The Street Vendor: Entrepreneurship, Activism, and Mobility in the Los Angeles Enclave by Karen Lazcano
Throughout the year, we have discussed the multiple ways through which mobility can be categorized. We’ve explored mobility as a means of transportation--having the ability to move from one place to another, how mobility ties in with racial hierarchies in the United States, mobility tied in with labor and the California landscape, and how the perception of Latin@s is built through mobility. In considering a topic to fit into our collective theme, I wanted to create an analysis of the street vendor’s identity mobility in relation to the Los Angeles enclave.
I begin with a brief history of Olvera Street, a historical monument in the founding of the city of Los Angeles and widely considered the first space in which street vendors, or ‘puesteros,’ were introduced to the city landscape. Anecdotes of street vendors beginning in the 1930’s Olvera Street demonstrate the transformation of street vending as a form or visual display into that of activism. The contributions street vendors have made to Los Angeles through the form of an underground economy also show the extent to which vendors claimed space in both a tangible and discarnate bearing.
Intersectionality exists through the ways that street vending has changed itself and Los Angeles. Street vending grew in Los Angeles as a form of Latino urbanism and became a vessel for economic mobility where one did not exist. Challenging the accessibility of that this prospect has provided has been met with the formation of community activism. In the late 1980’s, the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Association of Street Vendors, AVA) was founded as a form of community organization for street vendors after the city of Los Angeles outlawed street vending. The fight for street vendor’s rights extended from seeking to sell their goods without being fined by the city, also including issues of racial targeting and police brutality. This form of activism still persists today, with organizations such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and their Street Vendors Project.
Street vendors continue to fight for official inclusion in the political economy of Los Angeles. Most recently, the hashtag #LAStreetVendors demonstrates the way through which activism of street vendors has transformed from a physical medium into an electronic format. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the movement remains, reconstructing the contributions of street vendors in the Los Angeles landscape to be inclusive with activism and community.
At the end of the 1920’s, Olvera Street found itself in a state of disparity. Once a robust community, the street was reconstructed in the 1930’s into a “theme park-style ‘Mexican marketplace’” with “...tiled sidewalks, canopied curio booths,...tamale stands, and merchants in fanciful Mexican costumes” (Kropp, 35-36). The Olvera Street that Anglo southern Californians consumed was conceptualized as a visual medium in the “mythic landscape of 1930s Los Angeles” (Kropp, 36).
In Citizens of the Past?: Olvera Street and the Construction of Race and Memory in 1930’s Los Angeles, Phoebe Kropp provides an insighful history of Olvera Street. She detais how race and class relations--between the elite Anglos that transformed the street into a decoration and the puesteros, or merchants, which were uniformly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and lived and worked on the street--ultimately caused the construction of a street vendor community.
In order to create the Olvera Street of the 1930s, Christine Sterling, a San Francisco solialite responsible for its constructon, enacted puestos--structures that alluded to Mexican culture in Los Angeles as ‘temporary’. She urged vendors to do more than sell goods and Mexican souveniers; she wanted them to present their crafts in action and moreover contrive the ornamental nostalgic aspect of the street by wearing traditional costumes. Kropp notes that “in Olvera Street’s idyllic social world, the poor were content, dirt was picturesque, work was quaint, and social protest was anomalous” (Kropp, 46). Olvera Street thus served as a mechanism in an attempt deradicalize Mexicans.
Sterling was not willing to negotiate the use of cotumes on Olvera Street, which brought conflcit and the intial organization of puesteros. The diversity in responses demontrates how the residents of Olvera “refused to simply become part of the city’s [Los Angeles] backdrop” (Kropp, 52). The fight for self-expression was only the beginning of battles over space and memory on Olvera Street.
Item 1: Calle Olvera
My first item is a film titled Street of Memory. Produced in 1937, the short film shows images of Olvera Street. In the short film, the viewer can clearly see the theme park-themed landscape that Sterling wanted to accomplish. The puestos are run by puesteros dressed in traditional Mexican clothing--including colorful dresses for the women and men wearing sombreros--an extreme compared to the Anglo consumers that toured and shopped the street.
