L.A.'s Street Vendors Aren't Giving Up the Fight for Food Cart Legalization


In pre-Hispanic times, people from all over Mesoamerica converged on the market of Tlatelolco, located on the site of a present-day neighborhood in Mexico City. Markets have always been a focal point of Mesoamerican trade and gastronomic abundance, as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier in the army of Hernán Cortés, observed in 1519, when he visited what is now Mexico City. Díaz found all manner of basic and luxury goods being sold on the streets of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán — cacao, vanilla, insect eggs, even iguana meat. Today, vendors at tianguis — markets in Mexico — as well as sidewalks in Los Angeles sell a vast array of ceramic cookware, household goods, fruit and prepared foods. These foods also are found on thousands of street corners throughout Mexico and Central America. The vendedores ambulantes, or street vendors, are a vital part of the countries' informal economy. In Mexico City alone, at least 200,000 street vendors try to make a living on the city's sidewalks every day.

You can get tacos de canasta for less than a quarter on the side streets near the Zócalo, the city's main square; little hotcakes with cajeta, or goat milk caramel, on the cobblestone streets of San Ángel; and esquites, boiled corn kernels seasoned with salt, epazote, butter and lime, in Coyoacán.

As scenes from Diego Rivera's famous mural at the National Palace in Mexico City demonstrate, street vending in contemporary Mexico has significant pre-Columbian roots that reflect the rich traditions and resourcefulness of Latino communities on both sides of the border.

The tradition of street vending is one that has traveled with migrants from Mexico and Central America to Los Angeles, as well as other cities throughout the United States. On sidewalks across L.A., street vendors sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs, sliced fruit with chili powder and lime, tacos and paletas (popsicles), as well as clothing and seasonal holiday items. Los Angeles stands out among other American cities because of its sheer number of Latino migrants, and because it remains the only one of 10 major U.S. cities where street vending is illegal. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 vendors sell food at the beaches, parks and sidewalks all over Los Angeles.

The Latino vendors — many of whom are undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants — have suffered decades of discrimination and fines from law enforcement, not to mention extortion from gangs. Police harassment and ticketing continue to be occupational hazards for street vendors. In 2013, for example, police made 1,200 arrests for sidewalk vending.

Recently, with the campaign rhetoric and election of President Donald Trump, the vendors' already precarious situation has become far more critical. L.A.'s city officials have finally recognized the need to legalize and decriminalize street vending in Los Angeles. On Dec. 12, councilmembers Curren D. Price and José Huizar held a hearing at City Hall to begin the legalization process. Hundreds of vendors and their supporters filled the chambers, along with a contingent of small business owners.

"We have to acknowledge that street vending is already a part of Los Angeles' culture and, for thousands of mostly immigrant families, their only source of income," Huizar told L.A. Weekly via email.

Early in 2017, the City Council will hold another meeting to vote on the proposed framework and its amendments. Community organizer Roberto García-Ceballos says that the priority for this meeting is for the City Council "to decriminalize vending right away, given the current political climate of the new presidency."

Throughout his campaign, Trump threatened to deport undocumented immigrants with a criminal record. The election results struck outright panic in the hearts of undocumented immigrants, including many of L.A.'s street vendors, who can be arrested at anytime on criminal misdemeanor charges and — if Trump's threats become reality — threatened with deportation. After years of councilmembers dragging their feet on the issue, it was Trump's election that finally pushed them to act.

"Today, given the background of a Trump presidency and assuming he's going to go after immigrants, there is a renewed energy to move forward and decriminalize vending for one, and adopt a legal framework second," Huizar's office said in a statement to L.A. Weekly.

Why do street vendors continue to hit the pavement despite the risk of fines, police harassment and even imprisonment? Typically, vendors have limited education and most are undocumented; therefore, they have few employment alternatives and need to provide for their families.

Avenue 26 taco stand
Avenue 26 taco stand
Danny Liao

The story of Boyle Heights vendor Caridad Vásquez, a dynamic, warm, almost 60-year-old woman originally from Colima, Mexico, echoes this trend. As a child, she sold tamales on the streets to help her family make ends meet. After marrying her husband in Michoacán, her mother-in-law taught her to prepare different traditional salsas, nopales and other recipes. With the knowledge she gleaned from her mother-in-law, Vásquez prepared and sold food to support her family. In 1995, she came with her husband to the United States. As she tells it, when she arrived she realized she "didn't know how to do anything ... not sew, cut hair, nothing. All [she] knew how to do was be a street vendor," so that's what she did, despite the hazards. Soon after arriving in the United States, she set up a little stand selling enchiladas, but the police stopped her. Later, she reinvented herself as a nighttime vendor of pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and began to frequent the Breed Street area of Boyle Heights, a Big Lots parking lot that became a nighttime market filled with vendors during the peak of the recession. In 2008-09, when the recession hit, many Latinos lost their jobs or saw their incomes cut drastically. As a result, Vásquez and hundreds of other vendors began to sell food — or anything else — to survive. Today, Vásquez serves a selection of tacos, quesadillas and salsas on the sidewalks of Boyle Heights.

