Vendors vs. the Law : Unlicensed Street Merchants: Able Entrepreneurs or Nuisances?
It’s Friday night outside the Big Buy Supermarket in East Los Angeles and the vendedores ambulantes , the street vendors, have set up shop. Hours earlier, they had staked out their spots, then laid low until 6 p.m., the hour of the day’s last police surveillance.
A plump woman inspects the wares Juan Reyes-Aldaba has displayed on the sidewalk--denim miniskirts, perfume “inspired by” Chanel No. 5, painted T-shirts. She holds up a pair of yellow shorts. The fit seems good enough for $5; she buys them.
Reyes-Aldaba, 38, a resident alien from Mexico, was a sewing machine operator in the garment district before becoming a vendor two years ago. He prefers street vending. On a good day, he may clear $100, he says, and on the street there are people to talk to and fresh air to breathe--"I feel better here.”
He is an entrepreneur, a middle-man who buys goods from a wholesaler and sells them cheap to clients from the Mexican and Central American refugee and immigrant communities, who recognize vendors as part of their culture.
To Beatrix Herrera, 42, a jolly woman who sells fried fish and fried bananas at La Placita, near Olvera Street, vending is a life-affirming, joyous tradition. “People might not even be hungry, but they see the food and they say, ‘I want one,’ ” she says.
She is dismayed that health officials want vendors to precook their food, wrap it and sell it from sanitary hot or cold carts that blot out tantalizing fragrances.
Like generations of immigrants before them, Reyes-Aldaba and Herrera are staking their claim on a chunk of the American dream. Friends of the vendors, like Susanna Brinnon, who tirelessly volunteers time to Friends of the Street Vendors, compares them to the Eastern European immigrants who started with pushcarts and built dynasties.
But others see vendors as a nuisance, at best, and unfair competition, at worst, to legal businesses that pay rent, insurance and taxes.
What is inarguable is that sidewalk vending is prohibited by Los Angeles’ municipal code. As the influx of immigrants has escalated, the number of vendors has swelled and is now estimated by the Central American Refugee Center at 2,000 to 3,000, concentrated in pockets such as East Los Angeles, La Placita, near Lady Queen of Angels Church, and until a recent police sweep, in the area of crime-infested MacArthur Park.
They sell toys, trinkets, sparkly panty hose, hair ribbons, cigarettes, tamales and corn. Not counting the men who sell oranges at freeway off-ramps, most vendors are women, identifiable by their aprons.
Vendors play cat-and-mouse with police, who confiscate their goods, ticket them and sometimes handcuff and jail them. Until a few months ago, vendors regularly accused police of roughing up and harassing them; the police respond that they have yet to see evidence of such “brutality.”
In a city riddled with problems such as drugs and gang violence, locking up vendedores isn’t a top police priority. Capt. Jerry Conner, commanding officer of Central Division, says, “I don’t want to take up (jail) bed space with a person selling mangoes.”
He says he and Chief Daryl Gates both would “jump and shout” for joy if vending were legalized and regulated by a government agency.
Changes must be made to accommodate the area’s changing population, Conner says, but these changes must not “ignore the rights of those who are not refugees.”
A task force headed by Councilman Michael Woo has studied the problem since last July and is putting final touches on a proposal for council legalization.
Woo says he tackled the problem because he believes street vendors are “an urban amenity,” appropriate to Los Angeles’ climate and because of the issue’s ethnic implications--"Many of the vendors in this city are very recent immigrants or refugees. For them, vending is really a stage of capitalism,” an “entry point” to the economy.
There is no way to ignore “the reality of these people out on the street,” Woo adds, and it makes no sense to “try to apply a Prohibition-type strategy on an aspect of the economy that will not disappear.”
