The streets of Los Angeles can be a harrowing place, what with gun violence, gang activity and the illicit selling of ... food?
That's right: Street vending -- from unsanctioned pushcarts, that is, not food trucks -- is illegal in Los Angeles. The irresistible-sizzling-bacon-wrapped-late-night-hot-dog, the warm-summer-chili-salted-mango-pick-me-up, the palm-sized-perfect-lunch-tacos-with-extra-cilantro -- any item you may have indulged in from a ubiquitous L.A. street food cart was most likely sold to you without the city's permission.
Because these carts are illegal, vendors are often harassed by gang members and forced to pay dues to sell on high trafficked corners; they're also regularly hassled and ticketed by the police. And at the very least, there is absolutely no job security.
On February 19, a group of students, parents, educators and community activists from around Los Angeles gathered at the Autry National Museum for the opening reception of "Giving Voices to the Voiceless: Stories of the Street Vendor in Los Angeles," an exhibit that aims to raise awareness of the sometimes bleak reality of our city's street vendors.
The exhibit showcases artwork made by senior high school students of Los Angeles School of Global Studies (LASGS) after they ventured out into their communities and interviewed street vendors about their lives.
For this project, the students worked with East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) as part of ELACC's Legalize Street Vending Initiative, as well as community organizations 826LA and Facing History and Ourselves.
The students and ELACC hope that their work will raise awareness about the daily hardships street vendors face and will help garner support for legislation that will legalize sidewalk street vending.
"The biggest problem is that people don't even know street vending is illegal," Janet Favela, a community organizer for ELACC, said on Tuesday.
L.A. County calls sidewalk street vending a "serious public health hazard to our communities" and often fines or shuts down vendors who sell their goodies on the street.
But, problematically, even vendors who have paid for an official street vending permit from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and whose carts are completely up to health code are still prohibited from selling food from a pushcart on sidewalks in Los Angeles due to city laws.
"This project helped me start to see the issues that vendors have to deal with that go along with being involved in an illicit business," Henry Landavrd, 17, explained.
The students had their work cut out for them: many of the vendors were hesitant to talk to the students about their experiences.
"When we were interviewing vendors, some of them literally ran away while we were talking to them because they were afraid of the police," said Magaly Lopez, the 17-year-old Editor-in-Chief of the LASGS student newspaper.
"I tried to put myself in their position. If my parents were selling fruit and I had to see them run away from the police that would be so hard. It's crazy."
ELACC advised the students on how to approach street vendors, introduce themselves and avoid offending them. "But even then," Miguel Andre, 17, says, "many of them did not want to talk to us."
For Andre, this reticence made the project even more important. "The whole point is to lend our voice to the voiceless," he said. "We are trying to speak in their shoes because they can't officially speak for themselves."
Tuesday night, many of the LASGS students echoed the sentiment that street vendors are important parts of their community.
"When I asked the class if any of them personally knew a street vendor, almost every kid's hand shot up," said Nicole Solig, who co-teaches the seniors in English and Social Studies with Naomi Sugimoto.
"My neighbor is a street vendor," Andre said. "My babysitter is, too, and my aunt used to be."
Students engaged in group projects to illustrate the presence of street vendors in their communities. One group created a photo collage featuring an aerial image of Los Angeles connected to other smaller photographs of street vendors and their food. Another wrote and performed an original rap song from the perspective of a street vendor, lending a first-person human element to the occupation.
"We wanted to show that we are all linked as one community," Lopez said. "If we can help them, we are helping everyone."
The show runs at the Autry National Center through March 19th.