By: Audrey Zhao
Street food vending is essential to Los Angeles for two reasons. First, markets have been a part of culture in Mesoamerica, dating back to even earlier, as “Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier in the army of Hernán Cortés, observed in 1519” (Portnoy 2017). The other reason that it can be considered essential is that it provides the only source of income for many immigrant families.
For immigrants who come to Los Angeles with nothing, and especially those who are undocumented, street vending is their only option. Street vending is a large portion of informal economy, which provides income and employment to all people. Limited education and undocumented status greatly limit their employment opportunities, so they do their best with what they know how to do, which often includes cooking. Food brings people together in all cultures, so it’s not surprising that selling food from a stand on the street brings communities together too. Stands lining the streets in Latino neighborhoods evoke memories of home and provide a place for people to gather and share their experiences. Many vendors are left out of many aspects of society because they are undocumented, and Portnoy mentions that, “street vending allows them to participate in the public sphere… has given them a sense that they have a voice in their community” (2017).
However, this association between Latino immigrants and street vending has contributed to the difficulties they have faced. A history of discrimination from law enforcement and pushback from neighboring businesses makes it even more difficult for vendors to make a living. Being on the street and having no brick-and-mortar location also means vendors have to face weather and crime in a way that other establishments do not, while also being held to the same or unrealistic standards in other ways. Vendors that can afford an expensive permit cannot get “an affordable code-compliant vending cart”, leaving only “around 1% of street vendors selling food in L.A. County are permitted” (Villafana 2021). This cycle perpetuates, as vendors continue to deal with crime, residents associate vendors with crime, and law enforcement cracks down, taking hard earned money and leaving them in the same place they started.
Fruteros are street vendors who specifically sell fruit and vegetables, which they often sell in salads or smoothies. They are particularly noteworthy because they are commonly the entry into street vending for immigrants who have only been here for a few days, and they have a distinct social network that sets the stage for their relationships not only with other fruteros but with the city in general. These hometown ties, or paisano, influence their work and personal lives in the United States, but they are not always positive sources of support because “they can also be overwhelmed by the economic poverty of their members and by the hostile context of reception in which they exist” (Rosales 5). The complex nature of better opportunity and simultaneous loss of freedom for immigrants to the United States is referred to as the “ethnic cage”.
The ethnic cage is different for each person and within different contexts in the life of each person because the relationships and situations involved are dynamic and changing. It seems that those who understand the plight of individuals are those best poised to help and exploit them. A cage can both corral and protect those inside while also trapping and depriving them. The duality of the nature of this concept is illustrated in the ways that communities can support each other and also take advantage of those who are newcomers or unfamiliar with the situations they face.
For fruteros, this concept was omnipresent because they were entering an environment that rejected their presence and their work. Living with the knowledge that law enforcement could take away everything at any moment greatly affected vendors’ lives and relationships. Even their presence or recruitment to Los Angeles began with the assumption that they would work for little to no pay at the beginning (Rosales 12).
Street Vendors during COVID-19
Street vendors have not only struggled historically, but their marginalization also contributes to their increased troubles during a time where everyone is struggling. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic only worsened the fears vendors have always had of citations from the county health department. Many vendors found themselves without income because they were unable to work on the streets while also not receiving economic relief from the government.
Just down the street from my apartment, I remembered that I had often seen vendors with colorful umbrellas set up in Exposition Park. I have only lived in this area during the pandemic, so while I was used to seeing street vendors in upscale, trendy environments, it had been easy to forget about the people who set up their stands each day just to get by.
I tried to calm my nerves before approaching the stand of a middle-aged couple. When they saw me, they greeted me quickly before waiting for me to speak. The moment I greeted them in Spanish, they looked delighted and smiled widely at me. I explained that I was studying street vendors in my class at USC, and they agreed to answer my questions.
I learned that this couple had been selling food in this spot, on the corner of the rose garden and museum center, for seven years. They told me business had been very bad for the past year and that things had been very difficult. Despite the fact that people were spending some time outdoors, they lost the business they normally would have gotten from foot traffic, as the museums had been closed for some time.
I ordered a hotdog, and as the woman warmed the bun on the cart’s grill, her husband asked me if I had gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. He smiled when I told him I had gotten a headache from my first dose and told me they had both received two doses already. We spoke about how we hoped things would look up soon as more people received the vaccine, and I thanked them for their time as they handed me the hotdog.
This was my first time trying to engage in conversation with a food vendor in Spanish rather than simply order, and it was a completely different experience from all the times I had spoken English. Rather than merely transactional , our conversation felt natural and our interaction had been much more meaningful and warm because I had spoken to them in their native language.
I did the most reflecting I have ever done while eating a hotdog, and I realized I had never thought about how the museum closures had been affecting the street vendors nearby and those in similar situations all over the city. While I had always viewed street vendors as hardworking people trying to provide for themselves and their families, I learned firsthand about difficult it is to make a living with work the city both benefits from and simultaneously rejects. For a city that loves its culture of street food, I hope that Los Angeles works towards showing more appreciation for those who bring this culture to life and rely on it for their own lives.
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/.
Rosales, Rocío. “Chapter 1.” Fruteros: Street Vending, Illegality, and Ethnic Communities in Los Angeles, pp. 1–19.
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, 15 Mar. 2021, http://www.lataco.com/carts-street-food/.