By Jude Veerman
The first time I saw Gil Garcia was about two months ago. He was selling fruit from his tiny pushcart to the mostly Latino workers on a job site across from my house. This was an unfamiliar sight to me﹣I had never seen a street vendor in a residential neighborhood before. I assumed they made their money in busier parts of the city.
That Saturday, Garcia returned to the job site. But this time there was no crew to sell to. I decided to buy from him since the workers were gone that day. He charged me a measly $5 for a heaping cup of watermelon, orange, and mango. We thanked each other and went our separate ways. Little did I know, this transaction was illegal.
How could Garcia’s modest fruit cart break the law? His predicament is no different than that of other food vendors here in Los Angeles. Like Sarah Portnoy says in her article, “L.A.’s Street Vendors Aren’t Giving Up the Fight for Food Cart Legalization,” Latino vendors have suffered years of discrimination and fines from law enforcement. It seems ridiculous that vendors like Garcia should have to worry about the legality of selling fruit in a plastic cup, but there is a good reason behind this.
The Department of Public Health (DPH) is the biggest roadblock Los Angeles street vendors face in their path to legalization. Although the DPH’s job is to uphold sanitary guidelines for the safe handling of food, their standards for unassuming vendors like Garcia are wildly unattainable. “Even if vendors can afford the expensive permits they need to sell legally, they still cannot get their carts approved by the Department of Public Health because the county’s health code was written for brick-and-mortar restaurants,” according to Janette Villafana and Jack Ross.
The decriminalization of street-vending in 2017 was a big step foward, but the DPH’s health standards keep folks like Garcia fighting an uphill battle. Many mobile vendors simply cannot meet the strict requirements the DPH demands of them. “For prepared-food vendors to receive permits, their carts must include a handwashing sink, a three-compartment sink for kitchen wares, and substantial refrigeration and storage space (Villafana and Ross).” It is difficult to imagine a small pushcart equipped with four sinks let alone hauling it from one street corner to another. Moreover, the cost of such features far outweighs the humble prices that many vendors like Garcia charge.
I met with Gil Garcia for a chat to hear his perspective on these issues. He frequents my neighborhood, so finding him wasn’t hard, and he was more than happy to answer my questions while allowing me to practice my Español.
I asked him about his business during the pandemic, and he said he had stopped for a short while out of fear of COVID. Garcia is a freelance mechanic, so his fruit cart only supplements his family’s income. But he recognizes that vendors like Juana Dominguez in Nidia Bautista’s article, “Los Angeles Street Vendors Already Had It Tough. Then the Pandemic Hit,” had it worse off when they shutdown and faced financial uncertainties as a consequence.
What interests me is how Garcia never relied on his fruit cart as a primary source of income. He is a legal citizen and makes most of his money from mechanic work. In other words, Garcia doesn’t fit into Rocío Rosales’ characterization of many fruteros as illegal immigrants with limited employment opportunities. He told me he began selling out of his pushcart after seeing other Latinos doing it. Much like the paisano network that Rosales describes in Chapter 1 of Fruteros: Street Vending, Illegality, and Ethnic Communities in Los Angeles, Garcia got started with the help of other fruteros he came to know. He said he continues to this day because he likes it.
Garcia could not speak much to the harassment that many street vendors in Los Angeles experience. He attributes this to selling in a neighborhood with a lot of Latinos and not many police snooping around. Moreover, it is safe to say our neighborhood has heard the bell on his pushcart enough to know who he is and what he sells.
Gil Garcia’s fruit cart is akin to the neighborhood lemonade stand. The only difference is that a lemonade stand doesn’t need four portable sinks to be able to sell lemonade in L.A. county. As long as health regulations continue to discriminate against food vendors like Garcia, many Latinos in Los Angeles will be deprived of economic opportunity. More important, we risk losing the street-food culture that makes this city a capital of Latin culture and cuisine.
Bautista, Nidia, “Los Angeles Street Vendors Already Had It Tough. Then the Pandemic Hit,” Food and Wine, 24 Jul. 2020,
Portnoy, Sarah, “L.A.’s Street Vendors Aren’t Giving Up the Fight for Food Cart Legalization.” LA Weekly, 25 Jan. 2017
Rosales, Rocío, Fruteros: Street Vending, Illegality, and Ethnic Community in Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2020, pp. 1–19.
Villafana, Jannette, and Ross, Jack, “FINES AND CONFISCATION: EXPLAINING L.A.’S ARBITRARY STREET FOOD CART LAW THE COUNTY USES TO CRIMINALIZE STREET VENDORS.” L.A. Taco, 15 Mar. 2021