Now reading The Fight to Protect Los Angeles’s Endangered Street Vendors

The Fight to Protect Los Angeles’s Endangered Street Vendors

Meet Caridad Vasquez, the last vendor on Breed Street.


This comes from our “Los Angeles” issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.

There are two long folding tables set up on a section of sidewalk on Breed Street, and between them sits a flat-top propane grill. A pile of seasoned pork sizzles on the surface, as well as a fistful of white cheese. There are a few tortillas laid out there, too, and off in one corner are maybe a half-dozen deep-fried tacos dorados, folded over and buckling under the weight of their own greasy crunch. A couple of teenage girls sidle up to one of the tables. Caridad Vasquez, wearing a black hairnet, pink T-shirt, and flowery bib apron the size of a crossing guard’s safety vest, barely looks up from her work at the tortilladora, where she’s pressing balls of masa into imperfect circles. “Hola, mis hijas,” she says, “I’ve got everything. I’ve got quesadillas, sopes, mulitas, huaraches, tortas, pambazos, enchiladas, tostadas, and pozole, red and white.” The girls look at each other and giggle. Vasquez smiles and uses the polite, formal usted with these girls who are a fraction of her age: “A sus órdenes,” she says. At your service.

Seven or eight years ago, there were dozens of vendors like Vasquez on Breed Street, most of whom congregated at the corner of East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in the parking lot of the now-defunct Big Buy Foods. In 2009, after a series of small crackdowns, the city of Los Angeles finally put its foot down on this illegal street fair: don’t come back, or you will be arrested. The vendors were left to sell their products on the smaller side streets of Boyle Heights, East LA, Downtown, or whatever neighborhood they happened to call home. At least one opened a proper restaurant, Antojitos Carmen; some stopped vending. But they did as the city ordered and did not return.

Except for Vasquez. She is, she says, the last holdout. La última. And she says she isn’t going anywhere. Whether or not she is, in fact, the last of the illegal vendors on Breed Street is not really possible to verify: the vendors are, by definition, itinerant and constantly moving, so it’s hard to say who may or may not be there from night to night. But I visited Vasquez on at least four occasions, and it seemed she was right (Breed Street in Boyle Heights isn’t very long, a little more than a mile). While I spotted a few permitted trailers on the streets, only Vasquez had a regular sidewalk operation, the type of business that the city can, if it so desires, confiscate and destroy at any time: a grill set up on the sidewalk, folding tables and plastic tablecloths, a couple of small benches, a string of lights powered by a Coleman generator.

“Lucas,” she says—she uses my name a lot when she talks to me, not in a Scientological gas-lighting kind of way, but like a middle-aged person (she is an exuberant fifty-six years old) who has learned that the trick for remembering people’s names is to use them constantly—“Lucas, this is the work. We fight for legalization.” Unlike some vendors I’ve spoken to, who shun or shy away from attention, Vasquez revels in it. She believes it promotes the fight—la lucha. She wants her name used. “I have a small business,” she says. “I like this work. I like working for myself. I like being independent, paying myself and being the boss, employing people who need work. But it’s illegal!” The only way forward is to fight for vendors’ rights, which she does in conjunction with the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and other local organizations. “It’s stressful to work like this. To worry that the city may come at any hour,” she says. “To have to always be doing this.” She overexaggerates miming a lookout, as if she were on the crow’s nest of a ship, and her daughter, Esmeralda, who works together with her, laughs.

“Now we have lawyers and support, and it’s very satisfying to see there are people who are interested in us. We’re small-business people, living in the shadows. And yes, we exist! We exist even if they don’t want us to exist. And we pay taxes. People say we don’t pay taxes, but we do. I don’t know why people say we don’t—I pay them every year.” There are other, possibly racist misconceptions of street vendors, she says, including the perception that they and the food they make are unsanitary. “The problem, Lucas,” she says, “is they say we’re not clean. That we don’t have the supervision of the city. But the reason we don’t have professional equipment is because it could be confiscated at any second.” But the moment she becomes legal, she says, she will be able to invest in more expensive equipment.

As it is, her operation is incredibly professional. It’s on a shoestring, yes, but her mise en place is tidy and professional. Next to the grill, which is scraped clean after every use, are six stainless steel containers, each with a set of tongs, which contain the carnivorous fillings for Vasquez’s tacos, quesadillas, and tortas. There is carne asada (steak), al pastor (marinated pork), chicharrones en salsa roja o verde (stewed pork rinds in red or green salsa), tinga de pollo (shredded chicken in a tomato-based sauce), and deshebrada de res (shredded braised beef ).