Outside the Big Buy, Michelangelo Ramirez Araiza’s sing-song voice, in Spanish, extols the virtues of his tamales--"Tamales made out of pork, cheese, corn, hot tamales. . . . “
He and his wife, Maria del Socorro Triana Rivera, both 27, and immigrants from Mexico six months ago, are here daily except Wednesday, arriving by 3 p.m. to get their spot, closing at 10 p.m. when they take their daughter, Samira, 3, home to bed.
As her father dishes up tamales from a picnic cooler, Samira nibbles an ear of corn and scampers up and down the sidewalk under the watchful eye of her mother, who sells earrings, toys and barrettes.
They came to Los Angeles, Michelangelo explains, because “we were suddenly without work,” he losing his job as a janitor at the same time his wife was laid off as a substitute teacher. Vending is not new to him; in Mexico, he moonlighted as a taco vendor.
This day, he figures he will sell 80 of his homemade tamales, at 70 cents each. Ingredients for 100 tamales-- masa, meat, chilies, wrappers, cost about $35 for 100, or 35 cents apiece. Tamales are a family project--Michelangelo’s aunt, Eva Amada, 39, (she fears police and will not give her last name), shops and helps make them. She supports three children in Mexico--including a daughter in law school--as a vendor.
There is a tamale war, of sorts, outside the Big Buy. Another Mexican vendor, who gives his name only as Santos, and his wife sell theirs for the same price. But Santos, 44, has been in the trade longer and has a following.
Tamale sales support the family, which includes two daughters, and there is money enough to send to relatives in Mexico where dollars buy much more than pesos.
Police confiscation of his food, and tickets that cost $100 and more, are a constant threat. But Santos says he understands the police view. “I would love to have a permit,” he says. “We would love to cooperate with the government. Why not?”
For many vendors, the “why not” is cost: Carts approved by the County Health Services Department cost as much as $1,500, a major expense for a family that may clear only $50 for a day’s work.
Sources of loans to buy carts are among topics at biweekly meetings of the Assn. of Street Vendors at the Central American Refugee Center on South Bonnie Brae.
Brinnon passes among the vendors, distributing forms encouraging them to report police confiscations; she hopes the city attorney’s office will look into the matter. In the hall, a small group inspected a stainless-steel cart. The owner says he paid $1,500 for the cart, sold as “authorized and approved by the county.” It, however, did not pass; the manufacturer refuses to bring it up to code. Vendors sign a letter to the company, threatening a boycott.
The meetings are forums for airing vendors’ common problems: tickets and ways to pay them off via community service; competition in overrun areas; health department fines; reports of police conflicts.
Sally Gordon, of El Teatro de la Realidad (Theater of Reality) in Hollywood, distributes flyers promoting a play about vendors, “Where the Gods Walk,” to be presented this month by a bilingual cast that includes real vendors.
The original script is based on testimony from vendors about mistreatment and their territorial disputes. It also focuses on cultural differences between Anglos and Latinos.
In the play, the vendors are so beset with rules and regulations that they turn into robots.
V endedores ambulantes are not to be confused with those who sell hot dogs from carts, or food from catering trucks, with licenses. Street vendors sell on the sidewalk, often sitting atop milk crates, peddling goods from grocery carts.
“They’re very good market researchers,” says Brinnon. “They know just where to put themselves.” Vendors know Brinnon, 46, who speaks fluent Spanish, as simpatico, the woman who helped them organize and pays from her pocket to publish a vendors’ newsletter.
A gentle soul who lives simply, supporting herself on a part-time secretarial job at the California Homeless Coalition, she views vendors as poor people battling a giant bureaucracy that doesn’t understand their plight or culture.
True, she says, vendors break the law but “it’s so incomprehensible to them” that such laws exist. In their native countries, she notes, “vending is a profession.” And, she adds, “These are people who wouldn’t go on welfare for the world. I don’t think we understand how they literally live from hand to mouth. If they don’t sell a certain amount every day, their children don’t eat as much.”
