During its first year, the vendors group was beset by disorganization, a lack of leadership and a general feeling that nothing could be done. Members recall that dozens of frustrated vendors quit the group, only to be replaced by new recruits who had heard on the street that an organization had formed to help counter the police crackdowns.
"So many came and went," said Marta Armenta. "They never believed anything would happen."
Meanwhile, the crackdowns continued, with many vendors alleging that they were punched and kicked by police. "We were bombarded by complaint after complaint, primarily by women who were suffering harassment by the police," said attorney Madeline Janis-Aparicio, who was asked to help with the complaints.
Police denied that any excessive force was used. Capt. Francisco Pegueros said officers had better things to do than arrest women for selling fruit, especially in crime-ridden areas of Central Los Angeles. "We certainly understand the concerns of business owners. But in the grand scheme of things, there are higher priorities," he said.
By 1989, the vendors movement started to gain momentum as it became more organized and other groups and individuals assisted. The group, which had grown to about 200 members, had begun calling itself the Asociacion de Vendedores Ambulantes, or Street Vendors Assn.
It was meeting biweekly in Pico-Union at the Central American Refugee Center, which supplied a part-time bilingual organizer to help the members network with the community. Members elected a seven-person board and wrote bylaws defining the group's mission.
"For us, this wasn't about politics," said Alarcon, who was the association's president during that period and emerged as the main spokeswoman from the ranks of the vendors. "We were fighting so that we could make an honest living to help our children. We wanted them to have a better life than we have."
Alarcon sends part of her earnings to her children in El Salvador. On a good day, she says, she makes about $35.
Meanwhile, Janis-Aparicio and other attorneys considered various legal strategies to help the vendors. They decided the best route was to push for a city ordinance that would legalize street vending.
Activist Gilda Haas, a former aide to then-Councilman Mike Woo, suggested that the group approach Woo for help.
In an interview, Woo said he decided to help because he thought it was unusual that the city outlawed street vending, which he saw as adding vitality to neighborhoods. "It was an issue of whether we in Los Angeles should do more to encourage and revitalize street life," he said.
In July, 1989, Woo formed the Street Vending Task Force, which included vendors, police, city officials, activists and members of business groups. The task force would spend the next 15 months studying street vending in Los Angeles, the only major city in the United States that outlaws the practice.
While the task force met, police and officers on horseback began a monthlong crackdown against vendors and drug dealers in MacArthur Park that resulted in several hundred arrests in June, 1990.
"They just wanted to chase us away," said Raquel Correa, 37, who worked the area at the time and still evades police today while she sells hot dogs and sodas near Alvarado and 7th streets. She relies on lookouts to warn her when officers approach and hides her cart in the doorway of an apartment building until they leave.
In October, 1990, the city task force issued its report that recommended legalizing street vending within designated commercial areas of the city. "Attempting to drive these (vendors) out of business through criminal police enforcement has not proven to be an effective means of addressing a growing problem," the report concluded.
Task force members said the group was initially divided between those who supported vending citywide and others who were opposed altogether. But the group concluded that street vending was not going to go away and that the best compromise was to regulate it, participants said.
"We were so happy. We thought we would no longer have to fight this battle," said Alarcon, a member of the task force.
She was wrong.
For the next 2 1/2 years, the task force proposals would be caught up in City Hall bureaucracy and politics. They were debated by City Council committees while representatives of the task force, council members and the city attorney's office worked on the language of the ordinance.
Meanwhile the vendors association, which had come of age during the years of struggle, conducted its own lobbying campaign. Supporters showed up in force during council hearings and held "street theaters" outside City Hall during which vendors and their children would simulate being arrested by the police. The association also collected 5,000 postcards signed by supporters that were sent to City Council members.