A. Garcia / SFVS

Carmen Cardozo roasts corn on a grill. It’s late afternoon, and she’s standing in a corner of a supermarket’s parking lot along Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Pacoima. It’s the spot she’s claimed for the past two years, when, pressed by the lack of funds, she started to sell on the streets.

Next to her is her husband, Felipe Cardozo, who guards a shopping cart with a small cooler where they keep water and sodas. People stop from time to time to buy an elote or roasted corn, one of the foods that have become synonymous with street vending in Los Angeles.

Truth be told, Cardozo is violating the law. Street vending is not permitted in the City of Los Angeles. In fact on Tuesday, June 16, City News Service reported the Los Angeles City Council tentatively banned the sale of wares and food without a permit in city parks. The council voted 13-2 to adopt the ordinance, with council members Gil Cedillo and Curren Price dissenting.

Street vending is already prohibited on sidewalks, but the prohibition in parks was “suspended by court action,” city attorneys said. The ordinance will be returned to the council for a final vote.

Despite the ban on selling in parks and sidewalks, Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Valerie Flores said that the city is still “exploring the possibility of allowing vending” through a permitting program.

The council is currently debating a plan that could potentially legalize and regulate street vending. Regulations might include permits, health restrictions and rules for enforcement. Food equipment and preparation would be regulated. There would be health permits. There is even the thought of instituting an A-B-C rating on food carts just like there is for  restaurants.

On June 11, dozens of street vendors and business owners who oppose their legalization filled a second floor assembly room at Van Nuys City Hall to debate the issue. Another similar meeting is scheduled today, June 18, at Los Angeles City Hall, and another will follow a week later in South Los Angeles.

After that, the City Council’s Economic Development Committee will take up the issue. If the plan is approved, it would go before the entire City Council.

“We Just Want To Sell”

Cardozo — who’s been selling corn on the streets, seven days a week, for the past two years — was one of the people who spoke at the meeting in Van Nuys. She told the crowd what she repeats often to anyone who brings up the legalization issue.

“What we want is to sell. We don’t say no to paying for a permit, as long as they let us sell,” she says as she turns the corn on the grill, making sure it cooks evenly.

She said she’s tired of always being in the lookout for the police, and worries that health authorities will confiscate the equipment she uses to make a living.

“We don’t want to be running, packing things in a hurry and maybe trip and fall,” she notes.

The last four months, Cardozo said, a man whom they don’t know began taking pictures and videos of them as they sell, then calling the police on them. The man has also harassed other street vendors in the area, and even pushed a pregnant woman selling shaved ice cream nearby. He was arrested, but is free on bail.

Cardoza and her husband are afraid of him.  Whenever the police are in the area, they try to hide from them. But two weeks ago she didn’t even have time to hide.

Just as they were setting up at their usual spot one afternoon, two police officers confronted them about selling on the street. Cardoza got a ticket and has to go to court on July 10. She doesn’t know how much the fine will be. She avoided selling at that spot for several days after that, which means no money.

Felipe receives a $1,000 disability check, but the rent on their garage is $700 a month. The rest goes to pay for everything else, and it’s not much. Carmen makes about $40 a day selling corn, and on a good day she can $50, which helps to make ends meet.

“If I don’t work, we get behind on our payments,” says the 55-year-old woman, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure.

If street vending is legalized, Cardoza said she’s willing to pay a permit and comply with the rules. She also notes that, despite what those who oppose them say, they do pay taxes.

“We pay taxes on everything we buy,” she said. “And everything we sell is clean. No one has ever said they gotten sick eating what we sell. We don’t resist permits, we’re willing to pay them.”

An Unfair Competition

Legalizing street vending is a controversial issue and a complicated one. There are an estimated 50,000 street vendors in the City of Los Angeles. Of those, an estimated 10,000 sell food.

Not everyone supports the plan to give them permits and let them sell on the streets.

The Coalition to Save Small Business is comprised of 700 restaurants and stores who oppose such a plan. Sigifredo Lopez, owner of Uniform Kingdom in Panorama City, is a member.

“I’m very strongly opposed to the legalization of street vendors,” Lopez said. “I pay rent, permits and a lot of other things. They think that just by paying $50 they can sell on the streets, and it’s not right. They don’t pay for employees, electricity, they don’t pay anything.”

Lopez said it’s not fair that he must comply with all the rules on the books for businesses while people sell school uniforms out of the back of vans at a park.

“They kill my business,” he said.

And he’s not having food sold on the streets.

“It’s not hygienic. It’s very dangerous,” Lopez says, emphatically, of the food vendors.

And even if they were legalized, Lopez doubts the Health Department has enough health inspectors to check on all street vendors.

“If someone gets sick eating food on the corner, who are they going to sue?” he asks.

Good For Business

Fernando Abarca, organizer for the Street Vending Campaign spearheaded by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, said reports show that street vending is not an unfair competition.

In fact, he argues that street vendors can have a positive impact on a neighborhood.

 “They activate our sidewalks, and businesses also benefit with more foot traffic,” Abarca says.

Is it unfair competition?

Abarca doesn’t think so. “It’s a different kind of market,” he saod. “Chances are you can’t buy an elote at a restaurant.”

Then there’s the cultural issue. People from Latin America who are used to buying from street vendors in their countries are not afraid to purchase items on the corners. In fact, they see it as a normal thing, proponents say.

Cardoza also sees it as an individual right. Bottom line is, if people didn’t seek elotes to eat, she wouldn’t be selling them.

So in spite of the fear she still feels, she’s out there on the streets. And she already has a plan if street vendors are legalized. She wants to buy a new grill and a bigger cooler.

“We won’t be afraid that they will take them away,” she said.