They are her friends. “In the midst of the most depressing circumstances,” she says, “they still make you laugh. To them, suffering is not what it is to us.”
In her view, regulated, sanitized vending would be better than none, but, she says, “The tragedy is that this social-cultural phenomenon is being murdered. Vending is a cultural exchange, a warm thing.”
Madeline Janis, an attorney who directs the Central American Refugee Center and serves on Woo’s 40-member vending task force, says, “What it really comes down to is that we have a situation that’s out of control. We have thousands of people who are unable to find employment other places who turn to the last honorable means of survival.”
The city, she says, must deal with “specific public safety issues, rather than total prohibition.” These include merchant complaints about trash and about competition, as well as traffic problems created by vendors.
She adds, “Street vending of goods, which are otherwise legal, is a business. We’re a free enterprise society. We want people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”
To date, Janis says, 10 or 12 merchants have bought approved carts and there are “a whole bunch more on the way.” Most vendors, she believes, are eager to get licensed and legal and will comply with regulations.
Last Wednesday, police swept MacArthur Park, the start of a monthlong campaign to clean up crime in the area, a haven for drug dealers and users. The park, in the heart of the Central American immigrant community, also has been a favored site of illegal vendors.
Among the regulars was Marlene Vides, 45, whose makeshift mango stand was a fixture at Seventh and Alvarado streets. Wielding a sharp knife, she made a work of art out of a mango, carving it into a rosette, serving it with salt, chili pepper and lemon.
In one day, working from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., she would sell three or four boxes of mangoes, nine to a box, buying the fruit from a wholesaler for $8 a box in season, selling it for $1.50 a piece. Across the street, Victor Contreras, the father of her children, sold cigarettes.
For two years, before Contreras and their two children joined her in America, she worked as a domestic, selling mangoes on weekends. It was tough but, she says, staying in El Salvador was impossible--"I was afraid. They were beginning to take kids out of school” for the military.
When the police leave, some vendors may return to MacArthur Park. Meanwhile, Brinnon says, “We’re telling everyone we know if they have any housecleaning jobs or a day’s work to call us.”
Word about the police sweep spread quickly. Vendor Maria Elena Chacon, 32, tells of a policeman handing her a warning flyer, saying, “Hi, my love, no more selling here. Tell your brothers and sisters.”
She has had numerous run-ins with police--"so many times, I don’t remember,” she says--and tells of being strip-searched. Still, until last week’s sweep, she had stood her ground, selling mangoes by the park every day from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In her native El Salvador, she says, “People know that we sell because we’re poor. People there don’t discriminate against us. Here, people see us either as dangerous or as curiosities.” Often, she says, police, Anglo and Latino, say, “Why don’t you get out of here, go back to your own country?”
Once, she worked in a hotel, but says, “Selling is better, much better. If there’s an emergency with my children, I can go right away. I don’t have to worry about somebody taking my job away.”
And, she adds, “I don’t have to speak English,” a limited skill, which, she says, she uses “only when I need to argue with the police.”
Some merchants near MacArthur Park, like Norm Langer of Langer’s Delicatessen, a 40-year-old landmark at Seventh and Alvarado, are glad the vendors are gone.
In February, Langer wrote to his councilwoman, Joy Picus, describing vendors as another “menace” in an area plagued with crime. Vendors and the crowds they attract, he said, drive off customers. Further, he wrote, “These street vendors do not play by the rules of fair competition in our society,” while tax-paying citizens “are left to clean up the litter and struggle to maintain our business.”
He has an ally in Gene Baur, owner of the Park Plaza Hotel on South Park View, who calls vendors, “unfair competition” for legal merchants: “Everybody is sensitive to the needs of people who are trying to make a living, but where is our quality of life going to go? And what would happen if one of those people sold something and someone got sick and died? Who would be responsible?” Jerry Breitbart, president of the California Restaurant Assn., says vendors are “a serious problem. Some of the merchandise that is sold in some of these places is not legitimate.” (ALARM, the Assn. of Latin American Record Manufacturers, repeatedly has warned cassette vendors, most of whom are teen-age boys, about selling pirated tapes.)
