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Meanwhile, At the Red Hook Ball Fields: Fuentes Bites Back

Flickr/ChefDaiz

Two weeks back, the Times ran a rather critical story on Caesar Fuentes, the executive director of the Red Hook Ball Fields Vendors Committee. The story suggested, basically, that under Fuentes' leadership, the scene out there in Red Hook has gone from dicey to very dicey—and that Fuentes and his lack of candor with vendors was causing inter-vendor strife. We'll just go ahead and excerpt the relevant bits here:

In the last three weeks, the group's organizer and public face, Cesar Fuentes, resigned as its day-to-day operator, threatened to sue vendors who spoke against him, threatened to quit representing them in city negotiations, then agreed to return, after all the vendors signed a petition on Wednesday avowing their ''total support'' and asking him to stay.

As of yesterday, Mr. Fuentes, 33, a former plantain flipper at his family's stand, said the vendors were united behind him. ''The group needs a leader,'' he said, ''and I'm the leader.''

This week, few of the vendors seem to have any idea what will -- or even should -- come next...

Several vendors said they blamed Mr. Fuentes's publicity efforts for attracting the attention of the city's regulators, something they found particularly annoying because the resultant influx of non-Hispanic customers has been offset by a drop in Latino customers. ''Business is the same,'' Ms. Carrillo said. ''But now there's more problems.''

In response to the story, Fuentes circulated this missive this morning:
To the Editor,

Greetings,

This is a response to an article featured on Friday, Sept. 28th, 2007 in the NY Times Metro section titled 'The Food's Still great, but Success Divides the Vendors.' written by Andy Newman.

While I am grateful to the NYTimes for once again taking interest in our humble operation and publishing such extensive article about us, I feel it is important to clarify some points made by mr. Newman in his piece, which I found to be often misleading of my character and integrity as the executive director of the Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park Inc.

Even though I acknowledge mr. Newman's efforts to portray our internal struggle in a balanced way -even positively pointing out gentrification and popularity as likely causes for our current drama, and the fear and aversion to the inevitable demographic change and public attention brought by this phenomenon being projected by some vendors as blame for what they felt was my doing- I disagree with his interpretation and constant use of an alleged 'threat to sue' statement on my resignation letter to the vendors, and the resulting 'petition that was quickly drafted' and signed by them, apologizing for any misunderstandings and asking me to stay. I fear the implications made by mr. Newman (as it was written and presented in his article) were that I might have forced the vendors to draft and sign a petition out of fear of a lawsuit and not by good will, and that I may be keeping the vendors in the dark about their situation and about how their contributions are spent.

This is the furthest thing from the truth. The petition letter was made and presented by one of the members (Mr. Fernando Martinez) and supported by a majority of concerned vendors before the Wednesday Sept. 26th meeting, before my resignation letter was presented by another member (Mr. Rafael Soler) to the vendors at the meeting. Any one who signed this petition did it willingly, and was not forced into signing because of fear of a potential lawsuit on my part.

To further clarify this 'threat to sue' statement included in my resignation letter (a copy of which I provided mr. Newman in good will at his request), some disgruntled members of the committee were taking advantage of the ongoing media attention given to our affair to make false allegations with the sole intent to damage my public image. The true motives behind their actions were personal, and not representative of the majority of the group. I felt it was important to remind these individuals that anyone who presented a false statement with the intent of damaging another in the public eye, can and would be liable of a offense which could be subject to a costly legal process. If any vendor had sustainable proof and\or reason to back up their statements, then they could support their claim in a court of law and not be afraid of my statement nor feel forced to sign the petition. In essence, if their statements were true, then they had nothing to fear, nor feel pressured to sign a document.

At this meeting (which was held without me), all the members presented their concerns, debated, and came to a resolution. Understanding that I presented my resignation letter to the group for them to accept or decline, it was the choice of any one who signed this petition to be in agreement with my leadership style and management of the committee, and their willingness for me to continue representing them.

I stand by my words (which were cited by mr. Newman) that the vendors needed my leadership in this time of crisis. I also said that I had no desire in continuing my leadership if the majority of the vendors felt I was doing a poor job or abusing them in any way. I encouraged (in my resignation letter)the formation of a new group to those who felt they could do a better job than I did. I even expressed my willingness (in the letter) to help this new group or leader as an advisor of good will, so that the vendors could have a fighting chance in this struggle. Even though mr. Newman did mention my ultimate concern (for the group to survive) at the end of his article, I was dissapointed to find that this information -which could have at least counterbalanced the 'threat to sue' part- was not cited or included in the article.

