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On a taco truck bandwagon

An Internet protest targets an L.A. County law curbing the trucks' parking times.

May 01, 2008|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

"Carne Asada Is Not a Crime," proclaims a website that has suddenly caught fire to rally food lovers across Los Angeles in defense of the iconic taco truck, now in the sights of a government crackdown.

After county supervisors passed a law two weeks ago, threatening hefty fines or a year in jail against operators who linger too long in one place, a pair of former Occidental College roommates took it upon themselves to ignite a protest.

So far, Highland Park residents Aaron Sonderleiter and Chris Rutherford have sent Supervisor Gloria Molina more than 2,200 signatures on a petition to overturn the law, which she backed after brick-and-mortar restaurants in East L.A. complained that taco trucks were eating into their business. Their website has also declared this evening to be Taco Truck Night, calling on residents to turn out to "support your local hard-working taco vendor."

Some county officials now say supervisors may have underestimated the cultural significance of the lunch truck to a younger generation of natives and transplants to Los Angeles -- those who have depended on carne asada to get them through tough times.

"To me it is surprising that these young people are taking such an interest," said Maria Cerdas, a deputy for Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke. "I did not foresee it."

Zane Selvans, 32, of Pasadena offers an explanation. "There are at least two distinct populations that visit the taco truck," Selvans said. "There are the native Angelenos, and then there's the kind of hipster population who think it's cool."

Both groups have organized -- on the Internet, through blogs and social networking sites -- to get the law repealed. In a way that issues such as homelessness and healthcare have failed to do, the taco truck seems to have galvanized residents who until now didn't pay much attention to the workings of local government.

"The love for tacos is definitely what's connecting us," said Erin Glenn, 30, of downtown Los Angeles. "I've lived here my whole life; just being an Angeleno, it's kind of a birthright here."

Molina, on a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., this week, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Though taco trucks have long been regulated by the county, the previous law carried only a $60 fine for parking in one spot longer than 30 minutes. Many vendors who got citations simply treated them as a cost of doing business.

The revised law, to take effect May 15, allows mobile eateries to stay put for an hour. But if they fail to move after that they can be slapped with a criminal misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $1,000 or even six months in jail.

Sonderleiter, 28, said he was offended: "It just struck me as so unfair and so ridiculous and so prohibitive and so devastating to something that I love."

Bringing up the website, www.saveourtacotrucks.org, "was a spur-of-the-moment idea." He tends the site after his day job teaching computer skills to middle and high school students in West Los Angeles.

"We're totally new at this," said Rutherford, 27, who also is a teacher. "I think a lot of this -- we're sort of learning as we go."

On the popular networking site Facebook, taco lover Selvans, a NASA employee, created a group and urged members to send letters of protest to their supervisors. At last count, more than 500 have joined the effort and chimed in.

Writes 23-year-old Santa Monica resident Devon Randall: "Who would want to hurt a poor, defenseless taco truck?"

Alberto Pineda, 20, of Commerce adds: "My favorite taco place is a stand in east L.A., now what am I going to eat?"

Selvans, however, fears that most who have joined his group will do little to reach out to supervisors "who probably aren't spending much time on Facebook."

"In which case, having 500 members doesn't necessarily mean much," he said.

But the protests continue.

"What is the endgame in this?" Rutherford asked. "Is it we go on a hunger strike? At what point do we call it a day? I don't know. Steam is still building."

--

jp.renaud@latimes.com

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