use cars was 36 deaths per 100,000 thousand workers between January 2021 and June 2022. This rate exceeded that of construction workers (seven deaths per 100,000 ), which was historically the deadliest industry.

Funerals, wakes, anniversaries and requiems were organized, raised funds and digitally remembered by the community by the eponymous newspaper.

Many died in road accidents while on the job. Some deaths are not work-related. Others, like Francisco Villalva, were assassinated.

In March 2021, an attacker attacking Mr. Villalva’s bicycle shot him in a park near 108th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. Mr. Villalva, from Xalpatlahuac, Guerrero, in southwest Mexico, was 29 years old.

Two days later, the page live video broadcast from the scene of the murder, calling on others to support the family. The relatives appearing in the video spoke both Spanish and Nahuatl, an indigenous language spoken in parts of Mexico. (To date, the video has been viewed more than 132,000 times.) They also demanded justice.

“Unfortunately, another compañero lost his life doing this work,” César Solano, Mr. Solano’s nephew and also an administrator of the page, said in Spanish, recounting the news with the rhythm of a television journalist.

The number of followers on the Deliveryboys page increased from hundreds to thousands, giving the platform a certain mobilizing power.

“For almost a month we demonstrated,” said Sergio Solano. “We kept vigil after vigil after vigil. People would come and offer to donate food or provide live music. Every day we did something, a ton of people would come.

Mr. Villalva’s death galvanized the community. Companions have suspended their delivery apps to attend the events. A Catholic priest was brought in to lead the prayers. Family and friends organized the food. Others picked up instruments.

A group wrote to Mr. Villalva his own corridoa Mexican folk ballad, recounting his journey to New York until its disturbing end.

The killer, identified as Douglas Young, was arrested and ultimately convicted of murder. In April, Mr. Young, a 41-year-old man from Queens, was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison in a state prison.

Since Mr. Villalva’s death, the page has helped ensure that every fallen compañero receives a memento – a practice that has become almost ritual, recalling farewells to police officers killed in the line of duty.

It’s the loved ones who bear the brunt of the organization, Sergio Solano said, but the page, which has 51,000 followers, gets people out.

During Mr. Patricio’s vigil, César Solano, 22, livestreamed the group’s truncated sidewalk performance. Police officers who received a noise complaint gave them 10 minutes to play their tribute.

Under a makeshift awning, dozens of unshelled pork tamales, sipped with piña atole (a pineapple flavored corn drink) and pozole steaming in fragile foam bowls, respecting every sorrowful note: a folkloric rendition of Chopin’s “Funeral March” and traditional Mexican funeral songs such as “Te vas ángel mío” (“You’re leaving my angel”).

Mr. Patricio’s sister, Jovita Patricio, buried her face in a friend’s chest. A tear opened her reddened cheek. Behind her, the candlelight caressed the portrait of her brother, surrounded by flowers. He was her only relative in New York.

The video stream of the group’s performance attracted thousands of views. One of the musicians, Edgar Cano, had at one time worked with Mr. Patricio in a restaurant, and they were both from the same area of ​​Guerrero.

“You never know. Today or tomorrow another friend may drop by,” Mr. Cano said in Spanish, his sombrero casting a shadow over his eyes.

Some find the page’s exhaustive messages invasive.

But Sergio Solano said the page’s focus and tributes honored fallen delivery workers with “one last goodbye” and gave loved ones a chance to grieve from a distance. “If they loved and adored him at home, we show that he was loved and adored here too,” he said in Spanish.

In some cases, the page broadcasts live video of the arrival of a compañero’s body in their pueblo. The return of Mr. Villalva, for example, was broadcast live.

Last summer, when 28-year-old Eduardo Valencia was killed in an accident while working, his story also became the focus of the Deliveryboys page.

Mr. Valencia had come to the city from Guerrero when he was a teenager, said his mother, Guadalupe Nepomuceno. Her dream was to save enough to live comfortably in her hometown, she said.

“He wanted to build his house, go back to Mexico and never return to New York,” Ms. Nepomuceno said in Spanish.

But Mr. Valencia’s return would take place in a coffin.

Ms. Nepomuceno, who lives in New York, was unable to attend her son’s funeral and said her final goodbyes from a small digital screen more than 3,000 kilometers away.

These efforts serve as recognition of people who are often overlooked, said Sergio Solano.

“In the eyes of society, they don’t exist,” he said. “They begin to exist when we begin to give them visibility. »

As urban life returns to its pre-pandemic rhythms, Mr. Solano added, food delivery workers have taken a back seat.

Plant a “ghost bike,” as cyclist memorials are called, where a compañero is located death is a way to tell the story of the contributions of delivery people and the ultimate price some pay.

With Mr. Patricio’s memorial secured, Mr. Solano and two compañeros donned helmets, got on bikes and crept toward the intersection. They looked on both sides for passing cars.

It was seven forty on a Monday evening. It’s time to get to work.