Addressing the “Jaula de Oro”

por Jonah Vroegop

Working as a frutero in Los Angeles is anything but sweet – these workers endure the beating sun and heat to serve a constantly changing, unpredictable public. Fruteros and other street vendors often lack permits and the bureaucratic paperwork required by the city to serve their products and until 2017, this was a criminal offense. These stands are iconic in Los Angeles – after sporting events at the Coliseum or Dodger Stadium, on the corners near Metro stops or bus stations, and even just in regular neighborhoods and on city streets. They are happy to serve the public and are often happy to chat and joke with those who visit their stands. Most commonly, these “vendedores ambulantes” serve fruit with chile or tajin, hot dogs, aguas frescas like horchata, or flowers either single or in bouquets. Many of these vendors work as street vendors because they lack documentation and lack fluency with English, therefore not only limiting their ability to belong to a regulated workplace with benefits but also forcing them to work, accepting the risk of interaction with the police, which could mean arrest or deportation for many. These threats, in my opinion, are undeserved. In our class chat with Merced Sanchez, she said “Those of us who come to the United States are just like you but we don’t know the language – we are good people, we have good intentions, we also love good food and cervezas, and we are not all dangerous like you hear.”

The city of Los Angeles makes it extremely difficult for vendors to sell their goods, requiring high-performing new grills and materials to suffice the health code, requiring annual permits for about 300$ (500+ after July 1), and cart inspection for over 700$ (LA Taco). This makes it so that almost none (about 1%) of the street vendors in Los Angeles can afford to do business with proper permits and paperwork. This makes them easy to harass, prohibit, and prevent from selling first because of their lack of permits and also due to immigration and mistrust of government officials. “We work to get by day to day, to raise our children, feed them, pay rent, for the clothes on our backs because it’s our job. According to the article from Nidia Bautista about the Cortez family – a citation for vending on the street wouldn’t just hurt her savings – because of the low earnings of this type of job, a citation would cause her family to go without. Not only do these workers do anything they can to support their families, they are often unappreciated and harassed by the people they aim to serve as well as the government that should be helping them. The barriers to receiving justice in this regard are many, including cultural appreciation of these vendors, bureaucratic processes like licensing, lack of documentation for many, and fostering a culture of appreciation and respect for hard workers who earn little. 

Fruta fresca con Tajin del frutero

In my conversation with a frutero near USC named Humberto, the sales and ability to attract people to buy fruit have been extremely low since the outbreak of the pandemic. Not only are people confined to indoor or socially distanced places, but there are also fewer students to buy his fruit and more people looking to cause trouble. According to Humberto, getting robbed or harassed by locals and homeless individuals is not uncommon to see or hear about. Unfortunately, the robberies aren’t always committed by individuals. The California Department of Public Health (DPH) has been “confiscating” and withholding the carts seized from street vendors throughout the pandemic, even in cases where citations were not issued (LA Taco). This blatant thievery of a hard-worker’s way of life has further increased distrust and tension between the people and the City of Los Angeles. According to Merced Sanchez, there are often “no vending zones” that pop-up on a moment’s notice in some of the busiest areas of the city including Hollywood, Culver City, and other popular tourist/high traffic areas. There is no reason for the city’s harassment beyond a means to control the vulnerable populations and the street vendors in Los Angeles contribute a vital piece of Southern California culture. Street vending has been a part of Latino culture since the time of Cortez’ conquest of Mesoamerica in the early 1500’s (Portnoy). 

By allowing the persecution of fruteros and other street vendors in Los Angeles, we’re furthering the idea of living in an “ethnic cage” for many and alienating those willing to work hard serving the rest of us for low wages and in poor conditions. Really, we should be praising the hard work of these vendors and fostering avenues for entrepreneurial endeavors in this arena. To allow street vendors (decriminalization in 2017 was a step in the right direction) to sell without citation, overpriced permits, or unrealistic expectations for equipment and sanitation would be to recognize the hard work and dedication it takes to feed a family in Los Angeles as an immigrant. In this way we can address the “jaula de oro” situation and more so focus on fostering community and addressing the other disparities within our communities. 

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.

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, www.lataco.com/carts-street-food/.

Portnoy, Sarah. “L.A.’s Street Vendors Aren’t Giving Up the Fight for Food Cart Legalization.” LA Weekly, 25 Jan. 2017, 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, 14 June 2018, http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-fo-re-merced-sanchez-20180615-story.html.

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