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Taco trucks feel crunch

Sergio Merida and his relatives built taco trucks into a family business.

To sell their fresh-cooked tacos, carnitas and tortas, each day they spread out across Palos Verdes Estates -- Merida to the east, his wife, Maggie Avila, to the center, and Sonia Avila, Maggie’s mother, to the west.

At lunchtime, Merida and Sonia Avila would pull alongside a small park and spend two hours feeding gardeners, construction workers and nannies, and the occasional local.

The workers gobbled up the food, which they appreciated, since in this city tucked against the ocean, they otherwise might have had to drive a long way to get a cheap lunch.

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“It saves us time, it saves us money,” said Ramon Lezama, as he waited for his quesadilla next to his work site.

But nearby residents saw the trucks differently, complaining of traffic and litter. “It was just disruptive to the neighborhood,” City Manager Joseph Hoefgren said.

Last summer, the City Council took action.

No longer could loncheras set up for hours at parks or construction sites. Instead, they could stop only at sites where a bathroom was available to patrons, and stay just half an hour, barely enough time to set up and prepare a meal or two before having to break down and drive away again. In addition, all employees had to get background checks.

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Palos Verdes Estates is hardly the only community to crack down on the trucks in recent years. Los Angeles County supervisors last year passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor for taco trucks to park in unincorporated spots for more than an hour after restaurateurs complained they were siphoning off customers. A Superior Court judge later ruled the law unconstitutional.

Similar restrictions have been imposed nationwide in cities large and small, rural and metropolitan, from Hughson, Calif., to Houston, and in seemingly unlikely spots, including Des Moines; Charlotte, N.C.; and Hillsboro, Ore.

As the Latino population has grown across the United States, so have the number of taco trucks catering to them.

How communities approach them varies widely.

Suburban Jefferson Parish, La., banned them. So did Hughson, in the San Joaquin Valley. But nearby Turlock established a taco truck plaza.

“They’re very popular among city employees,” said Turlock’s planning director, Debbie Whitmore.

Officials in many communities say the aim of their regulations is to ensure the food is sanitary, safety codes are followed and noise, late-night crowds and garbage don’t get out of control. Some cities have passed ordinances that don’t explicitly ban taco trucks but make it all but impossible for them to operate profitably.

Sometimes charges of racism are thrown at taco truck opponents, such as when an official in Gwinnett County, Ga., was reported to have called the growth of taco trucks and other mobile vendors “gypsy-fication,” or when a Houston-area politician said, “I don’t want us to become, you know, a Third World area.”

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Asked if regulations enacted in Houston were racist, David Mestemaker, an attorney who represented taco truck owners there, replied: “Absolutely. It’s a classic case of discrimination, because 95% of the people who own them are Hispanic.” A federal judge dismissed Mestemaker’s suit to overturn the regulations.

Often, as in Los Angeles, owners of Mexican restaurants are behind efforts to get rid of the trucks, arguing that they’re unfair competition because they don’t have overhead.

Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis law school and a professor of law and Chicano studies, said restaurant owners tend to be longer-term residents and taco truck owners more recent arrivals. “This, in my mind, is another example of that tension between the established Mexican American citizens and the immigrants,” he said.

But in places such as Charlotte and Des Moines, where Mexican and Central American immigrants have arrived in the last decade or two, he said, the fight against taco trucks is another way to express anti-immigrant views.

“It’s hard for me to see how this whole taco truck controversy is separate and apart from the continuing clash of cultures in the U.S.,” Johnson said.

In Des Moines, Councilman Brian Meyer said he introduced legislation to regulate taco trucks after a neighborhood association from the city’s south side complained about “transient merchants” who also sold velvet Elvises and shaved ice. He took offense at claims that the motivation for the ordinance was racist.

“I don’t want to say this was Latino versus white,” he said. “We are probably the most diverse city in the state. Outside of Chicago, we have the largest population of Italian Americans in the Midwest.”

But Armando Villareal, former administrator of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs, said the complaints about the trucks came from people not used to seeing Latinos, whose numbers in the state have jumped 50% this decade.

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“The growth of the Latino population has been sudden and explosive, and Iowa has been homogeneous since European immigration to the state -- and these, I guess are growing pains,” he said. “It’s just going to take time for folks to get used to living with each other.”

In Charlotte, which has a fast-growing Latino population, residents complained last year that taco trucks were camping out in office parking lots past midnight, bringing crowds and crime to nearby neighborhoods.

“They were transitioning from a place for food to a place for folks to congregate,” said John Lassiter, an at-large city councilman. “A lot of these neighborhoods are older, struggling with the changing demographic, so they perceive the taco truck and the related use as negatively impacting their quality of life and potentially impacting the value of their primary asset, which is their house.”

The City Council responded by passing an ordinance forcing taco trucks to shut down at 9 p.m. and ensuring that several of them could not gather in the same parking lot.

One of the broadest bans on taco trucks was enacted in California in 2000 -- in Red Bluff, a town of about 15,000 between Chico and Redding. Last year, the city held off on cracking down on a taco truck that had begun operating, City Manager Martin Nichols said. The district attorney asked the city to go slow because it was investigating the owner’s suspected involvement in a drug and money laundering ring.

Meanwhile, another entrepreneur bought a couple of taco trucks and was ready to begin operations. Then he discovered that the taco trucks themselves were illegal in Red Bluff.

“When he found out he had a worthless investment, the City Council listened to him,” Nichols said.

A new ordinance to allow taco trucks -- but require minimum standards and design review before they can operate -- passed this month.

Buying a taco truck is not cheap. Merida said his truck cost $150,000. His mother-in-law, Sonia Avila, has been driving a lonchera around Palos Verdes Estates for years, and the family is well known in the area. Construction workers starting a job will sometimes call them to let them know where to bring the truck.

Merida said he doesn’t believe taco trucks ever caused problems in the city. Between the recession and the new ordinance, Merida says business is down by half. Now Sonia Avila is working on her daughter’s truck.

“The city was quiet until they saw the problems in L.A. with lunch trucks,” Merida said. “Then everything started popping up.”

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com


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