By Erin Sweeney
If you ask any nativo Angeleno about what makes their city so vibrant, you’ll hear everything from its international film industry to the beautiful coastline. However, there is one particular occupation that, while under recognised, is essential to Los Angeles culture: Street vendors. It is impossible to walk more than a few blocks without encountering a stand that could sell anything from fresh fruit to hand sewn garments. This week, I took to the streets to explore what these entrepreneurs had to offer.
After a healthy 20 minute jaunt from my apartment, I stumbled upon a food truck called Taco Tamix parked on Hoover Street, right next to the freeway exit. Before I even approached the truck, I could see groups of workers sitting and enjoying their lunch break. After breaking a sweat on my walk over, I was ecstatic to see the offering of tortas, mulitas, fajitas, quesadillas, and more. I decided to order a burrito with all the fixins – cheese, pinto beans, onion, and carne asada. The smell of the trompo rotating and roasting in the truck told me that I was in for a treat – and I was not disappointed.
When I visited Taco Tamix, there were only two people running the truck. As it was their lunch rush, I didn’t want to take up too much of their time. However, after a short conversation I learned that this was actually just one of a multitude of their trucks parked throughout LA. They have become a city favorite for authentic Mexican street food. Although I tasted their succulent carne asada, Taco Tamix is also a contender in the battle for LA’s best al pastor. They have become a quintessential example of the popularity of street vending in this city.
In a country that was created by the traditions and skills of immigrants, it may be surprising to learn that the United States is one of the strictest countries for street vendors. Furthermore, Los Angeles – which is home to thousands of these workers – has had an extremely contentious history with their legality. As immigrants – largely, though not exclusively, from Mexico and Central America – flooded Los Angeles in the early 20th century, so came their long held culture of street markets. Tamale vendors were particularly popular early on. Unfortunately, this did not go without acquiring negative stereotypes of being lower-class and unsanitary. However, sidewalk vending remained legal in Los Angeles until 1980 when the ban was first enacted, even as Latinx immigrants continued arriving in search of work and familiar culture.
Since the ban, there have been grassroots efforts to overturn the ruling, which has slowly and steadily gained more formal support. It wasn’t until 2017 that they received their first official victory – the decriminalization of sidewalk vending. However, despite this win, many vendors are still unable to afford city requirements to stay in business. Nidia Bautista explains in her article that “under the current permit program, street vendors must obtain a business license, a state seller’s permit, both free of cost, a county health permit that requires food vendors obtain expensive food carts, a street vending permit costing $541 annually and pay commissary.” This is combined with the unattainable standard for carts in order to satisfy the Department of Public Health, which “must include a handwashing sink, a three-compartment sink for kitchen wares, and substantial refrigeration and storage space.” (Portnoy) Even though these workers are part of the informal economy (which includes any business neither taxed nor protected by its government), they still provide an incredible service to their city, adding more than $100 million in income for the LA economy each year.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced every business to reexamine how to keep themselves afloat and street vendors are no exception. In addition to not receiving the same economic relief benefits as traditional restaurants, many vendors remain undocumented, which leaves them vulnerable and without any stimulus funds. But despite these inequities, sidewalk vendors and food trucks have continued to provide important access to fresh and culturally appropriate foods for low income and minority communities. Additionally, these businesses are essential to the thriving social scene that LA is famous for. In her article, Sarah Portnoy points out that “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 [and] by noon on a Sunday, the sidewalks are teeming with people shopping, eating and socializing.” At a time where interacting outside has become one of the only means of socialization, what could be better than a plethora of delicious meals offered to you right on your sidewalk?
This past week led me down a history that I was previously ignorant of. Street vending has been an essential part of Los Angeles life and culture for over a century, yet they are continuously marginalized by their government. To protect this important practice, we all have to recognize the value these vendors add to the city. Personally, I know that my respect for these workers has soared throughout this investigation and L.A. can only benefit from embracing this tradition.
Bautista, Nidia. “Los Angeles Street Vendors Already Had It Tough. Then the Pandemic Hit.” Food & Wine, 24 July 2020, http://www.foodandwine.com/news/la-street-vendors-on-the-toll-of-the-pandemic.
Portnoy, Sarah. “L.A.’s Street Vendors Aren’t Giving Up the Fight for Food Cart Legalization.” LA Weekly, 22 May 2019, http://www.laweekly.com/l-a-s-street-vendors-arent-giving-up-the-fight-for-food-cart-legalization/.
Portnoy, Sarah. “She Used to Dodge Police. Now She Can Make Puebla-Style Food and Run a Business While Speaking up for Other Vendors.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 15 June 2018, http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-fo-re-merced-sanchez-20180615-story.html.
Villafana, Janette, and Jack Ross. “Fines and Confiscation: Explaining L.A.’s Arbitrary Street Food Cart Law the County Uses to Criminalize Street Vendors ~ L.A. TACO.” L.A. TACO, 17 Mar. 2021, http://www.lataco.com/carts-street-food/.