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Carrying Oranges To Angelenos

November 26, 1987|IRIS SCHNEIDER | Times Staff Writer

Vicente Mendez begins his day during the night. By 5:30 a.m., he and his wife, Maria, have left their sleeping children--and the rest of their Central L. A. neighborhood--to drive to a stall owned by Jose Munguia in the produce-market district to search for the oranges they will spend the rest of the day selling.

They scrutinize the fruit in huge wooden bins.

"They are ugly today," Maria Mendez says, wishing the oranges were larger. But they decide to buy them anyway, knowing that the quality always varies, the price is right and it is getting late. They have much work ahead.

Mendez counts out $100 in $1 bills and pays Munguia. He and his wife spend the next 45 minutes tossing the fruit into the back of their creaky station wagon, filling it almost to the roof. There is just enough room for the two cartons of peanuts they also purchased.

As daylight intensifies, the Mendezes drive to a median strip near a Santa Monica Freeway entrance not far from their modest apartment and in sight of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. It is here that they always work, because traffic is heavy and sales can be brisk.

Just before 7 a.m., they retrieve the shopping carts that they store each night at an auto-repair shop and begin filling them with the bags of oranges Maria Mendez is packing. Depending on the size of the oranges each day, she can pack 150-160 bolsas , or bags, from one large crate, putting as many as 14 good-sized oranges in each bag.

While they are packing the fruit and peanuts, their 18-year-old son, Mario, walks by on his way to school, stopping to say hello. "My son is learning English," Mendez says with pride as Mario walks off. "He is going to school. He won't have to suffer this, selling fruit."

As do many other parents, Mendez hopes for a better life for his son. But like many Latinos newly arrived from Mexico or Central America, that search for a better life has ended on the median strips and sidewalks of Los Angeles, selling fruit or flowers to passing drivers. But better is a relative term and the Mendezes say they are satisfied.

There may be hundreds of these vendors, or thousands--it's difficult to know. In some neighborhoods, they are seen on almost every busy corner. They endure the hot sun, the rainy days, the scorn and sometimes harassment of passing drivers or the police. Some have had their fruit stolen by drivers, or been given altered or counterfeit currency. But for many who are supporting families here or in their native countries, there is no alternative.

Mendez, who is 52, worked on construction projects in his native Mexico but has not been able to find construction work here. "I don't speak English," he explains. "And I'm old, too old to get (that kind of) work."

Some vendors, like Mendez, buy their fruit or flowers in the sections of the downtown produce market--known as the mercado --that cater to Latinos. They pack the fruit themselves into the plastic bags they will offer to motorists.

But the majority of street vendors have no car with which to transport their oranges from the market, so they head to appointed street corners where their patron , or boss, meets them with the day's supply of oranges to sell, and they pay dearly for that help.

Those vendors will get 25 or 30 cents for each bo l sa they sell. On a good day, a vendor can sell anywhere from 30 to 150 bolsas. So his profit after eight or nine hours work might range between $10 and $50.

For Mendez, there is no boss. On a good day he may sell all that he has bought that morning, taking in perhaps $130 or $160. After deducting the expense of buying the oranges, he will have maybe $30 to $60 profit. But most days are not good days.

"I have been in this country since 1982, selling fruit," Mendez says over an evening meal of tortillas and chicken. "It is a good business because it enables us to pay the rent, buy food and clothing."

He would like his daughter, Maria Elena, 20, to go to school and learn English as his son is doing, but instead she has taken a job in a Mexican market. The monthly rent on their apartment is $600. Without everyone's help, they would not be able to earn enough to pay for their rent and food.

At 8:15 a.m., almost three hours after he left home, Mendez makes his first sale. He crosses himself and puts the money to his lips. "When I sell the first one," he says, "I say a prayer that they will buy much from me today." But his sales depend not only on the largess of the drivers who pass by but also on the willingness of the police to look the other way.

"The police say it looks bad for me to be selling oranges. Sometimes they tell me to move. But I sell things that you can feed to your children, not like drug addicts selling drugs on the corners. Why," Mendez wonders, "do they bother me?"

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