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Juan Gonzalez* has walked to Mariachi Plaza for almost two years to sell Mexican street corn and chicharrones de harina out of his pushcart to commuters of the Metro Gold Line and to the mariachis waiting for work on benches along Boyle Avenue.
“To have affordable food that’s good, it's a necessity,” said Gonzalez who sits under the shade of an umbrella with the mariachis and eats a bowl of corn before moving on to his next location a few blocks away.
On First Street, just east of the plaza, Raquel Escamilla, also known as “La Guera Tamalera,” parks her shopping cart holding the masa for her handmade tortillas and freshly cooked chicken and pork tamales outside of Las Palomas. The dive bar is dark and rancheras play on the jukebox as La Guera serves two tamales to an older man drinking beer at the bar. He asks her what kind of tamales she has today. “I gave you two pork. I already know you’ll like them,” responded La Guera in Spanish.
La Guera lives in Boyle Heights and walks her cart to First Street where she has built a clientele that depends on her handmade tortillas sold by the dozen to complete their meals at home.
“I’m in my sixties and sometimes my back hurts from pushing the cart, but this is my work,” she said.
La Guera tries to keep her prices low, at $1.25 a tamale, but some of her customers complain and ask her to bring the price down to a dollar.
“People don’t make a lot of money, so it helps the community to be able to buy at cheap prices,” said La Guera who is aware of the threat of gentrification in Boyle Heights and worries that if the demographics of the neighborhood changed, she’d be out of work.
This isn't the first time street vendors in Boyle Heights face the threat of displacement. In the ‘90s, Metro’s plan for a Red Line eastside extension, which Metro eventually scrapped, displaced a market and other small businesses that helped create a commercial corridor along First Street. In the ‘00s, the removal of a traffic island for the construction of Mariachi Plaza and the Gold Line eastside extension created barriers for street vendors who sold on the street surrounding the island. Parking around the traffic island was also removed leaving clients of the mariachis with little parking.
The redevelopment shook up a neighborhood who made use of the informal economies that formed around the intersection, but people adapted to the changes, said Carla De Paz, a community organizer with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation.
“This is where people who have little resources and opportunities have created an entrepreneurial endeavor by sidewalk vending,” said De Paz of the vendors who overcome barriers like access to capital and transportation by creating ambulatory businesses within their own neighborhood.
Street vending can be the main source of income for those who have difficulty finding a job because of their immigration status, criminal record or physical disability and for others, it provides the supplemental income needed to live in Los Angeles’ expensive rental market.
In 2014, Metro faced backlash when the public learned of the agency’s plans to develop a medical complex with developer Primestor immediately next to the plaza and retail and commercial office space on the property that currently houses J&F Ice Cream, Santa Cecilia and Libros Schmibros. Strong opposition to the plans forced Metro to go back to the drawing board and engage in a vigorous community outreach campaign which led to the establishment of development guidelines that include community-serving retail, affordable housing and space for the existing community of mariachis and street vendors.
“Street vendors and small businesses were able to advocate for themselves in this space and we hope that incoming developers, tenants and businesses understand that street vendors are a part of the community and that nobody is going to be calling the cops on each other and displacing people who've been part of the community for a long time,” said De Paz.
Luis Valdivia has been walking from his apartment about a block to Mariachi Plaza in his traje de charro for almost 15 years. There he meets with other mariachis and waits for clients who come from all over the eastside looking for mariachis to play at their events. Despite such popularity, however, Valdivia said work is getting harder to come by.
“Is it because more people are spending money on rents and less on culture,” wondered Valdivia looking over at the mariachis from a cement kiosk in the center of the plaza. “I don't know.”
Rent in Boyle Heights has increased by nearly 11% over the past year, according to a study from Zillow, but in some cases renters have been hit with increases as high 80%, like Valdivia whose rent rose from $1,020 to $1,825 after the building where he and 9 other mariachis live came under new ownership. The mariachis refused to pay the increases and are now fighting an eviction in court.
“We depend on the plaza and if we cannot reach the plaza, we would have to conduct most of our business over the phone, which is hard to do,” said Valdivia.
More than 75% of Boyle Heights residents are renters, according to data from the Los Angeles Times and skyrocketing rents threaten to displace the neighborhood’s working class and immigrant residents — the mariachis’ biggest customers.
“These are the people that pay for mariachi. This neighborhood is our source of income,” said Valdivia who, along with other mariachis in his building, are fighting their case publicly and organizing with community groups against gentrification and displacement in Boyle Heights.
“If we lose our court case it’s going to be a problem for us because we would need to find something close to the plaza and it’s too expensive, but we are staying positive,” said Valdivia.
Worried about the changes Metro's plan to build a medical complex would bring to the neighborhood, small businesses along East First Street formed the First Street Business Association that organizes workshops to help business owners with accounting, advertising and ways to adapt to Boyle Heights changing demographics.
“The businesses know that we’re under the threat of being displaced due to the increase in rental prices for businesses and the selling of properties that have been going on in the area,” said Carlos Ortez, owner of Un Solo Sol and president of the First Street Businesses Association.
By serving healthy food from Mexico and the Mediterranean and offering vegetarian options, Ortez has designed a menu that appeals to the local community while trying to ensure the longevity of the restaurant.
“The younger generations in Boyle Heights want to open vegan eateries in the area, but how successful could they be if they can’t secure a $250,000 bank loan? With that in mind you can tell who will be most likely to stay and who is most likely to leave,” said Ortez.
“We try to make ourselves public by voicing our concerns to the community because it’s not just the businesses that are being displaced but the community too,” said Ortez of the First Street Business Association that also organizes events the local community can identify with and that encourages commerce along First Street like the upcoming Noches de Serenata y Paseo de Arte.
“We try to make East First Street into a destination spot and little by little we have created that awareness and we are trying to include all of the facets of economic growth into a night by incorporating mariachis, the community of vendors and small businesses,” said Ortez.
*Name changed for privacy.
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