On the table next to the grill are plastic-lidded Tupperware containers with even more fillings: mushrooms, huitlacoche (corn smut), flor de calabaza (squash blossom). The tortilladora, which resembles a small waffle iron, clangs happily when Vasquez grabs a ball of masa from a large guacal under the table and flattens it in the simple machine. There’s more: containers of diced white onion, sliced radish, quartered limes, chopped cilantro, fresh cabbage, pickled jalapeños, red onions, sliced cactus, dried oregano, and bags of crispy tostada shells, not to mention a half dozen squeeze bottles of different sauces and salsas—the list goes on and on. And that’s just on one table. On the other are drinks and homemade desserts: large plastic barrels of horchata and refresco de ensalada, a sweet, punch- like beverage with different varieties of sliced fruits. Flans, cakes, dulce de leche gelatins with pecans suspended inside. It is an epic operation.

Impressive as this all was, I was shocked to learn that we hadn’t even gotten to the good part yet. “Lucas,” Vasquez calls from halfway down the block. “Lucas, come over here.” She has pulled two enormous stockpots out from a parked car and loaded them onto a dolly. The pots are full of hot liquid and slosh as we carefully roll down the uneven sidewalk back toward her operation. By the time we return, another piece of equipment has appeared: a big double-burner propane stove with a metal framework in place to hold the massive pots. I can’t believe how much equipment she has, and I tell her that. “Well,” she says, “this is how it has to be done.” We load the pots onto the stove and she turns the burners on. Tiny blue flames start to lick the bottom of the pots. “This is the pozole,” she says, removing the lids to a fanfare of steam and the smell of corn and spice. “Red and white.”

Pozole is a Mexican soup; its foundation is a meat stock (Vasquez uses pork and chicken) to which hominy, made from field corn, is added. (Sweet corn is mostly what we eat in kernel form in the United States; field corn is not typically grown to be consumed as is by humans. The hominy has to first be softened by a process called nixtamalization, or cooking it in an alkaline solution.) The big, soft corn kernels, after being nixtamalized and then cooked for hours in the pozole, have begun to split open, almost like popcorn.

Vasquez ladles me a container of red pozole (which contains red chilies; the white does not) and puts in some choice chunks of carnitas she’s taken out of a baking pan. She encourages me to dress it however I want, and when I give her a confused look, she tells me what that means: with cabbage, onion, oregano, and lime, maybe some hot sauce. Half the fun of pozole, it turns out, is building the bowl with all manner of additions to suit your taste.

The first bite, so hot I almost burn my tongue, is a comforting return to the womb. It’s a childhood blanket, a note in your lunch from Mom, your older brother telling you don’t worry about losing the ball game, Tiger, you’ll get ’em next time. The hominy is tender, earthy, and hearty. The acrid sting of raw onion and a squeeze of lime cut through the meaty, garlicky broth. Pieces of soft, juicy carnitas are added to the soup from a separate pan right before serving, so their structural integrity is kept intact, and every fourth mouthful contains a big chunk of pure meat. Crunchy, slightly sweet strips of raw cabbage offer an occasional respite from the hits of sodium and fat. The soup has a punch of something magical—MSG maybe?—but I don’t dare ask. Well, I do, actually. “Can you give me the recipe?” I ask for the first of many times. “Noooo, Lucas,” Vasquez says and wags her finger. “Now you are going to be my competition,” she teases.

That pozole, along with mariscos, enchiladas, cecina, tamales, and bistec con papas, were just a few of the things you could get at the Breed Street feria, or fair, during its heyday, from 2007 to 2009. Bill Esparza was one of the first food writers in Los Angeles to notice the feria and document its significance to the community. “It was like a scene out of Mexico City,” Esparza said. “In the beginning there were maybe eight vendors, and soon it had grown to thirty or forty vendors. You had Nina’s, selling Mexico City–style gorditas, and then you had her big rival, Carmen, who eventually had a restaurant in Boyle Heights. You had guys doing Puebla-style cemitas poblanas, you had Hidalgo-style barbacoa, you had guys selling pirated DVDs, even mariachis would go and wander around and charge people to play.”

As the popularity of Breed Street grew, however, the authorities began to take notice. “Occasionally the police would come and there’d be a scare, and people would just move their gear inside the van,” Esparza said. “When the police left, they’d set it back up again. It was a cat-and-mouse game, and it started to intensify. One weekend the police basically said that if people didn’t get out, they’d go to jail.”

Vasquez echoed the same story. She showed up to “La Breed,” as she calls it, in 2007. “They already had tacos and quesadillas,” she said, so she started selling her red and white pozoles. She, along with some of the other vendors, moved to the Bank of America parking lot across the street when the crackdowns got worse; they were run out of there, as well. “One day [in 2009] the police came and said, You will not work here. I felt so bad; I didn’t know what to do.”

