The past week has seen Benjamín Ramírez, a soft-spoken street vendor who sells Mexican elotes and shaved ice from a pushcart in Hollywood, turn into a viral video sensation. Some say he is L.A.'s newest folk hero.
On July 17, Ramírez was standing beside his cart at the corner of Romaine and El Centro Streets in Hollywood when an Argentine man who was out walking his dog accosted the elote vendor about supposedly blocking the sidewalk. The bearded man in a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt was a familiar antagonist to Ramírez. "He’s said things before," Ramírez says. "Telling me I couldn’t sell here or block the sidewalk, and that I didn’t have permits to sell. I ignored him and left."
This time, Ramírez says, he started filming the man's complaints with his cellphone. On the video, Ramírez tells the man there is enough room for him to pass, to which the man responds with an ultimatum in Spanish: "Move the cart or I’ll move it for you."
If you’re one of the 8.8 million viewers of the video since Ramirez's mother uploaded it to Facebook on July 24, you know what happens next: Ramírez stands his ground, the man hands the dog leash to a woman accompanying him, and he moves on the elote vendor brandishing what Ramírez says he believes was a stun gun. In self-defense, Ramírez tosses chili powder at the man and continues filming as the man, in a rage, seizes hold of the cart and overturns it. The cart spills utensils, coolers and food items — including plenty of fresh ears of corn — onto the sidewalk and into Romaine Street.
Ramírez’s ability to think on his feet, his presence of mind to continue filming the assault and, above all, his neutralizing the would-be assailant with, of all things, chili pepper — that symbol and staple of Mexican cuisine — elevated "the EveryHombre" into a hero, according to OC Weekly editor and columnist Gustavo Arellano.
Since the video was uploaded, Ramírez's folk-hero status has grown both online and IRL.
He has appeared at two public rallies organized by supporters of street vendors and foes of the displacement wrought by gentrification. A GoFundMe page set up to compensate Ramírez for the damage to his cart and loss of supplies has raised more than $8,000. Ramírez appeared at a Boyle Heights fundraiser on Thursday and on Friday he was a guest of honor at a concert held at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park, where he met members of the band Los Lobos. His mother, Imelda Reyes, says she lost count of how many times people asked to take selfies with her son. “One of the members of Los Lobos told him, ‘You’re more famous than we are,'” Reyes says.
Last week, a Spanish-language radio station raffled off tickets to Disneyland as part of a promotional event with Ramírez held at the corner where his cart was dumped. The station had the cart hauled to the corner from Ramírez’s home, replete with its selection of flavored syrups, diced fruit and a solid block of ice. Customers flocked to the corner. Some brought Mexican or American flags, others double-parked and many formed a line for shaved ice that stretched around the block for hours. Ramírez says he even ran out of ice twice.
The same program, El Show del Mandril, surprised Ramírez on the air with the news that the station had hired a lawyer for him to pursue the vandalism charge against the man in the video. The lawyer would also help him to apply for a green card. “They made me cry,” Ramírez says. “It was the greatest news of my life.”
Ramírez was also a guest on Univision's morning radio program El Bueno, La Mala y El Feo. A famous Mexican singer-songwriter named Noel Torres was so moved by Ramírez's story that he donated a wad of bills out of his wallet on the air. Torres told Ramírez he had once made his living as a street vendor.
Musicians and artists of all kinds have used the video as inspiration.
Ramírez’s father Alex was modeling a newly made baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of a street vendor’s cart between two giant ears of corn with the slogan taken from Ramírez’s comment from viral video: “Me vale madre! De aquí no me muevo,” or “I don’t give a damn. I’m not moving from here.” Alex was selling the hats from his cart at $15 a pop and they sold out in less than a day. He says a shipment of graphic T-shirts is on the way.
If it’s true that every good hero should have some theme music, well, Ramírez has recently had two Mexican-style corrido folk songs dedicated to him.
"El Corrido de Benjamín Ramírez 'El Elotero'" is written and performed by The Mexican Standoff, an L.A.-based music group composed of musicians from Mexico and the United States. Ramírez and his father appear in the music video made for the song. "The whole idea of the band is stop racism, stop all this bullshit that's going on right now," says Fernández, the single-named performer on the track.
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Another corrido for Ramírez, "El Elotero y el Argentino," was recorded by Mexican composer and radio producer El Morro. Both songs recount the events in the video and sprinkle in some words from Argentine slang to ridicule the assailant.
On Sunday afternoon, Ramírez's father served shaved ices and elotes to a steady crowd. Many of the residents of the neighborhood teased him in a good-natured way about his and his son's newfound fame. "Now that you're famous, make a special offer," one man said, "buy two elotes and get a free photo with the elote man."
Gastón Sánchez came to L.A. from San Diego for the annual Johnny Ramone Tribute at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and visited the corner to buy snacks with his family. Sánchez says his wife investigated online and figured out the location of the corner where the elote cart was flipped, and they came to see if they could find it. When they arrived, they embraced Alex Ramírez and expressed their support — and bought elotes and other snacks.
"It's a disgrace to see how someone could treat another human that way," Sánchez says. "Especially with his livelihood. How dare someone do that."