By Isabel Hanewicz
Coming from a mid-sized city in Florida, my only experience with anything similar to street vendors was the food trucks and food carts found at upscale food truck rallies and farmer’s markets. To me, street food seemed like something hip and new (save for New York City’s hot dog stands). Moving to LA, I was introduced to a vibrant and longstanding street food culture unlike that of my hometown – fresh fruit from vendors in the Jewelry District or South LA taco stands I drove past on my way to work. Despite its recent popularization, street vending has been in LA since the late 19th century, where tamale carts sold a booming migrant population a cheap meal (Portnoy 2017).
However, through a class I took Spring 2018 (Spanish 316) on food justice in Los Angeles, as well as this class, I’ve learned that this longstanding tradition has also faced longstanding discrimination. Despite providing part of the city’s character – as well as feeding its residents – street vendors are seen as “criminals” and accused of increasing crime in the area (Portnoy 2017). In 316, I visited Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) – now called Inclusive Action for the City – that helped fight for legalization of street vending in Los Angeles. During this chat, I was able to hear from street vendor Merced Sanchez who helped lead the movement for legalization. Merced notes in a L.A. Times article “Our work is just as dignified as a desk job”, as well as her love for preparing her traditional food (Portnoy 2018).
Despite being in a country that champions self-preservation and entrepreneurship, prior to the legalization of street vending, vendors could face fines up to $2,000 for selling on the street (Portnoy 2017), despite making as little as $10,000 a year (Villafana and Ross). This just continues the hardships that immigrants face. Vendor Caridad Vásquez notes that “all [I] knew how to do was be a street vendor” (Portnoy 2017) when she came to the US, a job that gave her economic mobility and the ability to be an entrepreneur. Rocío Rosales estimates that many of the ~50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles, many are immigrants, likely drawn to street vending because it is one of their only options to make a living. Some may have even come to the US with the expectation they work as street vendors (Rosales 12). While this compatoritism, or paisanaje, amongst groups of street vendors can provide new immigrants with a social network and support system, but also facilitate exploitation and mistreatment that is hard to escape, a so-called “ethnic cage” (Rosales 12). Outside of their circle, vendors can face threats of violent robbers – or police looking to fine them for relatively small infractions (Villafana and Ross).
With the recent legalization of street vending in Los Angeles, one might think a lot of these issues have disappeared. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. In order to be completely “legal”, a vendor must buy pricey permits – $241 for an annual city permit, plus $746 to inspect their cart. Their cart also must meet Department of Public Health regulations, which is unrealistic for most (Villafana and Ross). Only about 1% of the street vendors in L.A. County have all their permits, meaning most risk fines and confiscation of their equipment to sell.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased these inequities, as street vendors who are undocumented cannot get federal stimulus, nor have they received other forms of financial aid from California or LA (Bautista). Despite this, vendors are still selling, offering benefits to a community that doesn’t always reciprocate. Dr. John Short, a public policy professor, gives three reasons street vending is beneficial for a city trying to reopen after the shutdowns (Short):
- Street vending can reduce the pandemic’s economic hardship
- It’s simpler to meet social distancing requirements with street vendors, as opposed to in shopping malls
- Initiatives to create traffic-free streets, like Culver City in LA, are a natural match for street vending
As we approach (maybe) the end of the pandemic, we should take a stronger look at supporting members of the informal economy – those who work in industries without regulation or government protection – who help make our cities vibrant. While legalizing street vending helps, if the regulatory requirements are too expensive or unreasonable for most street vendors to reach, as suggested by L.A. Taco’s article, the environment for vendors will not change much. If we like the fruit stands, the paletas, and the taco shacks, and believe they make L.A. L.A., we should fight to ensure the vendors have a safer occupation with a more livable wage.
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, 25 January 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.
Rosales, Rocío, Fruteros: Street Vending, Illegality, and Ethnic Community in Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2020, pp. 1–19.
Short, John Rennie. “La Venta Callejera Hace Más Vivas, Seguras y Justas Las Ciudades, Por Eso Pertenece a La Escena Urbana Post-COVID-19.” The Conversation, 26 Jan. 2021, theconversation.com/la-venta-callejera-hace-mas-vivas-seguras-y-justas-las-ciudades-por-eso-pertenece-a-la-escena-urbana-post-covid-19-143869
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/.