En español | It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday when Alejandro Juarez makes his way to the corner of 73rd Street and Roosevelt Avenue in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York. There, the Mexican immigrant finds others like himself—day laborers, scores of them, who these days more often than not go without work and, consequently, without the money to buy food. So every night they gather at this corner for one of the few things they can always count on: a hot meal delivered by Jorge Muñoz.
By day Muñoz, an immigrant from Colombia, drives a school bus; at night, these workers will tell you, he does the work of an angel.
For five years, Muñoz, 45, has brought the men meals seven days a week. They are meals that his mother and sister used to cook and that now others help prepare.
"You can go a day or more without eating if nobody hires you, and that has been happening more and more to laborers like us in this economy," says Juarez, 38, as Muñoz hands out Styrofoam containers stuffed with that evening’s meal—rice, lentils, and sausages—to the long line of men. "What he does is a godsend because at least I know that I will not go to sleep hungry.
Muñoz has garnered national attention for his good deed. This year, he was featured in CNN’s weekly “Heroes” segment, which selects from nominations worldwide to honor “ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things” to help others. Shortly after, the New York Knickerbockers honored Muñoz during a break at a game at Madison Square Garden with their monthly Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award, which came with a $2,000 check for his nonprofit, aptly named An Angel in Queens. And in August Muñoz appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, which also made a contribution to his organization.
"God gives everyone a mission," Muñoz says in his rapid-fire Spanish. "It’s our decision to accept the mission or not. This is God’s mission for me, to feed these people. To see the look on their faces, the smiles, when I put food in their hands—it’s a great feeling.
"Muñoz estimates that he has served more than 70,000 meals since 2004, when a few Colombian friends who worked for restaurants and food-related businesses told him, bewildered, about food they saw their employers throw out daily. Coincidentally, Muñoz stopped one day to speak to some day laborers, among them compatriots from his homeland, and learned some often went hungry. He thought that the least that he could do—although he also was struggling to make ends meet with his bus driver salary of $600 a week in an expensive city—was to somehow redirect the leftovers to the laborers.
"I talked to some of the business owners and workers about giving the food to me instead of discarding it," he says. "They said fine, as long as they could remain anonymous."
At first he brought about a dozen brown bags of food filled with snacks and a beverage to the immigrants gathered at the corner hoping a contractor would hire them for a day or more. But the crowd waiting for Muñoz’s meals swelled, from a dozen, then to two dozen, and now to some 130 on many nights.
"Two married couples also help at least once a week. Davida Webb, 66, cooks chicken for 70 people, and her husband Joel, 66, helps Muñoz distribute the food on the corner. They first thought of donating money until, Davida Weber says, she stopped by the corner one day and saw hunger like she never had felt—or seen—before.
"The intensity of need I saw encouraged me to go back with food," says Davida, a retired high school teacher. "Jorge is very intense about what he does for these men. He’s very generous and very humble. He interacts with them, sometimes making jokes as he gives them food. He has so many qualities that we admire.
"Another couple asked Muñoz what he’d most like them to donate. He told them he wanted to ease the heavy burden of daily cooking on his mother, who is 68 and struggles with arthritis and osteoporosis. So the couple hired a woman who now does most of the cooking. Zapata still lends a hand, planning the weekly menus and supervising the preparation.
"My mother is my inspiration," Muñoz says. "She always told us to share, even if we had one toy, one piece of bread. She said if you have something, share it with someone who has nothing.
"Zapata, who left Colombia in the 1980s in search of a better life for her children after she was widowed, gets emotional upon hearing how her son describes her influence on him. "I’m very proud of my son," Zapata says. "I’ve always shared everything; in my mind, I’m not the sole owner of anything. Today it’s these poor people on the corner who are in need. Tomorrow it can be any of us."
Clearly, Muñoz says, brown bags of donated snacks weren’t enough. He and his mother, Doris Zapata, and sister, Luz, joined together to provide the immigrants hot meals every night. After work, around 5 p.m., Muñoz would buy the ingredients and pick up food donations. Zapata and Luz, both of whom lived with Muñoz in an apartment in Queens, would cook. Then Muñoz would deliver the meals.
Muñoz’s apartment has turned into a storage facility. Food donated and bought in bulk takes up considerable space, and extra freezers and refrigerators hold perishable items. Donations—both monetary and food—ebb and flow, Muñoz says, sometimes making it harder to carry on, but never impossible. Muñoz often has used half his weekly salary to cover the cost of gas, ingredients, packaging material, and serving implements."
After CNN did the segment on what I do, there was a burst of donations," he says. "But that dried up. Then you’ll get more, and it stops. It’s not a steady stream that I can count on." Muñoz, though, focuses on the help he does get and speaks with near glee about it.
He mentions the former day laborers who have found steady work and now help prepare and distribute meals on the corner where they once stood waiting for Muñoz every night.
"I was like them," recalls Fausto Castillo, a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant, as he helps Muñoz hand out iced tea and meals. "I got laid off last winter, I couldn’t pay rent, and I was out on the street, homeless, for about a week. I heard about him, that you could come here and eat. He helped me find work, and now I’m making it and want to help—I help with the cooking, too, sometimes—because I know the suffering, the desperation.