On the sidewalk of a busy boulevard, Hugo sells fruits from his cart. A large multi-colored umbrella makes him easy to spot as clients on the go pull over to purchase a cup of fresh fruit. When his business isn’t busy, he takes time to rearrange and wipe his cutting board to ensure the cleanliness and efficiency of his cart. Hugo is from Puebla, Mexico and learned the ins and outs of street vending in the U.S. from another vendor. With the knowledge acquired, Hugo created his own business.
His days begin early: “At five in the morning, I bring my truck, prepare, clean and come to place myself here,” he reveals. On a Sunday morning, when many take the day off to destress after a long week, Hugo sets up for a long day. When we met him, Hugo revealed that he hardly takes days off and when he does, it’s usually a single day out of the week; a fact he shared with a large smile hidden behind his mask.
Hugo has profited from his hard work and reinvested his earnings back into his business. This has allowed him to purchase a new truck and materials for his cart. “I do everything on my own,” he humbly affirms. He expressed comfort in the location where he works and contentment with the clients he serves on a daily basis. Hugo has worked hard to grow his business and has successfully turned into his primary source of income. At the moment, he feels secure working in his location as well as with his earnings.
This was not always the case, as Hugo revealed: “Discrimination. Racism. We have all experienced our share.” He spoke about an instance that occurred in Pasadena, when some attackers knocked down the front part of his cart and damaged his products. Visibly disappointed by the memory, he let out a defeated breath, while shaking his head. His commitment to developing a strong business has helped him push past these adversities, and dedicate himself to providing the freshest fruits with the warmest greetings to his clients.
A few miles away, Esmeralda’s business is located on the sidewalk next to an empty lot and an alley behind a residential area in Los Angeles. She sits in front of her array of home and beauty products, neatly separated and organized to be sure to catch anyone’s attention. She is also from Puebla, Mexico and has been working as a vendor for about a year. Esmeralda’s welcoming and vibrant personality matches her bright display of products that are easy to spot when driving down the street.
Vending is Esmeralda’s part time job as she can only work on the weekends:
“At the moment this is my only job because I have a son with a disability and I can’t leave him by himself. So this is what has helped me a lot right now.”
During the interview, her son sat in the vehicle right in front of her business, quietly watching something on a phone.
Her current location is safer than the one she was at before, where she reports being exposed to suspicious activities. Even with her change of location, she reveals that working next to a nearby alley can expose her to dangers. Esmeralda reveals one instance in which she was directly harassed by an individual:
“One time, a young man asked me for my earnings and pulled out a knife. I said ,”I don’t have any, if you want to take something look through it take what you want but I haven’t sold anything. If you want it take it.” He said he was going to return, but it was the only negative experience I’ve had.”
Aside from her worries of dangerous individuals approaching her, she states that the police and city haven’t given her much trouble while vending.
“Even the drug dealers around here aren’t given any attention,” she laughed. Her biggest concern is in recovering the investments she made into her business.
When we met Esmeralda, she said she was barely beginning to see signs of recovering what she had put in her business. Still, she remains optimistic for what is to come:
“What matters to me the most is to recover my investment and then after that we will see how things develop. But it is vital for me to recover my investment.”
Esmeralda is just starting out but has already revealed that many of the residents that live around her business have become regular clients, and they have referred their friends. She has even developed a friendship with other vendors around the corner, who sell tacos at a visible distance from her location.
They often visit her and purchase goods from her business, while she reveals that she gets lunch from their business as well. Aside from their contribution to each other’s businesses, they have also developed a sense of solidarity between them as she revealed that the taco vendors have expressed that they are just a shout away in case of any emergency.
Street vendors like Hugo and Esmeralda in Los Angeles have become a staple of the city’s culture, enriching the city with handmade products and unique stories.
Los Angeles’s Street Vending History
In the late 80’s, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) created obstacles for undocumented immigrants, requiring employers to verify the legal status of their employees and ultimately removing undocumented individuals from participating in the formal economy.
