It’s a Friday afternoon in July and the weather is scorching hot. As children laugh while they play and adults chat nearby, the sounds of horns, chimes and bells cut through the lively neighborhood.
It’s a familiar jingle on Eastside Avenue. Families make their way out of their houses to buy elotes, raspados, chicharrones, chips and more from Rodrigo Arenas Torres. He is among many other street vendors in Santa Ana earning an honest living while bringing happiness on wheels.
“¡Apúrate para alcanzar a Rodrigo!” an older sister told her little brother as they rushed to buy a raspado and elote.
Arenas Torres is a frequent visitor to the neighborhood. His sunhat, blue cart and black horn are a familiar sight to neighbors.
For those like Selina Lievanos, 38, street vendors remind them of their childhood. She recently moved to Anaheim, but she lived in Santa Ana for most of her life. There, her favorite street vendor was a man who sells churros from his red and white Igloo cooler on Bristol and First streets near a taco truck. Now in Anaheim, she has an elotero who frequently visits her street, and she’s one of the few people in her neighborhood who buys from him.
“[They] bring a taste of home,” Lievanos said. “They come into the neighborhoods and it’s just, they contribute to happiness dude. Even me being old as hell, being 38 years old, and I hear the little bells on it — I’m out the door sis in chanclas, sin chanclas. I don’t care, I’m out the door.”
Lievanos, who organized a unity stance in March for street vendors, said they are keeping traditions alive and help fight against gentrification in cities, which makes them important to communities.
“That’s a part of the hood too — that’s a part of our culture,” Lievanos said. “That’s part of our lifestyle is the paletero dude, the raspado man coming through on a hot summer day. I think they just contribute to our community, our neighborhood.”
Street vendors of Santa Ana
Long hours and busy days are not unusual for street vendors in Santa Ana.
Jose Guadalupe Rodriguez, who emigrated from Morelos, Mexico, has stood on the same corner of Fourth and Bush streets in Santa Ana for almost 30 years with his cart full of snacks: chicharones, gummies, fruit cups, chips and more.
From day to day, Rodríguez works almost a 12-hour shift.
He wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to pick up his cart from the warehouse where it’s stored and spends about four hours preparing all the fruit for the carts. Afterward, he ventures back out onto the street to his corner, where he works until 6 p.m. Then he loads his cart, returns items to the warehouse and heads home, ready to start it all over again the next day.
“Many people think it’s an easy job but it requires a lot of patience and tenacity,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “It’s difficult because in the wintertime, we have to withstand the cold when it’s very windy … During the rainy season, it’s the same thing. It pours, it’s cold and we get wet.”
Silvia Trujillo, from Puebla, Mexico, is another street vendor who works in the same area as Rodriguez. For her, the long days are the same.
Trujillo wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to start her day an hour and a half later. She washes the dishes, then makes the syrups and loads her car. At Fourth and Main streets she sets up her fruit cart with a colorful array of umbrellas. Chips and chicharrones hang at its front, and fruit cups sit next to peanuts on top of her silver cart. Once 6:30 p.m. hits, it’s time for her to call it quits for the day.
For street vendors like Trujillo and Rodriguez, these long workdays can conflict with family life. Rodriguez said he’s fortunate enough that his job as street vendor is part of his parents-in-law’s business, which also operates in the same street, so some days his family works with him.
He is one of many street vendors who work with their family, but that is not always the case. Arenas Torres has to travel from the U.S. to his native country to see his family, which isn’t always easy. He goes back every three years.
“Leaving to Mexico is the best thing that could ever happen. It is the most beautiful moment when you arrive in Mexico because of the excitement,” Arenas Torres said in Spanish. “When you come back from Mexico, it’s very sad.”
He said that being away from his family has its ups and downs — he’s uncomfortable being away from them, but he feels good when he can support them financially, especially since his previous job didn’t pay him well.
Rodriguez got into street vending to support his family. Despite its inconsistent pay from day to day, it’s still enough for his family, he said.
City regulations and the risk street vendors face
With street vending, other risks can sometimes arise. Street vendors are not always safe on the job. They’ve been at risk of robberies and confrontations, some of which have gone viral across California in recent years.
According to the Voice of OC, street vendor Jessie Flores, who works on Edinger Avenue, has almost been robbed four times — the most recent instance in November.
In March, a street vendor Lorenzo Perez, was shot and killed in Southeast Fresno by a man who approached him as a customer, according to ABC30. The death of the father of four led the city to change its regulations.
Fresno City Council member Luis Chavez told ABC30 the city would sponsor an association for food vendors in Fresno to help them learn how to operate legally along with other resources.
Actions for change
Some people like Lievanos have stepped up to help. Lievanos owns a security company and last summer offered her security service to street vendors facing harassment. She believes the city should support vendors more directly.
“I feel like they would feel a lot safer if they did have permits … if they were given the education and just the info. I feel like that’s a big secret, too,” Lievanos said. “It’s like, why would you not want them to be legit?”
In March 2017, the Santa Ana City Council adopted an ordinance that allowed street vendors to legally operate within the city. However, street vendors must follow specific rules to operate legally. For example, they are only allowed to use the lights found on their vehicle and cannot install additional lights that may pose a distraction to drivers, according to the ordinance.
They must also apply for a permit and business license to operate — $200 more to be considered a business owner with multiple carts compared to registering as self-employed with one cart, according to Santa Ana spokesman Paul Eakins.
According to the city’s website, the license fee is used to help the city operate and pay for the police and fire departments and other safety needs.
Amid long hours and fears for safety, the Santa Ana community has stood behind its street vendors. In March, Lievanos organized a unity stance for vendors to know they have a community behind them. She was tired of seeing them being harmed and treated unfairly.
“The unity stance is literally just me being fed up with the news, the headlines, social media and seeing our vendors being attacked and harassed and beaten and unfortunately, in some cases killed,” Lievanos said. The goal of the unity stance was to stand in solidarity and show compassion for street vendors.
Lievanos believes that as the younger generation of immigrants, she and others have the duty to stand up for vendors to whom people have turned a blind eye. She said she hopes to protect their elders who have been silenced for years, unable to speak up.
“I feel like in society now, we’ve lacked a lot of compassion for people. And it’s just I put my family in those positions like that could have been my uncle, that could have been my dad, that could have been my grandpa and it makes you mad,” Lievanos said.
In the unity stance, she said she wanted the street vendors to know they have the entire community behind them. It is important to raise awareness of this problem because it is not in the mainstream and needs adequate attention, Lievanos added.
“Just to be like, dude, we’re proud. We’re proud of our street vendors. We’re proud to stand behind our street vendors,” Lievanos said. “And the whole message for me that I wanted was just to show you’re not alone.”