For Vásquez, street vending offers a vital form of economic mobility and entrepreneurship. Given the undocumented status of many vendors, they also have limited political clout with politicians, creating another obstacle in the fight for legalization. In her study, Struggles, Urban Citizenship and Belonging: The Experience of Undocumented Street Vendors and Food Truck Owners in Los Angeles, academic Fazila Bhimji found that even though the vendors work outside the formal economy and often lack legal status, street vending allows them to participate in the public sphere. The fight for legalization has given them a sense that they have a voice in their community.

The value of people congregating around a cart on a sidewalk while stopping to buy fruit or a taco as they walk home from work can be easily overlooked, but in low-income Latino neighborhoods these scenes are a vital part of everyday life. Vendors often create a vibrant street culture. More than 100 vendors work downtown on weekends in the area known as the Piñata District — or the Mercado Olympic, as it's informally known. By noon on a Sunday, the sidewalks are teeming with people shopping, eating and socializing.

Boyle Heights beekeeper Amadeo Delgado
Boyle Heights beekeeper Amadeo Delgado
Danny Liao

One of the vendors, Amadeo Delgado, a Boyle Heights beekeeper, has been selling his delicious flavored honey on the sidewalks of downtown's Piñata District on Sunday for the past six years. Delgado had to relocate his stand a few blocks because, quite often, "The city came and took away our things and we had to run away. There was always drama," he says. Now, Delgado rents a sidewalk space from the adjacent piñata warehouse to feel more secure. He thinks the prospect of legalization is "amazing, as it would help us to get money to maintain our families and will create more money for the city of Los Angeles." Delgado estimates that the Piñata District vendors together gross $70,000 to $80,000 each weekend, "even though the government does not accept it." With a wave of his hand, Delgado emphasizes, "All these people you see here vending food, they are hard workers and they contribute to the city."

Another Mercado Olympic vendor, Merced Sanchez, also seemed hopeful about the recent steps at City Hall: "The city doesn't want to see that we are not an economic burden. We have fought hard and knocked on many city councilmembers' doors for years — Huizar, Buscaino, Martinez, Price, even the mayor has received us in his office — but now it seems like finally they are willing to work with us."

Mercado Olympic vendor Merced Sanchez
Mercado Olympic vendor Merced Sanchez
Danny Liao

The city of Los Angeles has not always been so inhospitable to street vendors. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, L.A.'s population soared from 50,000 to 1.2 million. Tamale carts lined the streets of downtown, selling to the new migrants in search of an affordable meal. Yet, as Jeffrey Pilcher observes in his book Planet Taco, these vendors often were reputed to have "deviant sexuality" and were associated with alcoholism, simply because they often clustered around bars, catering to late-night drinkers.

Although street vending was allowed, vendors had to comply with many regulations, and their position was always precarious. When the automobile took over city streets in the 1920s, pedestrian traffic and mobile vendors were pushed onto the alleys and sidewalks. In these public spaces, according to popular culture and newspaper reports of the time, vendors often were accused of perversity, criminality and unsanitary practices. These actions restricted sidewalk activity and made sidewalk vending more challenging.

In later decades, as the city expanded, it became a car-oriented metropolis of freeways, a poor system of public transportation, and pedestrians struggling in an inhospitable environment. The Los Angeles City Council voted in 1974 to ban sidewalk vending throughout the city, but then-mayor Tom Bradley vetoed the ordinance because he was concerned that it would victimize struggling populations. Just as proponents of street-vending legalization argue today, the mayor believed that it was important to "encourage, not discourage, the creation of new small-business enterprises, without which upward mobility on the socioeconomic ladder would become that much more difficult," according to Mark Vallianatos, professor and policy director at Occidental College's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute.

Despite Mayor Bradley's veto, a ban on sidewalk vending was successfully instituted in 1980. At the same time that the selling of street food was banned on Los Angeles' sidewalks, Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants began to pour into the city looking for employment opportunities following an early-'80s economic recession in Mexico and Central America. The spike in migration caused an increased demand for street food from new immigrants for whom it was culturally familiar.

This ban on the underground economy, long a part of the city's public landscape, caused vendors to be seen as criminals and violators of a city ordinance. Many vendors were arrested; some were beaten, and others served jail time. In her street-vendor study, Bhimji writes that their actions were considered misdemeanors and they could serve up to 180 days in jail if convicted of vending, despite earning as little as $20 a day.

