For L.A.'s Illegal Street Vendors, Selling Food And Avoiding Police Is A Full-Time Job
“Police? Mucho problemo.”
The Hispanic woman in her late 40s wears a teal t-shirt and grey sweatpants. A well-worn fanny pack sits hoisted around her waist. Silver streaks of hair poke out of a bleached-orange head of curls hastily gathered into a ponytail. A heavyset lady, her neck and upper chest display a reddish hue from the baking sun overhead.
As usual, she has set up camp at the cross-section of Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard outside the Metro station. She stands behind her cart.
Inside the glass case are piles of mini churros, some covered with cinnamon, some gathered in white paper bags.
“Churros? Churros?” she suggests to passersby.
The woman—who did not want to identify herself—sells four churros for a dollar, a deal apparently too good for many school children to pass up. A clutch of high school students in their uniforms stick out their dollar bills and request their orders in Spanish.
The woman is breaking the law.
Street vending is illegal in the City of Los Angeles, yet major streets and cross sections are daily clotted with non-English speaking entrepreneurs who sell anything from churros, fruits and empanadas to hot dogs, ice cream and sodas.
In a metropolis marked by high crime rates, it would seem that criminalizing these street vendors would not be a top priority for the Los Angeles Police Department. Sometimes, however, it seems to be that way, concedes Carl Bergquist, policy advocate at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
According to Bergquist, legal repercussions depend heavily on the discretion exercised by the individual officer.
“While he or she could just issue a warning and ask them to move along, they can also cite them for a violation of the L.A. City Municipal code,” Bergquist says. Or authorities can confiscate the cart in its entirety, robbing the vendors of their livelihood.
Violations include selling on a sidewalk or near a school, both of which are prohibited. Vendors who have permits, both a business license and County health permit, can still be cited for these offenses.
Tickets can cost up to $400, but you can pay with extensive community service hours, says Carmen, a Salvadorian woman selling bread and drinks out of a large plastic container next to the churro cart. During her three-year stint as a street vendor, Carmen says she has received five tickets, all of which she paid off with community service.
Still, it is costly; time spent doing community service is time not spent feeding her children.
She says she makes about $30 a day by selling these breads, which she buys in bulk every morning from a Salvadorian bakery near her home. With that modest income, she single-handedly supports her three children, ages 10, 7 and 3.
Carmen, a stoic woman in her early 40s who refused to give her last name, arrived to Los Angeles in 2003. Her first job as a babysitter put food on the table for her and her child. Then, the family she worked for moved away.
Since then, she has been unable to find another job.
Joining Carmen and the churro lady at the intersection are two others: a male fruit vendor and another female bread vendor.
During the conversation, Carmen exchanges knowing looks with the other three and abruptly walks away without a word. After a few minutes, she returns to her spot.
As it turns out, the foursome has devised a stealthy exchange of secret signals if someone spots a policeman.
That was a false alarm, Carmen says with a chuckle.
Though the fox-and-hounds game almost feels undermined at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, repercussions can be much more serious, Bergquist explains.
Most often, vendors who do not have identification acceptable to the police agency in question are actually arrested.
This phenomenon has been on the rise since the LAPD stopped accepting the Matricula Consular, a consulate-issued identification card used by Mexican nationals living in the States.
Under the “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) fingerprint program implemented in August 2009 in L.A., the LAPD is automatically linked with the federal government’s immigration agents. This involves the city and county criminal justice systems in the federal responsibility for civil immigration enforcement. This undermines the 1979 Special Order 40, which states that the police are not interested in someone’s legal status.
“[Deportation cases] are unfortunately common,” Bergquist explains. “People are arrested for the above reasons and within a few hours, they can find themselves in an immigration detention center in downtown L.A., in Orange County or even in Adelanto out in the Inland Empire.”
Detention may result even when the arrestee has no semblance of a criminal record, he says. “These are merely community members who are trying to make a living for their families.”
Rosa D., a 72-year-old Salvadorian woman, also sells bread at the Vermont and Beverly intersection. She wears loose jeans and a white visor that appears to have yellowed with age. Rosa says she comes out to the spot two or three days a week, making $20 a day at most.
“My niece makes the bread at home and I sell it out here,” Rosa explains with a thick Salvadorian accent. She has been caught by authorities “maybe two times” in the five years she has sold from her cart, she acknowledges.
“It’s hard because I need job. No more job because my age is too old. I was born in 1939. This is to support myself.”
Editor's note: The original version of this article was corrected on 10/26 to reflect that the correct spelling of Carl Berquist's last name is Bergquist.