We will never forget a disturbing incident that we witnessed several years ago while in Boyle Heights after purchasing pan dulce, or sweet bread.

No, we didn’t witness a Chicano teen engaging in graffiti or gang activity. Instead, we observed the police citing, handcuffing and confiscating the goods of an elderly Latino. Keeping a safe distance from the police to avoid being arrested for interfering in a so-called crime scene, we patiently waited for the man to be released to inquire about his alleged crime. While we assumed that he was selling stolen goods, we soon learned about the issue. As a street vendor, he was peddling sliced mangos, watermelon, jicama, cantaloupe and oranges. Shouldn’t the Los Angeles Police Department, with its finite resources, focus on real criminals, we thought to ourselves?

Currently, as the Los Angeles City Council considers legalizing street vending, we’re still baffled about the city’s draconian approach toward Latino street vendors. Given the many problems that plague the nation’s second-largest city, in lieu of targeting hard-working Latino workers and entrepreneurs, shouldn’t the city focus on real crimes, such as murder, armed burglary, rape, spousal and child abuse, and wage theft?

It’s no secret that city leaders cherish being a global city, whether they’re competing for international investors, pro football teams or global sports events. By showcasing Los Angeles to the world, for example, Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council members invested significant time, money and energy to secure a bid, with its inherent financial risks, for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Yet when it comes to legalizing street vending in Los Angeles, city leaders lack the same sense of urgency to provide Latino immigrant street vendors with permits to work without fear of the law.

This is not a new problem for Los Angeles. Food researchers have traced street vending in Los Angeles, particularly tamaleros, or tamale sellers, as far back as the 1870s. Two recently published books do an excellent job in documenting this fascinating history. This includes “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” by Gustavo Arellano, and “Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks,” by Farley Elliot. In these insightful books, we learn that the city of Los Angeles initiated regulation of Mexican tamaleros by the late 1800s and outright banned street vending on public streets by the early 1900s.

A century later, given the nature of supply and demand, however, Mexican immigrants and other ethnic groups continue to sell tamales and other products in public spaces. Operating in the informal economy, street vendors who sell food and other goods shouldn’t be confused or lumped with real criminals. Instead, policymakers and the police should differentiate between “licit” and “illicit” economic activity performed by vendors on public streets. For example, while selling tamales or pupusas constitute “licit” activities, peddling marijuana or cocaine represent “illicit” actions.

Informal sector

To provide relief to street vendors, a citywide coalition of organizations in December 2011 launched the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign to pressure the city to regulate this informal sector. Participating groups include the East Los Angeles Community Corp., Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, Public Counsel and LA Food Policy Council, among others. Participants also include public interest lawyers, scholars and pro-immigrant advocates. For the past several years, campaign leaders have been advocating for city leaders to legalize street vending, including implementing a citywide permit system, incentivizing healthy foods and providing support to the vendors, among other key issues.

In response, the City Council has prolonged a relatively straightforward process of decriminalizing street vending. In prolonging the process, city leaders continue to drag their feet by contemplating numerous permit options, such as citywide versus districtwide permit plans, and engaging in endless discussion about complex legislation language.

Meanwhile, to the dismay of vendors and their advocates, the City Council recently voted 12-3 to ban vending at public parks. Is it humane policy for a Latino immigrant to pay a $250 fine and face a potential misdemeanor for selling a strawberry paleta?

Enough with this nonsense!

As documented in a recent report by the Economic Roundtable, “Sidewalk Stimulus,” street vendors provide positive benefits to the city.

“From food to merchandise,” according to the authors, “50,000 sidewalk entrepreneurs stimulate the local economy by generating $434 million in economic activity.” In addition, the report says this unregulated sector generates employment for Latino immigrants, complements brick-and-motor businesses, promotes public safety and encourages social interaction in the city. Similarly, UCLA summer students, in a class titled “Mapping L.A. Street Vendors: Economic and Cultural Practice in the Global City,” aim to shed additional light on this underexplored and vulnerable immigrant labor niche.

In short, the City Council and mayor should legalize street vendors with limited restrictions and value the vendors’ key characteristics: strong work ethic, family orientation and entrepreneurial spirit.

Joaquin Montes-Huerta is a student at Oakwood School in North Hollywood. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban & regional planning and ethnic & women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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