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Families Precariously Make a Living from Street Vending, City Remains Ambivalent

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Street vendor walking by a mural depicting children holding hands on W. Temple St. (Photo by Ricardo Dearatanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This story is part of KCET Departures' series of articles and essays on the Informal Economies of L.A. and how local entrepreneurs create new opportunities outside of formal economic establishments.

Ana has the typical seventeen-year-old concerns.

For example, the high school senior from the East San Fernando Valley is especially concerned about the environment. She feels that people should be more accountable to their community by ensuring it remains clean for future generations.

Also, she's concerned about doing well in school so that she can get into the university of her choice where she'll get a degree in Animal Science and eventually pursue veterinary training.

Except on some Sundays, her concerns are less typical. On these days, she worries about law enforcement officials approaching her and her mother as they stand on a sidewalk. She'll keep a careful eye or ear out to ensure that there is ample time for her and her mother to wrap up their illicit merchandise and execute an exit strategy.

The source of their potential crime: fresh-baked sweet bread.

Ana's mother sells home-made pan dulce in front of their local church on Sundays, and on the days that she accompanies her mother, she, along with other vendors outside of the church doors, keep a lookout for police, health officials and as of late, unhappy neighbors. "People are scared of the consequences (when police approach)," Ana explains. "The tickets people get are sometimes more than what people make in a day."

Selling traditional sweet bread and other homemade goods helps thousands of L.A. families stay financially afloat. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
Selling traditional sweet bread and other homemade goods helps thousands of L.A. families stay financially afloat. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

According to East L.A. Community Corporation, there are an estimated 10,000 street food vendors operating in the City of Los Angeles, stretching from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro. "Street vending is important to the City of Los Angeles," Fernando Abarca, a Community Organizer with East L.A. Community Corporation states. "It creates economic opportunity for thousands of families, it supports the economic development of communities, it's part of the diverse fabric that makes up the culture of Los Angeles."

For the past couple of years, the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, a coalition of Los Angeles organizations, vendors and supporters, have been working to develop a city-wide policy to provide pathways for legal street vending in Los Angeles. While the Campaign has been gaining momentum in the past few months, it has not been without its frustrating road blocks.

In early October, Mayor Eric Garcetti met with organizers and offered an attentive ear to their recommendations. According to Abarca, their campaign asked to simply to allow vendors the opportunity to legally contribute to the economic growth of Los Angeles. This includes developing incentives for vendors who sell healthy food options, creating avenues for vendors to work with City departments to operate within all boundaries of the law and legitimizing vending by opening access to operate alongside other small business owners in spaces such as farmer's markets. Nonetheless, the Mayor did not offer his official support.

A few weeks later, a much larger delegation of street vendors, organizers and supporters, filled the meeting chambers of the Economic Development Committee for what was highly anticipated to be a large step forward in the move to legalize street vending. It was the campaign coalition's hope that the Economic Development Committee would review the policy recommendations and provide some resolution to what vendors and organizers had been working on for months. Instead, the Committee asked for further revisions on the policy recommendations. "It's frustrating," Abarca says "especially for the vendors who have been attending hearings, providing testimony and offering feedback." The recommended policy adjustments won't be reviewed by the Committee any time soon. In the meantime, street vendors and their children, like Ana, continue to build their lives through the confusion of their illicit craft.

Small, self-run businesses of street vendors contribute significantly to the state's economy, yet remain largely criminalized. I Photo by Jonathan Olivares
Small, self-run businesses of street vendors contribute significantly to the state's economy, yet remain largely criminalized. I Photo by Jonathan Olivares

Sweet Bread and Sustainability
Ana's mother, Ana Maria, sells the traditional Mexican sweet bread that is native to her hometown of Michoacan. It's a special recipe passed down from her mother. "It's a very traditional bread, but there's something my mother did to it that gave it a very special touch and it took me a while to learn it myself," she explains. Ana Maria began making the bread in her kitchen fifteen years ago, after she had her second child. As the head of her household, she wanted to be sure her children had the support and attention they would need to be successful. She left her job in a ceramics factory and began perfecting her family craft, baking at night when her children were tucked away in bed and the night air would cool down the house.

"I remember waking up sometimes when my mom was baking and the kitchen would smell so, so good," Ana recalls with her voice wrapping around the scented memory. "We've been eating (her bread) all our lives. It's home to us."

Ana Maria sells each piece of sweet nostalgia for about a dollar. In a day, she could make anywhere from $100 - $250, depending on the public's demand. With this she's able to support her daughter through her senior year of High School, buying her school supplies, clothing and providing her with food and shelter. It was also pan dulce that helped Ana Maria's sons get to college, one at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the other, Luis, currently a senior at CSUN majoring in Civil Engineering.

Luis methodically explains his mother's vending strategies, creating a blueprint of his family's micro-economic world; supply and demand, competition, technique, marketing. "We used to help her in the kitchen when we got older, but making the bread is too complicated, so we mostly helped facilitate the process. Now I help her by driving her around, looking for new vending spots, helping to set up and promote when she sells at a church fair because she has more demand." Luis and his family have also supported his mother by looking into small business licenses, health permits and food preparation certificates.