As restaurateurs, Breitbart says, “Our real concern here is public safety. This really is a health issue.”
He wants to see vendors licensed for specific sites--"In other words, you’re not going to put a taco vendor in front of a Mexican restaurant, but you may put him down the street half a block in front of a luggage store.”
He observes: “Street vending is done literally in every major city in the world. It’s out there. Are you going to run it off the street by putting these people in jail? Certainly not. That would be ludicrous. . . . Here’s a group of people who are making their living selling on the streets. They may as well be legitimized.”
Capt. Bob Riley, commanding officer of LAPD’s Rampart Division, which covers MacArthur Park, viewed vending as a minor police problem--until recently. Within the last few weeks, he says, police have observed “narcotic dealers and buyers hiding among vendors. The vendor situation seems to nurture a narcotic sales marketplace, especially (near) MacArthur Park. Our observations are that a significant number (of vendors) are involved in narcotics activity.”
He mentions, too, “pollution” of the park lake by vendors. “We have . . . watched them washing their pots and pans in the lake, or using the water from the park to cook foods.”
Richard Wagner, head of the vehicle inspection program for County Health Services and a member of the Woo task force, says, “We don’t have any problem with the concept of street vending of food. It’s only the way in which it is done. Cooking of food products on the street is not acceptable.”
Food cooked and sold on the street includes corn on the cob, slathered with mayonnaise and dipped in grated cheese; fried meat turnovers and dishes of fresh fruit and cucumber. Vendors also sell ceviche, raw fish “cooked” in lemon juice, and tejuno fresco, a drink made from fermented corn.
At La Placita, Father Luis Olivares and the vendors have agreed that sales will be allowed as long as vendors stay clear of church doors.
Thus, a carnival spirit prevails on Sundays, when Masses are held from early morning until midafternoon.
At Beatrix Herrera’s booth, the fried fish, with onion and chilies, is $1.99, the same price as her fried bananas, served with sour cream and sweet sauce. “This is typical of the food of Mexico,” she says, and most of the church-goers are Mexican. She calls La Placita “the one little area that has been left for us.”
She shrugs: “There isn’t much to see. All there really is to do is eat. We come to make people happy. It reminds them of their little towns. People remember their childhood.”
If business is good today, Herrera says, she will sell 50 fish dishes, 50 bananas. She laughs and adds, “But sometimes we have to eat bananas all week long.”
Her husband, Benjamin, 45, once a storekeeper in Mexico, grills hot dogs wrapped in bacon, tantalizingly seductive with the smell of onions browning in their drippings ($2 each). “A person from a Latin country is happy when he sees these things,” he says.
Yes, he understands health officials’ concerns. But when food is under wraps, “you don’t see it and you don’t smell it. Those carts look like they’re dead. Life is no longer a picnic.”
Together, the Herreras clear $60 to $80 on a good day, enough to support their sons, ages 3 and 8, who play beneath the stall. The boys come with their parents every weekend. “They learn the business,” Beatrice says.
On the other side of the church, Felix Aranda, 34, and her husband Carlos Contreras, 36, are in their usual spot, selling pork skins, mangoes, cold drinks and ceviche. Felix and Carlos have seven children, ages 5 to 19. The eldest, Graciela, helps out every weekend; weekdays, she is an education major at Cal State L.A. Once, Felix was a domestic, then a restaurant worker; Carlos was a gardener.
Working for someone else, Felix says, “You work a long time for minimum wage. If I work all day long selling, I make a little bit more and nobody is telling me what to do, nobody yells at me, nobody scolds me.”
Should any of her children become vendors, she says, “I would be pleased because they wouldn’t have a boss. But we also say, ‘Do a little bit better than we did.’ ”