Yesenia Trujillo Carranza sells her tamales near Roosevelt High School. Photo by Eimee Mendieta-Soto.

The savory scents of tamales and champurrado emanate from the intersection of South Fickett and Fourth streets, where 37-year-old Yesenia Trujillo Carranza, one of Boyle Heights’ many tamaleras, sets up shop right across Roosevelt High School. 

Up every day before the sun rises, Trujillo Carranza begins as early as 6 a.m. and typically sells out before noon. She goes home and works another nine hours or so to prepare the next batch of tamales for the following day. She does this seven days a week.

Carranza has been selling tamales in the Los Angeles area for more than 18 years, a majority of which she’s spent vending in Boyle Heights. Generations of Roosevelt High students are among Trujillo Carranza’s most loyal customers. Alumni continue to buy her tamales and their high school-aged siblings carry on the tradition.

Karla Maravilla, a 17-year-old senior student at Roosevelt High School, is one of them. 

Maravilla has been buying from Trujillo Carranza since her freshman year and said her tamales are not only delicious, but convenient.

“When I’m in a rush and want to eat my tamales on my way to school, she unwraps my tamales for me and puts it in a cup. Sort of like a drive-through,” Maravilla said.

Tonacino Flores, a 58-year-old resident of Boyle Heights, says there are many vendors he could choose from in the area, but he continues to go to Carranza for her flavorful tamales, her warm smile, and her genuine care for customers. He’s been a customer of hers for over a decade and Flores said she notices whenever he hasn’t come around.

“That’s why I continue to go to her,” Flores said. 

Trujillo Carranza starts around 6 am and is usually sold out by noon. Photo by Eimee Mendieta-Soto.

Immigrating from the small Mexican pueblo of Chautengo in Guerrero, Trujillo Carranza came to the United States seeking opportunity.

“My motivation came from wanting to have something, to have a house, because back in Mexico things are a bit more difficult. Here, we have the opportunity to work,” she said. 

Trujillo Carranza learned how to make tamales from her mother, but she has her own recipes. California chiles, jalapeños, and Monterey jack cheese are among her usual ingredients. She prepares 50 pounds of masa every day and makes chicken, pork, and cheese tamales. Her favorites are the green salsa tamales “porque están picositos,” Trujillo said.

As soon as she’s done selling, Trujillo Carranza goes to purchase the masa and then spends hours preparing the tamales. 

Making and selling tamales is hard work, Trujillo Carranza said, but the effort pays off when she sees customers enjoying her food. 

“It really feels nice that they appreciate what you cook … They like my tamales and that makes me happy,” she said.

Trujillo Carranza sells chicken, pork and cheese tamales. Photo by Eimee Mendieta-Soto.

Like many street vendors, Trujillo Carranza struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The streets were empty and sales dropped. “That affected me a lot,” she said. 

Things got better as schools and businesses started opening up again, Trujillo Carranza said. Her business is booming, she said.

As the saying goes, “Dios aprieta, pero no nos ahorca (God squeezes, but does not choke us),” Trujillo Carranza said. “Until now, I remain here with clients who come from their job and the students going to and from school.

As a street vendor, Trujillo Carranza has also had issues with law enforcement. She said police has detained her in the past for street vending and threw her food in the trash. Trujillo Carranza said she was forced to relocate to her current location after police forbid her from vending on Soto and 4th streets.

Thinking about her future, Trujillo Carranza hopes to open her own restaurant in Boyle Heights and possibly expand to other places.

“I would love that. I would love my tamales to be recognized by the entire world,” she said.

Samantha Gomez (She/Her) graduated this year from Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School. She plans to attend a four-year university to major in English and minor in education.

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