Cut mangoes, fried wheat crisps and a palette of spicy sauces made up much of Silvestre Rafaela-Ciriaco’s neatly organized food cart.
He pushes his mobile goodie store around different spots on campus throughout the day, making sure every student is aware of his presence.
The San Jose resident built his Mexican delicacy business into a side shop for San Jose State students looking for ethnic food outside of the university’s current options.
“It’s been about 10 years since I decided to walk across campus,” said Rafaela-Ciriaco.
He was a native of the Mexican city, Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero, and arrived in San Jose with one goal in mind – to find a better job.
English junior Oner Silva said that the food cart is a great way for Rafaela-Ciriaco to sell his delicacies on campus.
“I’m not against [Rafaela-Ciriaco coming to campus], we all need to make our money somehow, somewhere,” said Silva.
As one of the oldest in a family of 10 children, Rafaela-Ciriaco was forced by his parents to leave school at the age of eight and find ways to help his family survive financially.
However, the lack of jobs and rising cost of food sparked his journey to pursue more fruitful opportunities in the United States. He vowed, that after finding employment, he would send money back to the family he had to leave behind.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Rafaela-Ciriaco positions himself on the edges of walkways surrounded by heavy foot traffic. Among his favorite pots include the bench area just outside of the Student Union West entrance.
With endearing emotion, he recalled his very first time selling his snacks on campus.
One day, he was walking the streets around campus with his cart when he turned and saw a big group of students.
“I decided to stop and try to sell, since then I haven’t moved,” he said.
But being an unlicensed vendor on a populated university campus set his career off on a rocky start.
“During my first years selling on campus, I would be kicked out by the police or campus security,” said Rafaela-Ciriaco.
According to SJSU’s policy and guidelines, unlicensed vendors are not allowed to sell products on campus.
Rafaela-Ciriaco continued, “One day, they even took away my traveling stall and fined me.”
He recalled a time where he was not able to sell any delicacies because of the lower number of Latino students on campus.
According to him, not many of the other students were even familiar with the food he had prepared.
“Not many students knew what I was selling, nobody would come by [my cart],” said Rafaela-Ciriaco.
Latino students made up only 16 percent of the SJSU student body in fall 2008, compared to 26 percent in fall 2018, according to student enrollment data.
Rafaela-Ciriaco’s steady popularity allowed him to adapt easily to the expanding world of digital currency.
“A lot of students would come by and ask if I took Venmo, at first I didn’t know what it was, but then they explained to me,” he said. “Most students don’t carry cash, I’m getting my bank account soon.”
Although everything has been going great for Rafaela-Ciriaco, just like any other business, there are good and bad days.
“Students like to be healthy, they mostly buy cucumber and mango,” he said. “The duros sell good, but they’re not as popular among students,” he added.
On a bad day, Rafaela-Ciriaco carries his products off campus to sell in the streets downtown, finishing his day at around 8 p.m.
He works only one job, yet the income is enough to sustain himself and support his parents and siblings still living in Acapulco.
“I don’t have any family here,” he said. “The few people I’ve met here are my only friends,” he added.
On campus, Rafaela-Ciriaco’s consumers have become his friends.
“I like coming to campus because I feel safe and students and professors treat me well,” he said.
Lyzette Guzman, a graduate student in English, acknowledges non-Latino students who consume from Rafaela-Ciriaco and try to speak Spanish to him.
“It’s awesome that they appreciate it and that they acknowledge the fact that [Rafaela-Ciriaco] is here selling his goods,” said Guzman.
Silva said, “I love how we [Latinos] have influence on other non-Latino students.”