The ban turned vending into a political issue and motivated vendors to organize. In 1987, street vendors began meeting to discuss their targeting by the Los Angeles Police Department; the next year they established the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Association of Street Vendors). The association discussed immigration, police harassment and other human rights issues, as well as legalizing vending. Five years later, in 1993, as many as 100 vendors packed a City Council committee meeting to ask the council to set a date for legalization.

Hooper Avenue, downtown L.A.
Hooper Avenue, downtown L.A.
Danny Liao

A year later, the Special Sidewalk Vending District Ordinance was enacted to allow selling in eight designated areas of Los Angeles, as part of a two-year pilot program. Several hundred vendors celebrated their newly legal status, but six months later Robert Lopez of the L.A. Times reported that no vending licenses had been issued and that vendors continued to complain of harassment by LAPD. Lopez reported that vendors were protesting police harassment outside a police station, waving signs that read "Somos vendedores, no criminales" ("We are vendors, not criminals"). In many ways, the city's attempt to impose geographic limits on the practice of vending was a failure. Only one zone was established, and today there are none.

Nearly three decades later, street vending remains a contentious — and illegal — activity in Los Angeles. But over the past few years, community-based organizations have begun to recognize the need for creative solutions to support the vendors. In 2008-09, the vendors' cause was taken up by East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) and Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN), organizations that work on behalf of the Latino residents of East L.A. and Boyle Heights. In 2010, the first vendor community forum to discuss legalization was held. After that, the movement began to build momentum; it began to push the city toward legalization. The groups organized town hall meetings with thousands of vendors around L.A. County to hear their concerns and see how the vendors envisioned the legalization process.

In 2012, ELACC and LURN teamed up with a working group from the Los Angeles Food Policy Council to draft a proposed ordinance for legalization. In November 2013, city councilmembers José Huizar and Curren Price authored a motion to look at legalizing the practice, but they met with resistance from some members of the City Council.

In May 2014, the Chief Legislative Analyst's office recommended that Los Angeles adopt a citywide street-vending program. Since then, more than 60 organizations from different sectors have been working tirelessly with vendors throughout L.A. to make legalization a reality. Together they formed the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, an initiative to legalize food vending on L.A.'s sidewalks.

Leaders of the movement have held large demonstrations at City Hall and have engaged in a social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook. Yet the proposal has been delayed time and time again as different city departments weigh in. During one of the vendors' visits to City Hall in 2014, Spanish-language media captured the plight of Rosa Calderón, a septuagenarian vendor who has no family in the United States and has faced constant arrest and harassment by police. Among other citations, she was last arrested for selling Christmas tree ornaments. Calderón's story inspired UCLA law school students to represent her at her trial after she accumulated seven tickets for violating the ban on street vending. Calderón estimates she earns a mere $15 a day and had no means to pay the hundreds of dollars in tickets. To pay off the debt, the elderly Calderón would have to do 38 hours of labor, an excessive amount of time given her age. Under their professor's supervision, the law students stood with Calderón in court and grilled the police officer who cited her. Still, weeks after the court date, when most of her tickets were dismissed, Calderón was cited again.

With the media attention and interest from City Hall, the movement backing the vendors now had growing support from the public.

Street vendor on Olympic Boulevard
Street vendor on Olympic Boulevard
Danny Liao

As the years passed, the vendors and their supporters became increasingly frustrated with the city leaders' inability to move forward, as well as with their loss of property during crackdowns. During raids, the police confiscate vendors' carts and merchandise and threaten vendors with citation if they do not allow their goods to be taken away. "When the police come, there is panic," street vendor Merced Sanchez explains. "They take everything: tables, tents, merchandise. Sometimes when they come to arrest people who sell bootlegged items, they give everyone tickets that range from $300 to $2,000."

On Oct. 30, 2015, the vendors filed a lawsuit alleging that their constitutional rights had been violated. The vendors and their powerful lawyers, the ACLU and other legal groups, held a news conference outside Los Angeles police headquarters, announcing that they were suing the city of Los Angeles and a local business improvement district in federal court. They say their carts and belongings have been improperly seized, and they were not given a receipt or any opportunity to reclaim their property. The current unregulated system creates a legal limbo and breeds these sorts of violations of constitutional rights.

The proposed framework now under consideration calls for a limit of two vendors per block in commercial districts and requires vendors to obtain permission from adjacent businesses to operate. While the plan is encouraging for vendors, some merchants and their supporters find the restriction of two vendors per block and the veto power of the brick-and-mortar business owners over street vendors to be unfair and illogical. "This newest move is welcomed, and for the most part the proposal for a citywide framework is good," Rudy Espinoza, executive director of LURN, says, "but we have a few concerns. Limiting two vendors per block does not consider the diversity of our city. Some areas should have two per block, and some should not. It's an arbitrary number that doesn't make sense. This is not what capitalism in America is about."

