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COVER STORY : Pushcart Power : Frustrated by Police Crackdowns, Vendors United to Legalize Their Meager Livelihoods.Next Month, Their 6-Year Struggle Comes Before the City Council.

July 25, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ

DORA ALICIA ALARCON WAS angry, frustrated and frightened.

The street vendor had just spent a night in jail. Her crime: selling mangoes.

"All I wanted to do was help take care of my children," said Alarcon, a mother of five and a Salvadoran immigrant. "I just wanted to make an honest living."

Her arrest in early 1987 for violating a city law banning street vending led her to join about 50 vendors and activists who had begun meeting at a Pico-Union church to figure out what to do about the widespread police crackdowns.

Though the vendors did not know it at the time, those early meetings launched a movement that has culminated in a proposed ordinance to legalize street vending in designated areas of the city.

Along the way, the vendors learned about the down side of working with government. It took a task force more than a year to draft recommendations that vending be legalized. Many vendors dropped out of the effort because progress came so slowly. And the law that may go on the books would end up being costly for vendors and likely to initially legalize vending for only about 10% of them.

But as the ordinance comes up for a City Council committee hearing next month the vendors are savoring a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that there is power in numbers. At a recent City Council meeting, about 500 vendors turned out in support of the ordinance, giving up a day's income to do so.

"I think the vendors realize that City Hall has a lot of power over their destiny and that it's important that they let us know what their needs are," said Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose 1st District is home to many of the city's estimated 5,000 street vendors. "And I think that's what this movement has done."

The influx of street vendors accompanied the unprecedented wave of immigration from Latin America to Los Angeles during the 1980s. The immigrants brought their traditions with them, including the generations-old practice of flocking to churches, town plazas and markets to hawk their wares as street vendors.

Angelica Tenorio, 48, was an immigrant of that era. A vendor in her native El Salvador, she came to Los Angeles five years ago and was surprised when she found out that vending could land her in jail.

"We are not selling anything illegal--just food," said Tenorio, who sells peeled mangoes sprinkled with chili powder and fried banana chips called platanillos near Western Avenue in the Mid-City area.

The number of vendors eventually swelled, and their colorful umbrellas and carts sprang up throughout the city. There was just one problem: Street vending was, and still is, illegal in Los Angeles. Vending is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

That point is frequently noted by some business owners, who view the vendors as unfair competition and complain that they crowd the streets and create unsanitary conditions.

"The mess left by them is horrendous," said Norm Langer, owner of Langer's Delicatessen in Westlake. Langer, who opposes legalized street vending, said he has spent as much as $3,000 a year to clean up discarded mango peelings and grease and mayonnaise stains from the sidewalk in front of his 43-year-old restaurant.

In response to complaints from business owners such as Langer, police began their crackdowns. The police also alleged that some vendors posed as lookouts for drug dealers in areas such as MacArthur Park, a charge that vendors and their advocates denied.

Vendors were run out of the Downtown area, except for Olvera Street, where the Catholic Church declared a safe zone. Vendors there said the crackdowns eased. But in the rest of Downtown, more than 3,600 vending arrests were made from late 1986 to the first half of 1990, according to a City Council report.

Those involved in the vendor meetings during 1987 recall how the immigrants were confused by a culture and a government bureaucracy they knew little about. Many did not understand why vending was illegal.

"They were scared and wanted to do something, but they had no idea how to get things done," said organizer Sussana Brinnon, who helped arrange the meetings. "They were a community that didn't know anybody."

Brinnon was among several women activists and attorneys who would play key roles in shepherding the fledgling vendor group. Although the women were mainly involved with the larger issue of opposing U.S. intervention in Central America, they were drawn to the vendors and their children.

"It was one thing to go out and demonstrate at the Federal Building, but it was a totally different thing to meet the people who were living the consequences of U.S. policy," said activist Margaret Arnold. "It really put a human face on the political work we were doing."

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