Photograph by Rocio Hernandez, Las Fotos Project, 2021
The melodic chimes of the paleteros cart, the muffled honks of the eloteros, and the distant echoes announcing “taaammmmales” is the symphonic orchestra of Boyle Heights. Street vending has always been an integral part of the neighborhood’s landscape, but it was not officially legalized until 2018 through the efforts of local activists and street vendors. The battle for legalization reveals the classist and xenophobic tensions that continuously challenge the multiethnic working-class neighborhood. The sections featured below capture the essence of community and demonstrate how their drive and entrepreneurial spirit shape the City of Angels
Making Street Vending Illegal
While street vending has always held a prominent place in Los Angeles history it has always been a contested practice. Its complete history remains unclear, but records indicate that tamale carts and other Mexican and Chinese food vendors populated the city as far back as the 1870s. this practice was consistently met with attempts to regulate or banish it altogether. In 1910, segregation laws between white and non-white vendors limited the presence of Mexican and Chinese vendors in downtown Los Angeles. However, these vendors would continue to thrive throughout smaller Los Angeles neighborhoods outside of downtown. Over time the construction and popularization of sit-down restaurants would further marginalize street vendors but this practice would never fully disappear. With each wave of new immigrant populations came the rebirth and explosion of street vending.
In the late 20th. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America would once again bring in a new era of street vending. With limited employment options, immigrants from Mexico and Central America used this informal economy to sell food, flowers, and other products in order to survive. Tragically, the xenophobia that pushed many vendors out of downtown Los Angeles in the early 1900s would continue to exist in different ways.
City leaders and store-front owners alike would argue that street vending was an unsanitary practice that produced crime and was hazardous to the general population. The police would often be called by storefront owners to clear out vendors. The health department often confiscated or destroyed food vendor’s products. Even after the decriminalization of street vending in 2018, the legality of street vending would shift numerous times across the city and it would not always be equally enforced. With limited and unclear legal protections, vendors, particularly those precarious by immigration status and or linguistic abilities, were vulnerable to police harassment, gang violence, and extortion. Their marginalized identies often impeded them from opening bank accounts, making them frequent targets for robberies and other crimes. Additionally, their fear of deportation and contact with authorities made street vending all the more risky. They had to learn to navigate the streets with extreme caution.
El Mercado (El Mercadito)
In Boyle Heights tensions between Street vending and residents would more uneasily play out over the parking lot of El Mercado. Founded in 1968 at the site of the former Boyle Heights Lumber company, El Mercado also known as El Mercadito, houses a variety of shops that offer an array of traditional Mexican goods and foods. Although today it primarily sells Latinx goods, it initially served Mexican, Japanese and Italian communities in the first decade of its existence. Over the years as the market grew in size, owner Pedro Rosado found himself in the middle of heated debate over zoning issues and vendor rights. Vendors selling toys, snacks and other goods had spilled over into the Mercado’s parking lot causing many local residents to complain about the loud noises, limited parking, trash, loitering and public drunkenness. His petitions to rezone the parking lot as a commercial area were passionately opposed by residents and city council members. The debate split activist groups in the community who took different perspectives on the issues in the 1990s. Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) and Madres del Este de Los Ángeles (MELASI) who both successfully stopped the construction of state prison in the neighborhood, now stood at the opposing side of the debate, highlighting tensions that existed among activist groups of the area. MELA members argued against expanding El Mercadito as vendors had been found to be selling illegal pharmaceuticals that placed “children’s lives at risk.” In fact, in 1999 it was reported that LAPD confiscated between 500,000 to 1 million worth of illegal medications. While this was true other vendors were not necessarily implicated in illegal activity. MELASI members argued that they supported the vendors of El Mercadito as they worried about the vendor’s children who would “be left without nourishment” if they were to be asked to vacate the space. The debates captured the tension that existed between the rights of local residents and the livelihood of street vendors. Should people be allowed to sell their goods outdoors in areas that are not legal zoned for commerce? Should we value the rights of vendors over residents? Ultimately the city compromised with Rosado in 1999 by requiring El Mercado to comply with city noise and trash restrictions and to help vendors install outdoor booths. Today El Mercado continues to be a thriving symbol of entrepreneurship and opportunity in Boyle Heights as it is now managed by the second generation of the Rosado family. Nonetheless, some community members are wary of possible changes due proposed renovations, which can be seen as efforts to gentrify the building and its storefronts.which can be seen as efforts to gentrify the building and its storefronts.
Legalizing Street Vending
The long-rooted history of street vending helps us to contextualize some of the current xenophobic attacks on people who have historically relied on this informal economy in order to sustain themselves.
Writers at The Boyle Heights Beat have dedicated a series to those who have worked as street vendors in Boyle Heights. One of the people they have interviewed was Caridad Vazquez. Vazquez touched upon a series of important issues that affect street vendors. One of which happens to be the demographics of those who rely on this labor.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act which passed in 1986 prohibited employers from willingly and knowingly hiring people who were unable to provide proof of U.S. citizenship/ a valid VISA. This being said, most street vendors who labor in the informal job sector, are undocumented. As for Vazquez, “...after a few jobs as a factory worker and babysitter, Vazquez, an undocumented immigrant, saw limited opportunities and turned to the one thing she knew best: selling food on the street.”
Like Vazquez, many undocumented people have resorted to street vending because this sector has created opportunities for those who are unable to work in the formal economy. Nonetheless, the struggle to decriminalize street vending has been a journey and even though the city of Los Angeles legalized street vending in January 1 of 2018, this has not necessarily exempted people from being criminalized and targeted.