Espinoza says that he also is concerned about the power the proposed framework gives to small business owners because it opens the door for exploitation. It gives business owners the opportunity to say that they are not going to sign unless the vendor pays them to do so. "You can't tell businesses to sign off on vendors," he says. "If I'm a coffee shop owner, there is no law that a Starbucks can't open on my block. It should be the same for vendors; the city must treat people the same or it is unfair."

When questioned about this aspect of the framework, Councilman Huizar's office explained that whole blocks of businesses would not be weighing in; instead, it would be only one business. "The goal is to get something adopted as soon as possible. We need some framework that's going to get us the votes needed for approval."

Street vendors along Olympic Boulevard downtown
Street vendors along Olympic Boulevard downtown
Danny Liao

Why is street vending still illegal in the city with the highest number of vendors of any in the United States? There are numerous reasons that politicians and business owners have been opposed to vending. Some brick-and-mortar businesses oppose the vendors because they say they create congestion on busy sidewalks, interfere with strollers and wheelchairs, leave trash behind and offer unfair competition, since vendors do not pay taxes or rent and can park their carts just outside of restaurants. Yet some businesses also benefit from the increased foot traffic. Others criticize street vendors because they believe they are unsanitary, or they fear that the vendors attract gang activity and violence.

Supporters of the vendors argue that instead of creating crime, the presence of vendors and their clients in dangerous neighborhoods acts as a deterrent for crime and gang activity.

Studies show that business owners and street vendors can coexist. According to a 2015 report from the Economic Roundtable, vendors avoid selling close to retailers who offer similar products. Instead, the report explains that vendors play a complementary role to brick-and-mortar establishments and that brick-and-mortars suffer when vendors leave the neighborhood.

Vendors make financial and cultural contributions to the city. The Sidewalk Stimulus Report estimates that street-food vendors generate more than $100 million annually in income for the Los Angeles economy, and vendor spending sustains 5,234 jobs. Sidewalk merchant Merced Sanchez explains that her own business is interconnected with other immigrant entrepreneurs. "What the city officials don't realize is that at the end of the day we all contribute to the city's economy," Sanchez says. "I buy my merchandise from a Korean vendor, and if I don't go and buy from him, he doesn't make the money for his rent."

According to a fact sheet by the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, it would prove beneficial not only for vendors but also for the city to allow vendors to participate in a proper system of taxation and registration.

Street vending also allows easier access to healthy food in low-income Latino neighborhoods considered food deserts, areas with many corner and liquor stores but few affordable, healthy food options. A 2010 study by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development titled "Street Vending in Boyle Heights: Examining the Challenges and Opportunities" recognized the concerns of community members and local business owners, as well as those of the vendors themselves, while also looking at the positive impact of vending in the area. The study conducted a pedestrian survey that found community members ate frequently from the vendors: 16 percent as often as once a week, 16 percent a few times a week and 20 percent at least once a month.

Vendors at the City Council meeting
Vendors at the City Council meeting
Danny Liao

It is estimated that 25 percent of street carts already sell whole and/or cut fruit and vegetables. Proponents of legalization argue that a permit process would further the selling of healthy food by providing incentives for healthy-food vendors, such as expediting the permit process, offering discounted permits and allowing produce vendors to sell near schools and other restricted areas. Legalization could make it easier for healthy-food vendors to create a needed service in their communities.

The street vendor's way of life is part of what makes L.A. such a Latino landscape, a Mexican and Central American immigrant city dotted with rainbow-colored umbrellas and carts selling sliced fruit, raspados (snow cones) or birria (goat stew) tacos, where undocumented workers can be small business owners who support their families, even if they do so at constant risk of police harassment and fines. The stories of Vasquez, Sanchez and Delgado are part of a larger story of a disenfranchised group trying to use their cultural heritage to make a living. Their stories show that, despite their outsider status, the vendors find empowerment through vending.

And the city is starting to come around. In an email to L.A. Weekly, Councilman Huizar says he is hopeful that the city can move forward with a plan to legalize street vending in the city of Los Angeles, and "regulate this industry and create a system that is fair to all parties."

After decades of struggle, a path to legalized vending is closer to becoming a reality.

This article is adapted from the chapter "Street Food Vendors in Los Angeles" in the book Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles (2016) by Sarah Portnoy.

Street vendors working late at night on York Boulevard in Highland Park
Street vendors working late at night on York Boulevard in Highland Park
Danny Liao

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