Alejandra Hernández stands in front of her brightly colored cart in the scorching sun at Hollenbeck playground, shaving ice as sweat from her brow runs down the side of her face. Besides ice and fruit, her wooden cart overflows with chips, lollipops, and corn on the cob. These products provide her with her livelihood.
Hernández sets up her cart at 2 p.m. She smiles and greets her customers with her Durango Spanish dialect. Children pass by, looking at her with big eyes, and point towards her merchandise. Often she gives them sweets for free, knowing they don’t have any money.
By the late afternoon, she’s had 21 customers and has made $60””more than many street vendors bring home in a day. And the cost of merchandise for carts diminishes vendors’ take home pay.
“We are trying hard to get money to survive and to help our kids move forward,” says Hernandez. “The truth is there are no jobs.” ( “La vida del vendedor no es fácil. Todos estamos haciendo la lucha para el pan de cada día y para sacar los hijos para adelante porque la verdad trabajo no hay,” she says).
For better or worse, street vendors have become part of everyday life in Boyle Heights. They are figures in a familiar landscape, associated with memories of places or events.
For María Pasqual, the experience of attending Theodore Roosevelt High School is connected to smelling the warm cup of champurado that a familiar street vendor hands her every morning. There’s also the white-haired woman who sells ice cream and chips after school and the talkative churro lady outside of Dolores Mission on Sundays.
Street vendors approach while residents stop at the gas station to offer pirated DVDs or CDs. Some, it seems, have been around forever; others, only a few weeks.
Experts such as Professor Manuel Pastor, co-director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California, say newly-arrived immigrants and the jobless often jump at a chance to sell goods on the streets. Since many vendors are undocumented, other employment is not readily available. And because such immigrants usually lack access to capital, the possibilities for starting a legal business are little to none.
With the economic downturn, even more people have turned to the informal economy. Today, competition among vendors has become more prevalent, says Hernandez, the shaved ice vendor. Other vendors say they have nowhere else to turn for work.
TENSIONS WITH RESIDENTS
Yet if life is not easy for street vendors, nor, say critics, do vendors make things any simpler for the communities in which they work. Residents complain about the mess some leave behind, the unsanitary conditions in which some of them work, and the threat they pose to established businesses that pay taxes and have higher costs.
Terry Marquez, the former president of the Boyle Heights Homeowner’s Association and a former member of the Neighborhood Council, says the vendors take business away from restaurant and shop owners. She understands what drives people to sell illegally, but is concerned about the “dirtying” of the neighborhood and the potential for unsanitary food.”
The Los Angeles County Health Department says it is difficult to track whether food-borne illness comes from street vendor sales. The department investigates reports of illness connected to vendor carts, but has too few inspectors to respond quickly. Since most symptoms of food poisoning resemble the flu, many go unreported.
Other community members point out that street vendors are breaking the law and not paying taxes. Frank Wada, a member of the Hollenbeck Community Police Advisory Board, has accompanied police when they have shut down vendors. “Stores have to have licensing,” he says. “They have taxes and other overhead. Street vendors obviously do not.”
When police started cracking down on unlicensed street vendors in 2009, the community was polarized. After an illegal food market on Breed Street was shut down, the vendors scattered, but did not disappear.
HELPING VENDORS GET LICENSES
The launch of a new street vendor pilot program this month could be a solution for everyone, says Councilman José Huizar. The East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) and Huizar’s office have been working since 2009 to help vendors get licenses and sell legally. Beginning this fall, vendors will be able to participate in an evening farmers market, which will be held at Hollenbeck Middle School, if they get a seller’s permit, pass a food handling exam and apply with the L.A County Health Department. In addition, ELACC is providing vendors with financial literacy classes and tips for small business owners.
It’s hard to say exactly what the neighborhood reaction will be. Janet Favela, a community organizer at ELACC, knows that street vending is an emotional topic. “It’s not a black and white issue,” she says. “It has to do with the culture of an area; it has to do with regulations.”
Still, she adds, “Street vendors in this community represent the dream that so many people have when they come to this country. They are small entrepreneurs.”