Mariachi Plaza is the long-standing gathering site for local mariachi bands and musicians. As early as the 1930s, mariachis congregated on the corner of Boyle Avenue and First Street looking for work at private parties, restaurants, and public events. In 1998, the State of Jalisco, Mexico, the home of mariachi music, donated a grand stone kiosk to the plaza. The kiosk was dedicated in the center of the plaza, marking the site as a cultural and community landmark. Shortly after the 1998 dedication, seventeen wrought iron benches from Jalisco were added to the plaza, each representing a different municipality. By connecting Mariachi Plaza to the home of mariachi music and providing space for local musicians to gather and perform, the plaza became a home to mariachis in Boyle Heights.
In 2009, Mariachi Plaza Station was added to the eastside extension of the Gold Line in Los Angeles. While the station connected Mariachi Plaza to other parts of the city, it also made the Metropolitan Transportation Authority the owner of most of the properties surrounding the plaza. Metro quickly started plans to develop the area, including housing and street-level retail space. Residents and mariachis were immediately worried about Metro’s plans. Specifically, they were concerned that new development would raise rent, pushing mariachis out of apartments that surround the plaza, and that new commercial space would limit access to the plaza and the ability to find work. These concerns stemmed from the increasing gentrification of downtown and the potential for it to creep into Boyle Heights. While initial development plans were tabled after community pushback, these 2009 plans foreshadowed the increasing interest in Mariachi Plaza from developers, how it would impact mariachis, and how the Boyle Heights community would organize in return. In 2017, mariachis occupying the apartment complexes around the plaza were facing displacement from Mariachi Plaza and their homes due to incoming developers. Brothers Luis and Enrique Valdivia, who had shared their Boyle Heights apartment on 2nd street for 22 years, received a letter from their new landlord informing them of a $800 rent increase. Other tenants also received notices of a 60-80% increase in rent. When the Valdivia brothers attempted to pay their original rent, their payment was sent back and they were given a 3-day eviction notice. About one-third of the residents in the Valdivias’ building were also mariachis, relying on the building’s proximity to Mariachi Plaza for their livelihood. When residents reached out to their new landlord, Frank “BJ” Turner, they were met with silence.
Tenants started by raising awareness of their situation by putting signs on their windows stating the rent increase and the name of their landlord. The next step was tenant organizing. Thirteen of the twenty-five units, represented by Elizabeth Blaney of the LA Tenants Union, entered into a collective bargaining agreement. Since the building was not eligible for rent control, they created a deal with Turner where the average rent increase was lowered to 14% (as opposed to 66%) and future rent increases were limited to 5% for the three and half years after the deal. The dispute, resolved in February of 2018, represents the tenants’ power in advocating for protection of their livelihood and community. As the tenants on 2nd street were celebrating their deal with Turner, Metro joined with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) to reopen the discussion of development plans in the lots immediately surrounding Mariachi Plaza. ELACC was brought on the project to develop a 60-unit apartment complex with over 6,000 square feet of retail space, a community garden, and a cultural center. Residents saw any development around Mariachi Plaza as potential for displacing the mariachis. When development projects were proposed in early years, Arturo Sneider of Primestor Development noted that the mariachi tradition was why developers were drawn to the area and they had no intention of erasing that history. Despite this claim, residents were still concerned that Mariachi Plaza would be a site of erasure rather than a site of community preservation. The fear of gentrification has mobilized the community and, as of today, prevented Metro and ELACC from finalizing development plans for Mariachi Plaza.
The contemporary moment has forced mariachis to face potential displacement due to development and an uncertain future from the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting more community action. The normally busy Mariachi Plaza is currently empty. There are few opportunities for musicians to be hired and physical distancing makes playing together difficult. As the pandemic persists, mariachis are struggling financially. Affording housing, a challenge even before the pandemic, has become increasingly difficult. The community has organized to support mariachis during COVID through a GoFundMe that has raised over $10,000 for a Mariachi Emergency Relief Fund. Additionally, Vallarta Supermarkets donated $10,000 worth of food to mariachis and their families in Boyle Heights. The commitment to supporting mariachis shows just how integral they are to the community.
Boyle Heights Innovator: Merced Sanchez Cortes
Despite these numerous challenges street vendors continued to demonstrate resilience at the face of discriminatory policies, controversies and violence. Mercedes Sanchez Cortes, a Boyle Heights resident and street vendor, showed us how her desire to provide for her family led her to be an activist in the movement to legalize street vending. Mercedes, who sold women’s apparel on the corner of Los Angeles and 11th Street, describes the hardships she faced as a street vendor under intense police oppression and exploitation. Already having to endure harsh weather conditions, every vendor had to be consistently vigilant and ready to run at the sight of police officers. As Mercedes recalls, when the city started conducting sweeps many of her vendor friends lost countless amounts of merchandise in the worst cases her undocumented would be arrested and later deported.
Not deterred by these challenges Mercedes would go on to become an organizer for the legalization of street vending by joining local efforts and recruiting her fellow street vendors to join the cause. She visited numerous state and city leaders to explain to them why it was so important to legalize and provide protections for street vendors. While many who opposed the legalization, made insensitive comments about street vendors’ “poor” hygiene and affiliation with crime, Mercedes’ efforts would pay off in 2018 when the Safe Side Walk Vending Act was passed in 2018.