There is a deeply-held belief in the United States that with enough initiative and drive anyone can succeed in business.
This promotes a false reality that all businesses begin on equal footing, and the more viable, marketable business succeeds because it is worthy of success. However, businesses rely on laws and regulations to help them thrive, and often, those rules are not applied equally. Local political and legal systems routinely favor certain business groups over others. Often, some groups are not just favored, but elevated over others, in order to help specific groups succeed. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the street food industry.
“I came to the U.S. in 1980 from the state of Hidalgo in Mexico. I wake up very early to be the first in line at the Farmer’s Market, then I bring my supply here. I even planted two cacti near the sidewalk that have been growing for years, so even when I’m gone, a little of me will remain here.” Photo by Cinthia AJ
Street cart vendors are a staple of our latinidad, especially for those of us that grew up in predominantly Latinx neighborhoods. How many us scramble for change when we hear the ringing of a paletero’s bell? Or eagerly watch as an elotero fixes up your elote, exactly as you requested? Our support of these businesses results in an understanding that through their ventures they are supporting families, creating jobs, and adding to the local economy (over $500 million to Los Angeles’ economy alone).
Yet, in many areas, rather than being supported for their bootstrap-style business acumen, street cart vendors are criminalized and driven underground. They face harsh fines, harassment from local law enforcement, and little legal protection from the justice system.
The vendors often belong to marginalized populations: single-mothers, elderly, immigrants, and often live in poverty.
These are groups that are generally ignored by local governments and have no capital to push for legal change.
Critics of street vendors point to possible increased risks in public health; street congestion, or how vendors avoid the same tax responsibilities as brick and mortar restaurants. However, these critics are silent when it comes to food truck owners who pose the same risks.
As the food truck craze sweeps through the country, local governments move swiftly to ensure they can regulate these businesses. In 2012, Chicago created special ordinances to regulate food trucks while specifically excluding street cart vendors. In Los Angeles, street cart vendors remain illegal, but food truck companies easily flourish and are welcomed by L.A. lawmakers. Why the disparate treatment? While no local councilman will admit that there is an imbalance, it is clear that the law favors the rich over the poor. A person who can afford to run a food truck likely has a better understanding of the system and can persuade government officials to make the laws work for them. Simply put, a person that bills themselves as a food truck “restaurateur” is going to have more pull with officials than a single-mom selling tamales.
“People have confessed their fear to me after the election. A lot of people are filled with uncertainty of the future, but we all know that this isn’t forever. I came from San Luis knowing I would return. I’ve been running corn stands for eight years now, and one day I’d like to have my own permanent place. But should I be forced to leave, I’ll return to my little ranch with dignity. We just have to have some faith. We can’t let fear overwhelm us.” Photo by Cinthia AJ
And it is seemingly not enough of an insult that street cart vendors are cast aside by local government who refuse to legalize (or at least decriminalize) them. No, to add insult to injury, many Latinx owners also run the risk of losing business by way of cultural appropriation.
While there are food trucks owned by Latinx, there are just as many food truck businesses that run off the gimmick of selling Latinx-based foods without any authenticity; a bit of home-based culinary colonialism. These businesses are often managed by non-Latinx people who take advantage of the fact that they are part of a system that grants them inequitable power.
When confronted with this appropriation, some may claim that all is fair in business and that the owner with the better product will ultimately be more successful. However, this ignores the fact that someone who is able to sell their product under the protection of the law, and is supported by their government officials, will be miles ahead of someone who does not have the same economic means to build a “legal” business and must always be wary of police harassment and fines.
As a consumer, you can tip the scales for the street cart vendors with how you spend your money. Before you head out to your local food truck fest, ask yourself if your street cart vendors are given the same support and protection as food truck owners. Determine who you are supporting when you purchase from food trucks and strive to purchase Latinx food from authentic businesses. Seek out and defend campaigns to legalize street vending in your area. Most importantly, buy their products! There is no reason these beloved business owners should continue to be driven underground–let’s support them one elote y paleta at a time.