Some undocumented individuals in the early 80’s turned to street vending as the industry did not have this overarching regulation on their employment. In the early 90’s, even while working on their own account, street vendors were continuously confronted by city officials and the police regarding their businesses.
In an account from a 1987 Los Angeles Times, one year after the IRCA act went into effect, 236 convictions followed, as did the jailing of 76 people, all in less than a year. Street vendors began to demand hearings from the city to legalize their businesses and demonstrated with slogans such as “Queremos pagar taxes” and “Police work with us not against us.”
Los Angeles confirmed a pilot program in 1994 to permit street vending, but it wasn’t until 2018 when a bill in California was signed by former Governor Jerry Brown to fully legalize street vending throughout the state. Although a win for vendors, the fees and overbearing amount of permits hindered many vendors from completing the permit process to get full permission from their cities to sell. To add onto the already difficult process, the COVID pandemic proved to be a serious challenge for vendors.
The issue of safety is a constant concern. Street vendors worry about the city and the police, and also about attacks by individuals. Hugo and Esmeralda’s testimonies revealed they had both experienced the dangers of street vending. Videos have circulated on the internet of many street vendors who have had their products stolen or destroyed. Although not situated in a building with four walls and a roof, vendor businesses are as legitimate and formal as any other place of employment.
“It’s really important that vendors are at the center of any policy that’s proposed to make sure that their needs are really centered,” emphasizes Lyric Kelkar, Inclusive Action’s Policy Director, on the important role that vendors have in anything geared to assist them.
Inclusive Action for the City is an organization that uplifts low income urban communities to develop strong local economies. In an interview with Kelkar, the director explained the current and future assistance plans to support the street vendors in Los Angeles.
Inclusive Action for the City has been a part of the Street Vendor Emergency Fund alongside their partners at East LA Community Corporation and Public Counsel. The fund has raised enough money to help approximately 1,300 vendors and is still in progress of relaying help to about 150 more.
The impetus for this fund, Kelkar explains, was due to the fact “that a lot of street vendors were going to be left out of any stimulus packages or anything like that, because many of them are undocumented [and] many of them are seniors.”
This aid has helped about 1,300 street vendors so far and the organization continues to allocate assistance for other applicants who are vetted by a panel of vendor leaders. According to Inclusive Action’s 2020 Annual report, 87% of the recipients of this fund had not received any form of government aid to cope with the impact of COVID-19, and 48% did not have a social security number or ITIN number.
Kelkar disclosed that Inclusive Action was taking part in the development of a code compliant food cart blueprints with an organization that specifically focuses on incorporating user feedback when designing products.
“They are building a blueprint for a cart that meets all the requirements and is also OK by county health department guidelines while considering the specific types of food that are really hard for vendors to obtain permits for,” explained Kelkar.
With the reopening of businesses, street vendors are often not considered in city planning and this is where Inclusive Action fills in the gap. They contribute to the inclusion of street vendors in the newly established economy centered around outdoors establishments.
Vendors are beginning to receive more assistance and recognition for the obstacles they face to simply uphold their businesses. In Hugo and Esmeralda’s case, street vending allows them to have access to an income that fully covers and partially assists in their daily lives.
Hugo’s business is his primary business and one that has allowed him to positively materialize his earnings. Esmeralda’s business is one that she hopes to see grow into a business that can help her provide for her family.
Their hard work as street vendors is not the most integral part of their identity, as their individual goals shape the way they interact with the community around them. With the increasing news about the laws surrounding street vending and the stories that publicize the tragedies they face, it is important to take into account the personalized struggles and backgrounds of the vendors who contribute to the economy and culture of Los Angeles.
Support for street vendors from the general public can be seen in the form of purchasing directly from them and respecting their right to provide for themselves.
Kimberly is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at UCI. She grew up in a predominantly Latinx community in Southeast LA and is the daughter of two Honduran immigrants. Having seen the obstacles that many immigrants face first-hand has inspired her to pursue a career in immigration law. She hopes to amplify the voices of those in the community during a time where immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in modern politics. Making sure that underrepresented stories and voices are heard is important in removing the negative stigma around the immigrant community and she hopes to contribute to this change.