Mr. Newman called me on Monday, October 8th to ask for my opinion on the article. When asked about his misinterpretation of my resignation letter(which was written in Spanish), he simply told me that it was the way it was translated and presented to him.

I represent a comittee of 13 members who own and operate the food stands. I keep clear accounts & records, an open book policy, and hold regular meetings -at least 6 so far this season- where important information relevant to our affair is openly shared and discussed with them. I have prepared and provided a hard copy budget summary and meeting agendas (for every meeting we've had) to all the members & also keep copies for my records. Ricardo Ramirez -who mr. Newman quoted twice, and who made incriminating demands such as ' we want to know where the money goes' and alleged that 'I get mad' when I'm asked about such things- is an assistant to one of the members. He has never attended one of our meetings. I do not know him personally nor have I held a conversation with him once. The information mr. Ramirez demanded is only exclusive to the members of the committe, who are the only ones that have any business asking such questions and the only ones I'm responsible to inform. As I already present and distribute this information to the members openly, there is no reason for me to be upset or mad at anyone -including mr. Ramirez.

At the end of the day, the group held together.
Just like in any family, there will be disputes or differences of opinion, and our group is a family bonded together by trade, by culture, and by love of a common place -Red Hook park. What really matters to the vendors in the end is not money, but losing something that cost so much to so many. A little piece of the american dream found in a remote corner of a Brooklyn parkland.

My leadership has been a human leadership, one marked by victories and errors. Some things I'm proud of, some I would change. I polished myself as a leader with time and by trial and error as my only mentors. I'm proud of my humble beginnings as a 'plantain flipper'(as mr. Newman illustrated), an assistant in my family's stand. To have picked up garbage in the park well past midnight so that the vendors would pass inspections. To be a leader who helped transform a modest group of artisan food vendors to an incorporated, organized, and respected group with a board of directors and a designated manager that could survive without me. Im proud to have become their voice, their impersonation and their most fervent advocate.

I respect mr. Newman's dedication and attempt to present an article that favors no particular side. I specially agree with the header\title of the article. I thank him for his time, effort and energy spent writing this piece. Also, for his calls, emails, follow-ups, and honesty in advising me of how his story was taking a turn as deadlines were looming. I have a clear understanding of a journalist's commitment to portray a news story in as objective way as possible to the public. I also know that questionable sources, lack of sufficient information about and\or proper accessibility to target group due to language or cultural problems, and time itself are threats to objectivity. I do not resent mr. Newman personally for what he wrote nor feel that he intended to portray information in his article in a malicious way. However, I would have wished he spent more time talking to all the vendors -not just some vendors and some assistants- but all 13 members of the committe I represent, which he did not. I also wish that he would have asked me for a copy of our budget report and\or meeting agendas, as he did for my resignation letter. I would have gladfully shared it with him. Perhaps these hard copy records would have clarified things more and add an appropriate counter-balance to the allegations cited in his article. Perhaps more time and all my wishes manifested would have made this article less controversial.

I do resent the fact mr. Newman's original approach to me about his article was to make 'a profile' of myself for the NYTimes, and that a well known and respected food writer, Dr. Josh Karant -who has done extensive research and coverage on all the food vendors- was tapped and interviewed for this story, and who had positive things to say about me and my work with the food vendors was never cited in his article. I also resent the fact that my honesty in providing a balanced account of our situation made mr. Newman turn his article less a 'profile' of my work and more an investigative report of it.

As our struggle continues, we remain united as a group -our future still unknown. One thing we are certain of -more difficult challenges await. Sadly, mr. Newman's article about our internal affairs has done more damage than good: It cast a shadow of doubt and uncertainty on our affair & its leader before the public eye, weakening and dividing our support base, and it has made my work more difficult -not only do I have to continue figthing for the preservation of our affair, but now I have to start fighting to preserve my integrity and credibility before the public eye as well.

Sincerely,

Cesar Fuentes
Executive Director
Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park Inc.
PO Box 48
New York, NY 10159
http://www.myspace.com/redhookfoodvendors

We're going to leave the color on this one to Cutlets and Levine, but there you have it. Red Hook Ball Fields shitshow, part XXIV.
· The Food's Still Great, but Success Divides the Vendors [NYT]
· EaterWire Summer Friday Edition: Ball Fields Safe Until October [~E~]
· DOH Uncharacteristically Soft on Red Hook Ball Fields, Yellow Sticker Unlikely [~E~]

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