The recession hit the entire area extremely hard. In addition to losing her livelihood, Vasquez lost her house on nearby St. Louis Street. She was single with three grown daughters who had children and financial difficulties of their own. Needing to continue to work, she moved a few blocks down Breed, to her current corner, and has been there ever since.

Vasquez has been vending almost her entire life. She was born and raised in Colima, a small state on the coast, southwest of Guadalajara. She was raised by her disabled mother and never knew her father. Her mother, unable to vend, sent Vasquez out with tortas, tostadas, and tamales to sell starting at age eight. “I had to help my mom. Eight is young,” Vasquez conceded, “but that’s something they didn’t pay attention to in Mexico.” To protect her, Vasquez’s mother cut her hair short and dressed her as a boy. “I would stand on the corner or get on the buses and sell tamales.”

She describes herself as a child as “very alone and very independent” and took up other selling jobs to help her family. “There was a lady where we lived who sold tortas and pozole; her name was Celerina. I asked her if I could help her. At the end of the day, I would get three or four pesos. But I would also get dinner for me and my mother.” The value of the peso when Vasquez was a child was roughly 12.50 pesos to the dollar—Vasquez made about thirty cents per day.

She feels grateful, however, to have had the opportunities that she did. “I never had a dad. I was with my mom and my siblings. I never felt abused—we just worked. We had to work, because my mother couldn’t. This was just life. My mom depended on me.” When Vasquez turned seventeen, she married and had a daughter. She eventually had three: Blanca Estela, Sayuri, and Esmeralda. Her husband was violent and beat her regularly, she says, and in 1994 she decided to leave him and come to Los Angeles, where she had a sister. Her daughters followed soon thereafter. “We women didn’t learn how to be people in Mexico,” she said. “We were very much at the mercy of our husbands.”

She doesn’t remember much about the border crossing. She says it was by Tijuana, and there was an enormous hill. “We climbed and climbed, and I didn’t think I could make it. I had injured my foot.” Eventually, others in her party began to physically support her, pushing her forward. “They started pushing me and pushing me up that hill.” She was able to make the crossing. In Los Angeles, she began working at El Prado Café on East First Street, until authorities discovered it had been operating under the license of someone who had been dead for two years. When the café closed, Vasquez turned her attention to her childhood vocation: street vending.

Street vending is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Los Angeles. Mexican tamale carts used to roll through the streets in Downtown around the turn of the twentieth century, and Chinese laborers would sell traditional food from pushcarts on the street. But an increase in traffic and commercial zoning led to a street-vending ban in Downtown in the early part of the century, and in 1980, street vending was banned entirely. It’s remained illegal for the past thirty-six years.

Now, street vendors—by some accounts, there are fifty thousand of them in Los Angeles—are all operating illegally. There are some exceptions to this: some sell newspapers, for example, as well as pamphlets, “free speech” activities and the like. But selling anything else, including food or clothing, is against the law. Ironically, there are more street vendors in Los Angeles than any other city, and it is the only major American city where there is no framework in place for legal street vending.

Organizations like ELACC argue that for many with low income and/or limited language skills, street vending is the only way to make ends meet. In Los Angeles, this hardship falls particularly upon the immigrant community, which is mostly Latino. Bacon-wrapped hot dogs, tacos, and tlayudas are sustenance for some, fetishized Instagram fodder for others, but for the men and women that peddle these foodstuffs, the income they generate is a means of survival. Janet Favela, a community organizer with ELACC, says that “street vendors have played a big part in this city for a long time and should not be displaced. They should be given an opportunity to work and should be legalized.”

The idea that mobile food vendors are essential to LA’s identity is a commonly shared one, particularly among those who understand food. “Street food is one of the things that makes Los Angeles special,” says Esparza. “It’s a benefit to the city and a tradition here. And it’s always been regulated by people who don’t understand food.” Mexican food, according to Esparza, is only palatable to the city’s elite if it’s presented in a certain way, like in the Disney-fied tourist trap of Olvera Street (the brain-child of socialite Christine Sterling, who was also behind the creation of LA’s Chinatown). “Mexican food was only fine if the girls wore sexy blouses and skirts with their hair done up, and walked around with castanets and bullshit like that.”

If vendors are on the street, then it’s open season. The city will roll through during a sweep and confiscate vendors’ property, Esparza says, smashing it right in front of them. Doing so “deprives them of due process, of going to court. They’re just supposed to confiscate it.” I spoke to another vendor, Pablo, who sells elotes and fruit. He told me he’s had problems with the police, but “we just have to move forward. We want to be left in peace.” His teenage daughter, Paola, says that the authorities are a major worry for her and her parents (Pablo’s wife is also a vendor). She says that in the past, vendors would put their equipment in their cars when the city conducted a vendor sweep. Now, if they see street-vending equipment in a car, officials will just impound the entire car. The police, incidentally, are not the ones who cause problems for the vendors, according to Esparza: it’s the city officials. (“The police eat at the street vendors,” Vasquez tells me.)

