Joel Cervantes Macias says he took this now-famous picture of the 89-year-old popsicle vendor because he saw an “elderly man struggling to push his paleta cart.”
“I respect this man to the fullest,” Cervantes wrote when he posted the picture on Facebook.
Response to the photo led to a GoFundMe crowdfund campaign, which has already raised more than $320,000 in retirement funds and made don Fidencio Sánchez the darling of the internet.
At a time when Donald Trump is calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists, the image of this hard-working Mexican immigrant has become a defiant symbol that challenges hateful stereotypes. The photo also seems to remind people of someone they know, creating an emotional bond that has inspired 15,000 people to donate money to the cause.
But the feel-good story of the month actually speaks to an unpleasant reality: Many aging Latinos don’t have enough money saved for retirement.
Don Fidencio has been pushing his paletas cart up and down the streets of Chicago for the past 23 years. He takes pride in his work, and says he enjoys being outside. But he also told CNN that his body is starting to give out.
“I need to work to pay bills, to pay rent, to buy food,” Sánchez told CNN in Spanish. “And that’s what makes me work.”
He says he plans to keep working for now, but acknowledges that he can’t keep it up forever and says he’s “grateful” that the money he’s getting will allow him to “stop working soon.”
Retirement is a scary and seemingly elusive prospect for many working Americans. You’re never too young to start saving money for retirement. But even the best savings plans can still be outlived as retirees live longer and healthcare gets more expensive, especially in old age.
Further complicating the matter is that young people ages 18-34 are constantly reminded that their generation could make less money than their parents did, and social security could be drained before they reach retirement age.
But perhaps no other group is feeling the looming burden of retirement more than Latinos. For them, the future retirement crisis is already happening.
“The system that is now broken for everyone else has always been broken for Hispanics, and it’s just getting worse for them,” said Monique Morrissey, an economist at Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that researches the impact of economic trends and policies in the United States.
According to a study by the EPI, only 26% of Hispanic families have retirement account savings, compared to 65% of white non-Hispanic families and 41% of black families.
Many older Latinos can never fully retire because they don’t have the savings to do so, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute.
Chicago’s most famous paletero has not talked about his immigration status publicly, but in general the financial security for undocumented immigrants is even more dismal than it is for U.S. born Latinos and immigrants who have legal authorization to live and work here.
While the great majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are working age, there is thought to be some 550,000 undocumented immigrants here over the age of 65, according to Mark Hugo Lopez at the Pew Research Center.
One-fifth of adult undocumented immigrants lives in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. And folks who are struggling to put food on the table every night are not usually saving for retirement.
“Street vendors are living day to day,” said Martin Unzueta, executive director of Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights, a group that works with street vendors. “There are some street vendors who have social security cards, but that doesn’t mean they can send money [for retirement] to the Social Security Administration.”
Unzueta said most street vendors in Chicago are immigrants over the age of 50, and most are unlikely to make enough money to put any away for retirement.
Remittances are another factor that cuts into savings. Many Latino immigrants regularly send extra money to family members back home, which makes it even harder for them to save for themselves.
But remittances alone aren’t to blame. In many cases Latinos with no retirement savings are just simply victims of having less income, less inherited wealth, and less access to higher education.
“We have a retirement systems that exacerbates income and wealth inequalities,” said Morrissey.
So the folks who are best off economically—college educated, white, married, upper middle class Americans— also tend to be in ones who are in the best shape for retirement.
Street vendors are not in that group.
Unzueta, of the Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights group, said paleteros like Fidencio Sánchez can make up to $100 a day during the summer months. But that’s working eight to ten hours a shift.
“We talk about retirement for street vendors, but at this point no hemos hecho nada,” Unzueta told Fusion. He says unlicensed Chicago street vendors face much more immediate labor concerns than retirement.
Don Fidencio may be the most recognized paletero in Chicago these days, but there are hundreds more in the windy city working in similar circumstances. The city has issued 208 mobile food licenses for the sales of packaged frozen desserts from a non-motorized cart, like the one don Fidencio pushes around.
The Mexican popsicle vendor says he plans to give away some of his new money to other people in need, but one GoFundMe campaign isn’t enough to fix a systemic problem. It can, however, draw attention to the bigger issue.
There are many more aging men and women like don Fidencio pushing their carts across the country and wondering if their health will give out before their savings. They are also millions of aging Latino housekeepers, caretakers, babysitters and street vendors who don’t have any nest egg. And as the population of younger Latinos gets older, it’s a problem that will multiply in the future.
“We want people to work until they’re 89, but only if they enjoy it,” said Morrissey, the economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “We want it to be a choice and not a decision born out of desperation.”