Caridad Vásquez has been fighting for eight years to legalize the way she earns a living.
“Ever since I have been a street vendor I have been harassed by the police for not having a permit,” said Vásquez, who sells quesadillas, mulas, pambazos and other Mexican antojitos out of a street cart in Boyle Heights.
She said she joined the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign in early 2008 “because I want to sell legally, so that the police don’t remove us anymore.”
Vásquez –who was profiled earlier this year by Boyle Heights Beat– was one of dozens of local residents, small business owners and activists that packed the Boyle Heights City Hall on May 28 for the first of four city-sponsored community meetings about a proposed Los Angeles ordinance to regulate street vendors.
At the beginning of the meeting, city legislative analyst Felipe Chávez explained the three alternatives being considered for the 50,000 street vendors operating in Los Angeles: keeping street vending illegal and increasing enforcement and penalization; establishing a citywide program with regulations; or a community-driven option where each community brings a plan to its city councilmember and the whole council votes on each proposal.
Although several people at the Boyle Heights meeting were opposed to legallized street vending, the overall majority of speakers expressed support for the citywide plan.
Many of them were vendors like Vásquez and activists such as Ron Góchez, a teacher in South L.A. who called on a citywide moratorium on infractions currently given to street vendors.
“I’ve had students come up to me at school crying because their parents got tickets and because their parents got arrested for street vending, and they didn’t know when they went home that day if their parents were going to be there or if they’d been deported,” said Góchez, who called the regularization of street vendors a moral issue.
“I see firsthand how the criminalization of street vendors affects our youth, and there’s no way that these kids can achieve in school if they’re fearful of their family’s and their parents’ livelihood,” he added.
Some opponents to street vending were booed after speaking, while some in favor rallied the crowd with chants of “sí se puede” and “vendedores unidos jamás serán vencidos.”
Among those expressing opposition were Boyle Heights property owner Yolanda González, who spoke early and quickly left the meeting, and several Hollywood Boulevard merchants, who petitioned that their zone be excluded from any city street vending ordinance, because of current overcrowding there.
Several local business owners who attended the meeting wore stickers provided by the Coalition to Save Small Business, a recently formed group that opposes the planned ordinance.
“We think a one-size-fits-all solution is really problematic,” said Leon Cain, an organizer with the coalition formed by some 600 business owners. “Small businesses play by very specific rules and they have to get permits, they have to deal with the city and a lot the small business owners are immigrants themselves. They’ve worked really hard to run their businesses and they’re creating jobs in Boyle Heights and throughout the city.”
But even local business owners with the coalition stickers expressed support for a street vending ordinance.
María Reynoso, who operates a discount store on 4th Street, said brick and mortar businesses are at a disadvantage “because we pay taxes, we pay electricity, we pay rent… and then people don’t come to shop with us because they are stuck out there with [the street vendors], that affects us.”
But Reynoso said that street vendors have a right to make a living. “The city should give them a permit or something so that they can sell.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Margarita Cruz, a beauty salon owner on Whittier Boulevard who said street vendors should have to deal with the same regulations as brick and mortar businesses.
“If we’re going to have the same rights [they should have] the same rules that apply to the established businesses,” Cruz said. “If they’re going to pay the same things that we are paying for, let them establish their businesses legally.”
Janet Favela, a community organizer with the East Los Angeles Community Organization, said it was important for the members of the Street Vendor Campaign to have a strong showing at the community meeting.
“A lot of our neighborhoods, including Boyle Heights, are going through the process of gentrification and displacement, and a lot of the ability for folks to stay in the neighborhood really depends on their ability to make a living, to make an economic impact on their household,” she said. “For us it was very important to support those folks, and the only way we could support them was through an organizing effort that would push for legalization of sidewalk vending.”
Vázquez, the Boyle Heights vendor, said she is glad to see that a city street vending ordinance is close to becoming a reality.
When asked if she was willing to obtain and pay for permits if an ordinance is passed, she was quick to reply.
“Yes, I’m willing,” she said. “It’s my job.”
The Boyle Heights meeting was the first in a series of public hearings planned throughout the city. The next one is set for June 11 in Van Nuys.