Vasquez says she hasn’t seen any city officials around for the better part of a year, but she remembers the last time she got busted, and her equipment confiscated. They came through around 9:45 p.m. one night in 2011 and confiscated all of her cooking equipment and destroyed all of the food. “I didn’t get a fine. They just took everything away,” she says. “They asked me, ‘Are you the boss?’ I said, ‘I’m not the boss.’ ‘Whose business is this?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Where’s your ID?’ ‘I don’t have ID.’” Vasquez looks positively defiant as she says this, but if she feels anger at the memory, she hides it well. “Go ahead and take it,” she said. “Do what you want, but I’m not giving you my name.”

Nowadays, the vendors are more organized and aware, largely thanks to Facebook, or “Face,” as Vasquez says. Se comunican por Face to warn each other of impending sweeps, or if officials have been spotted in the neighborhood. “Face has really helped our communication a lot,” she says. Still, vendors aren’t always on the same side: they’re competitive. Paola said that vendors will sometimes lie to one another and say that sweeps are happening when they’re not, in order to chase other vendors off of their turf.

It doesn’t seem like much ruffles Vasquez. She has a steady positivity that radiates throughout her evening shifts, dishing out pozole or pushing fresh tortillas down onto a pile of bubbling cheese to make her popular quesadillas. But she becomes positively gladiatorial when I suggest not using her name in the piece I’m writing, or using drawings instead of photographs so as not to endanger her. She shoots me an incredulous look and insists, repeatedly, that she wants her name used, that she wants to be photographed, and she wants to have her story told. “Lucas,” she says. “This is the fight. We are fighting to legalize. We are tired of living in the shadows.”

And while she’s friendly and supportive of her fellow vendors, there’s a certain ruthlessness with which she speaks of those who she feels gave up the fight, or who don’t push hard for legalization. When I ask her what happened to her fellow Breed Street vendors from the feria of the late aughts, she considers for a minute. “Well,” she says, “many of them are dead.” “Dead?” I ask incredulously. “A lot of them fell into deep depression,” she continued. “They felt like their worlds were ending. They had been vending for ages. Ages. They depended on the routine of their work and when that was taken away, many people passed away. They disappeared, or fell victim to vices.”

And the rest? I ask her why they left. “Because,” she says coolly, “they’re weak.” Vasquez, it comes out, wasn’t always treated kindly by the vendors who had been around for much longer. She, despite her experience dating back to childhood, was a relatively new LA vendor. “The people who had been here for decades, you know what they told me? ‘You don’t know anything.’ Well, it’s because I don’t know anything that I’m still here. It’s because I don’t know anything that I’m fighting for legalization.” Her fellow vendors se desesperaron: they lost hope.

I met her and some of her fellow vendors one evening in front of city hall at a Mexican Independence Day rally presented by LA City Councilman José Huizar. They had signs and T-shirts and were demonstrating for vendors’ rights. ELACC’s Favela bemoaned the lack of progress in pushing through meaningful legislation. Council members, elected every four years, seemed to be in no rush to pass a law that would aid vendors, Favela said. Before you know it, their term would expire and new members would be elected. Those members would require time to get up to speed on the vendor issue, and soon their terms would almost be up, as well. Wash, rinse, repeat. “I continue to support a legal street-food-vending program as the best option for the City of Los Angeles,” said Councilman Huizar through his communications director and senior advisor, Rick Coca. “Whether you support food vending or you oppose it, a regulated program would replace the chaos that exists today, where nobody wins.”

Vasquez, for her part, continues to fight, demonstrate, organize, and petition. But she is, she says, content with where she is. “I am the happiest person I could be in my life. I work alone and enjoy my work. I’ve suffered a lot. But even if you suffer, you have your entire life in your hands, your entire future. And a lot of people don’t appreciate that. My children are good, my grandchildren are good— what more do I really want in this life?” I ask her again for her pozole recipe, and she cackles and slaps me on the arm. A group of young men walk up to her table: new customers she hasn’t seen before. She stands up and launches into her spiel: “I’ve got quesadillas, sopes, mulitas, huaraches, tortas, pambazos, enchiladas, tostadas, and pozole, red and white.” This time it’s done with a levity I haven’t heard before. “What can I do for you, my children?” she asks. She’ll recite the same speech at least ten more times before the night is over, and will never seem to tire of it.