However, Ana Maria hasn't gotten her small business license. Luis notes that the process is confusing and he's not sure that business licenses, health permits and certificates will provide any sort of legitimacy to their micro-business. "Vendors do research and try to go through the proper channels (to sell), to make sure everything is in order but they eventually find out that the permits available to them won't protect them from having their merchandise confiscated or being fined because how and where they're selling is illegal. It's confusing," Abarca states.

No matter what vendors do to protect themselves and their customers, the fact remains that vending on Los Angeles' sidewalks remains illegal. Regardless of efforts to be compliant with health codes or food preparation procedures, Los Angeles bans the use of sidewalks for food vending, imposing fines of up to $1,000 and/or 6 months. Previously, some vendors were able to move onto park grounds to sell their goods with fewer consequences. However, on September 27, 2015, a city-wide ban on vending in Los Angeles parks went into effect. This leaves vendors increasingly wary of law enforcement officials, health inspectors and community members in opposition to their business methods. Some vendors have reported being harassed by local residents and police officials alike, but because of the nature of their selling method, there are no means to protect themselves or their livelihood.

What bewilders some supporters of legal street vending is that much of what Angelenos know and love about Los Angeles' food culture is based on food traditionally sold by street vendors. In truth, Los Angeles' 'official' hot dog was born from the carts of vendors who wait for late-night revelers to begin their weary journey home.

It's a Family Issue
While the tradition of street vending internationally has been long and steady, Los Angeles seems to have experienced an upswing in families relying on this micro-economy as a means of sustainability after the economic downturn in 2007.

Such was the case for Gricelda, who after migrating to the United States in 1995, was able to work her way through various downtown factories until she secured a position with Los Angeles-based fashion giant, American Apparel. There she was able to earn an income that, in conjunction with her husband who works as a day-laborer, provided a comfortable life for her three children. That is, until she was laid off from the company eight years ago. Undocumented and unable to secure employment elsewhere, she turned to her family's legacy of baking bread. "My parents were in the (baking) business in Mexico City when I was young. I learned everything I know from them. When I was out of a job and out of options, I figured I could take up the family business to provide for my children," she states.

"People started to turn to 'any means necessary' to support their families," Abarca notes. "Vendors aren't only undocumented individuals, they're people who are looking to supplement their income, people who need to feed their families. This is not just an immigrant issue, it's a labor issue." Some vendors find themselves selling on weekends, in addition to their week-day jobs in 'legitimate' goods and services markets, to meet the demands of the ever-growing cost of living in Los Angeles. Because of this, street vendors often find themselves standing at the intersections of reforming Los Angeles' public policies, such as access to affordable housing and health care, education and increasing the City's minimum wage.

While vendors flow through the intersections of reforming City-wide policies seeking to improve self-sustainability, the street vending economy is not independent from contributing to the greater economic infrastructure of Los Angeles. According to a study by the Economic Roundtable, street vendors contribute an estimated $504 million annually to the economic fabric of Los Angeles. As stated by the study, the demand for goods and service from local suppliers translates to increased sales and jobs for local businesses who supply goods to vendors.

Deeper still, the repercussions vendors face for operating their businesses illegally in Los Angeles under the current policy is a family issue. Despite the street vending's contribution to the local economy, families continue to operate under fear of prosecution by the law. The children of street vendors suffer from chronic uncertainty, not knowing if they'll have stable housing, sustenance and, more frightening, a parent in the home.

According to organizers, street vending is not just an immigrant issue, but also tied to issues of labor and housing. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
According to organizers, street vending is not just an immigrant issue, but also tied to issues of labor and housing. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

"The first time I saw the police go to my mom, I was scared. I told her I was just scared that they were going to take away her stuff, but I was really scared they were going to take my mom away. I was scared because I knew she didn't have a permit. I thought maybe they'd deport her." This is twelve year-old Mariela's recollection of her first encounter with police when she accompanied her mother, Gricelda, to sell her baked goods in the San Fernando Valley.

"It's heartbreaking," Gricelda explains. "No one wants to see their children experience that. When that happened I had to reassure her that everything was going to be fine, but of course I was terrified on the inside."

Now, Mariela confidently says she stays a bit more calm when she sees police officers approaching and is able to help her little brother understand what's happening as well. However, she knows there's always a risk and understands that her mother may be subject to the consequences of her micro-business. "It's important to me that people support (the campaign to legalize street vending) because my mom can provide for me and my brother and sister with food and personal stuff we need for school," she says.

While policy recommendations and calls for support by Los Angeles' civic leaders are dribbled back and forth through City Hall's marbled walls, street vendors and their families continue to navigate their livelihood on the city's bustling streets; feeding and providing daily provisions to day laborers, office workers, clergy, students, educators and, in some instances, city workers themselves.

Back in Ana Maria's home, filled with the smell of warm, freshly-baked bread, Luis explains that in addition to pursuing his B.A. in Civil Engineering at CSUN, he also heads campus-based events, and is an active member the school's student engineering organization and student government. He wants to make sure that after college he can find a good job so that he can contribute to his family's income, which currently relies solely on his mother's earnings as a vendor. "Our country was built on the idea of being able to come and work to sustain yourself," he asserts, "and trying to limit the ability to conduct business for someone who has limited opportunity for growth is not in the spirit of what our country was founded on."

Beaming with pride, his sister Ana says "My mom is a great person, she helps people out when they need it and she teaches us the importance of being a part of community. Some people might be ashamed of what their parents do, but I'm not. My mom is a hard worker, she does a lot to support us - and I think she's awesome."

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