The Hidden Anxiety in a Taco-Vendor Fight

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a political columnist at the Arizona Republic

Arizona's latest ethnic squabble has taken the form of a food fight.

It began when the city of Phoenix launched a selective crackdown on mobile food vendors. Spearheaded by the city's Department of Neighborhood Services, the clampdown was in response to complaints from neighborhood groups and rival restaurant owners about litter, unsanitary conditions, loud music, bright lights, late hours and an often unsavory clientele.

The bureaucrats filed a motion with a hearing officer, who agreed that some regulation of the vendors was warranted. So, after creatively interpreting a zoning ordinance, the officer imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, a ban against parking on vacant lots and a musical-chairs requirement that vendors not stay in the same place for more than five consecutive days, four times a year.

As it turns out, the vendors who sparked the complaints and who have been held to the new rules are Mexican immigrants who operate taco trucks and who speak little or no English. And most of the neighbors lodging the complaints are white.

Californians have seen this movie before. In the late 1980s, it was the Los Angeles City Council that sought to regulate taco trucks, further dividing a divided city. In the mid-1990s, the city eased its restrictions on street vending, though other Southern California cities such as Anaheim have pressed the issue as immigration from Latin America changed their ethnic makeup. Arizonans have been worried for years that Phoenix is becoming Los Angeles. The second-fastest growing city in America (after Las Vegas) is losing its innocence, they say. There is more pollution, more crime, more traffic.

More immigrants. Crackdowns by the Border Patrol at entry sites near San Diego and El Paso are funneling record numbers of Mexican immigrants through Arizona. Douglas, Ariz., a small border community in the southeastern corner of the state, is now the No. 1 crossing point in the country.

Now that the population of the nation's sixth-largest city is one-quarter Latino, and an increasing number of the Latinos are immigrants, Phoenicians are worried. The irony--that Mexicans were, as a matter of history, in this desert first and that it was the offspring of white Europeans who migrated here, uninvited, from the east 150 years ago--is conveniently lost in the short-term memory of the new Southwest.

Phoenix's crackdown might have been successful if the taco vendors hadn't fought back. Many of them have been in business--in some cases, parked in the same spot--for more than a decade. They protested that they had paid their annual licensing fees, and that they had, until recently, never been bothered by the city. The taqueros feared that the new restrictions, especially the curfew, would put them out of business and leave them with no way to feed their families.

Then, the tide turned. The vendors contacted the Tonatierra Project, a Phoenix-based, nonprofit immigrant-rights organization. Tonatierra's director, a graying activist named Salvador Reza, agreed to help. He held regular meetings with the taco vendors and immersed himself in the language of zoning law, helping them file an appeal to the ordinance. He made the vendors fill out the paperwork themselves and then translated it into English. Reza even convinced a prominent local civil rights attorney to handle the appeal.

Almost overnight, nearly 100 food vendors were whipped into a makeshift political association. They even printed up T-shirts inscribed with their new name: Union Pochteca Vendedores Ambulantes (United Mobile Food Vendors).

The startling thing is that these were, after all, expatriates from a country with a corrupt political system who, given the choice, would probably have preferred to avoid any contact with the U.S. legal and political systems. Yet, because they felt their livelihood and their family's welfare were threatened, they jumped right in.

On the warm afternoon in May when the appeal was filed, about 60 vendors marched on City Hall. Outside, a string of a dozen taco trucks circled the building. "They want to take away our right to work," said 36-year-old Jose Moreno, who marched in a sombrero and apron. He works 12-hour days in his taco truck to support his wife and three kids.

"Why don't they go after the drug dealers who do business in the same neighborhoods where we work? Why are they picking on us?"

The vendors brought the same passion to their next protest, a one-and-a-half-mile march in June from the state capital to city hall. Seventy vendors, and their supporters, marched in 110-degree heat as bewildered spectators watched from air-conditioned office buildings. Brandishing mini-umbrellas and water bottles, but sporting their new T-shirts, the vendors were intent on proving a point.

They brought similar determination to last week's meeting of the city's board of adjustment, which was to decide whether to grant the vendors' request for a continuance of the original order and a freeze in enforcement. In the audience, 50 vendors sat quietly, hanging on the words of an interpreter. Next to them, a smaller group of neighbors urged board members to deny the motion. Neither side spoke to the other. In the end, the board sided with the vendors and approved a continuance until Nov. 4, when it will meet again to decide the merits of the appeal.

In handing down its ruling, the board criticized city politicians and bureaucrats for bungling the operation. One member criticized the hearing officer's decree as too broad. Another faulted the city, and both sides, for not compromising. The neighbors had heard enough and stormed out of the room. Attorney Stephen Montoya, representing the vendors, was pleased with the decision but may have sensed that his victory could be short-lived, Montoya announced that the vendors are ready to compromise.

If politicians and bureaucrats stay out of it, and people just talk to one another, the Phoenix taco wars may yet be resolved peacefully.

As for what sparked the battle, at least one city councilman acknowledges that some of those who called his office to complain about the vendors lamented the changes in Phoenix and demanded action because "this isn't Mexico." Comments like that suggest the taco-vendor crackdown was never really about zoning ordinances or health codes or litter or loud music.

Mostly, it was about fear. The taco vendors, by their existence, frightened those Arizonans who dreaded the "Mexicanization" of their neighborhoods. The frightened neighbors then set out to frighten their council members into attempting to return the city to the way it used to be. The politicians responded by frightening the bureaucrats who launched a crackdown that, of course, frightened the vendors.

Phoenix isn't the first place to be swept up in fear over Mexican immigrants. In the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, the city council has begun to enforce a 1995 ordinance prohibiting business signs from being less than 75% English. In Denver, the city council only recently lifted a ban on paleteros, ice-cream carts run by Mexican immigrants. And in California, it was fear that sparked complaints when Chevron began running commercials in Spanish on English-speaking TV. The ads were subsequently pulled.

The Phoenix taco war isn't really about tacos or vendors. It's about the winds of change and the lengths to which frightened people will go to try to fend them off.

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