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How Facebook became a lifeline for immigrant bike messengers

‘We are delivery boys who want to raise our voices’

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Illustration by Ari Liloan for The Verge

It was a Monday night in June when César Solano Catalán heard that two of his fellow delivery cyclists had been robbed on the Willis Avenue Bridge, a thousand meters of trussed pavement running from Harlem to the Bronx. 

At 10:45PM, one of the couriers sent a message to El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana (The Diary of the Delivery Boys in the Big Apple), a Facebook page that Solano operates with five of his uncles. The message urged fellow delivery workers to take precautions when crossing the bridge since two bikes had been stolen that same night. As Solano finished dinner with his uncles, he sent messages to the workers’ group chat and gathered a group to arrive at the bridge. Together, they escorted their compañeros across the bridge and helped them deliver their orders safely. That night, Solano and other delivery workers undertook the work the NYPD is not doing.

Food delivery workers in NYC have become part of a growing labor movement of gig workers. They’re demanding strong security protocols to respond to violence and theft of electric bikes; better safety protections; support when they are injured; and access to restrooms in restaurants or public facilities. And parts of that movement are playing out on pages like Solano’s, which use social media as a springboard for in-person collective action.

“We publish whatever is related to us.”

Solano created El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana in November 2020 after two food delivery cyclists were killed on the road. The page documents the issues that immigrant delivery workers face in New York, and sheds light on the structural inequities that impact their lives. With over 25,000 followers, El Diario has become a community space for delivery workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America, to report assaults and robberies, honor those who have been killed on the job, and amplify their fight for safety and dignity. 

“This page has several purposes: to support colleagues like us without asking for anything in return, whether in a vigil, accident, or robbery. We publish whatever is related to us,” explains Solano, who left his town of San Juan Puerto Montaña, located in the High Mountain region of Guerrero in southern Mexico, at the age of 17. “There are other pages that existed before us, but they were linked to certain groups or nationalities. But we do not have any flag, color, country, or race. We are only helping.” The term diary helps describe the mission, says Solano. “It is called like that so that you can see what food delivery workers go through every day.”

According to the advocacy organization New American Economy, almost 1 in 3 food delivery workers in New York State are undocumented. Economic hardships and rising unemployment keep pushing immigrants to food apps, which are being recommended by word of mouth. If they hear about a relative or member of their community who has lost their job, Solano explains, they recommend the least worst app. 

“Your tire goes flat, your bike is stolen, they don’t answer for us. Because we are independent workers.”

Solano had been working double shifts as a busboy in Manhattan since arriving in the US, while also working for delivery services like DoorDash to earn extra cash and pay off his crossing debt. When the pandemic began, he was laid off from the restaurant and moved to food delivery full-time, signing up for the Relay delivery app because of its secure hourly rate.

“I am working with food apps because I don’t have a boss and I have flexible hours. I can rest whenever I can. That’s one of the advantages that applications give you,” says Solano. “But there are other times that apps do not understand you. Your tire goes flat, your bike is stolen, they don’t answer for us. Because we are independent workers.”

Before delivering food full-time, Solano’s electric bicycle was stolen, and the average cost for one can go from $1,500 to over $4000. He felt powerless and isolated, with no means to recover it and without someone to go to for guidance.

“It’s dangerous ... It’s like going to war without weapons.”

“You just filed a report with the police, and the police tells you here’s the report and that’s it. They say they will call when they have something, but they never called me. The same happened to my uncle and other acquaintances,” affirms Solano, who also created another popular Facebook page that promotes the preservation of his native language, Tlapanec, and highlights the customs of the Meꞌphaa people.

Amid a system that silences and erases marginalized voices, El Diario, along with their Telegram and WhatsApp groups, has been key in organizing a community-led strategy that answers directly to the impacted communities. Every time an e-bike is stolen, a delivery worker now knows where to reach out for help. If the bicycle still has a tracker, a group of three to five members goes to look for it. Or they publish a photo on the Facebook page, alerting the members to pay attention in case someone tries to sell the stolen bike. If so, again, they organize and go as a team to recover it. 

“I have participated in the recovery of five bicycles. What makes me most happy is seeing a compañero with his recovered bike,” says Solano. “It’s dangerous. We go without weapons, knife, or razor when going to retrieve a bicycle. It’s like going to war without weapons. As undocumented immigrants, we do not have that right or that facility to carry a weapon as self-defense.”

The Willis Avenue Bridge, a key route for many delivery workers, has seen repeated assaults and robberies. In March, 29-year-old Francisco Villalva Vitinio, a delivery worker also from Guerrero, was shot and killed near the bridge when he refused to give his e-bike to a robber. While they wait for the NYPD to increase security measures, Solano says, they will continue to protect themselves. Every night since June 14th, they’ve been taking turns watching over their colleagues as they cross the bridge en route to a delivery. 

“We have been there almost a month and the police have never come to accompany us. During the day they are there issuing tickets, but at night they aren’t. What we’re going through is awful,” adds Solano.

With every live stream of a vigil to demand justice for their killed compañeros, or of a night spent protecting fellow workers despite long workdays, El Diario not only earns new followers, but also positions itself as a digital space that houses a growing community movement. A movimiento led by workers who are carving out a space in a country that continues to deny their right to exist. 

“We are not an organization,” explains Solano. “We are delivery boys who want to raise our voices. We demand results and progress. We are food delivery workers and want to come together.”