Overlapping the video segment are sections of Phoebe Kropp’s Citizens of the Past?: Olvera Street and the Construction of Race and Memory in 1930’s Los Angeles. In it, she highlights the story of Olvera Street, the first appearance of street vendors as puesteros, and how conflicts over space and the degradation of identity portrayal united them as an organized force. These initial forms of community activism within the street vendor community of Olvera Street continued to manifest itself in the Los Angeles landscape and still does today.
1980: Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Association of Street Vendors, AVA)
In the late 1980s, the city of Los Angeles became the only major city in the United States to outlaw street vending. A rise in Latin American immigration caused a vast increase in street vending in Los Angeles, prompting the legal banning of the discipline. This ban on the underground economy that had long been a prominent part of the city public landscape turned street vending into a political issue. Leadership among street vendors began organizing to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. The contributions of street vendors as incubators of a new industry was diluted into a perception of violators of a city ordinance (Weber, 219). Weber notes that “as the number of street vendors grew in the late 1890s, so too did police arrests, ticketing, and abuse” (Weber, 222). The intersection between local merchants, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the city in policing street vending only served to further organize vendors and transform street vending from a way to earn a living into an activist movement.
In 1987, vendors began meeting collectively to discuss issues of injustice and targeting done by Los Angeles and the police department. was formally founded in 1988. The association incorporated issues of immigration and human rights in their campaign to gain rights and respectability in Los Angeles, requesting “the aid of public interest and immigrant rights lawyers to represent vendors having problems with the Los Angeles Police Department” (Weber, 223-4). The organization’s motivation quickly shifted from seeking a solution to problems with police abuse to focusing on changing laws against street vending. Changes in leadership through the years proved to be effective for the organization and its mission. Ana, a Salvadoran woman, became president of the AVA in 1990. She led the organization effectively, “motivating the press, city council members, and sympathetic residents of Los Angeles through strong, impassioned speeches about the hardships that vendors faces as women, as Latina immigrants (some undocumented), and as violators of an unjust city law” (Weber, 224-5).
The images selected for my second item were curated at the Southern California Library in Los Angeles, CA. They feature propaganda, images, receipts, tickets, among other physical allusions of the organization of street vendors in the city. I include anecdotes from Clair Weber’s writings to provide a comprehensive perspective of the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Association of Street Vendors, AVA). It is important to note that through its founding, the organization provided the first legal and official medium for street vendors to come together and address issues that transcended the right to sell goods on the streets of Los Angeles. The formation of the AVA suggests a the conception of a movement of activism from a channel of physical and economic mobility to one that embraced and then became centered on activism for the Latino and immigrant community of Los Angeles. The movement expanded from the initial coordination of street vendors to include grassroots organizers, lawyers, volunteers, etc.
2010 and Beyond: #LAStreetVendors
Activism around any by street vending is still prevalent today. Street vendors continue to fight for official inclusion in the political economy of Los Angeles. Most recently, the hashtag #LAStreetVendors demonstrates the way through which activism of street vendors has transformed from a physical medium into an electronic format. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the movement remains, reconstructing the contributions of street vendors in the Los Angeles landscape to be inclusive with activism and community.
Item 3: #LAStreetVendors
For my final item, I chose the hashtag #LAStreetVendors. The hashtag itself is a portrayal of activist media mobility from being inclusive without restrictions of physical barriers to producing various sources of information that all relate back to street vending. The hashtag serves to bring awareness to the campaign for the legalization of street vending in Los Angeles. It is a claim to the public space that can be used by anyone, in any location.
I chose to include #LAStreetVendors as an piece in my exhibit because I believe it captivates the modern day intersectionality through which street vendors’ activism has turned into a structure that is consumable in multiple ways. Street vending began as a decorative economic representation of Mexican culture in Los Angeles. Through the years, it evolved with the inclusion of activism representing various sectors of Latino life and culture in Los Angeles.
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