Patty Archuleta starts her weekend job as early as 3 a.m. As a Los Angeles street vendor, she sets up her table with new and used clothing to sell while most people are asleep. She discovered five years ago that she could sell the stuff she accumulated to make some extra money.
“Everything sells on the street,” Archuleta said in a recent phone interview with Luz Collective.
Erika Hernandez, Economic Development Initiatives Associate for Inclusive Action for the City, estimates there are more than 10,000 street vendors in Los Angeles. Like most businesses, these micro-entrepreneurs have seen a decrease in sales due to COVID-19, but organizations and community members have set up emergency relief funds to provide some additional income support.
Hernandez spearheaded the organization’s Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign with other co-workers to distribute direct cash assistance of $400 each to street vendors affected by the pandemic. She told Luz Collective in a recent phone interview that Inclusive Action has supported 1,034 street vendors through the emergency fund thus far with hopes to support many more.
“Although we have been able to support over 1,000 street vendors, that barely scratches the surface of even the actual need and the number of street vendors that are within LA County and LA City,” Hernandez said.
In recent months, there’s been an uptick of physical assaults towards street vendors with some videos capturing these assaults circulating social media. An elotera was placed in a chokehold and robbed by two suspects in March in LA. Three suspects were arrested for allegedly shooting and killing an elderly ice cream man after they tried to rob him in June in Austin, Texas. These events have provoked people to take action and to protest.
“It happens, it exists,” Archuleta said. “We’re putting ourselves in danger just by being out there in the street. Having merchandise standing out there, because people steal, they rob. You don’t know who’s walking by.”
When three college students, Stephanie Martinez, Sebastian Araujo, and Gabriella Moreira-Rodriguez, saw one of those videos depicting the violence, they felt compelled to help. In the last month, the three formed Las Calle del Valle, an organization that aims to provide a support system for street vendors in the San Fernando Valley in California.
Martinez told Luz Collective in a recent phone interview that street vendors have been a part of their lives as they grew up eating their food. “They’re vulnerable because they have to deal with other issues,” Martinez said. “They’re just out there trying to provide for their families. It’s already hard enough for them already and why would you do something like that?”
They met with several street vendors with the proper health precautions to ask them about their experiences working in the neighborhood. They wanted to determine if and how they could help. “We wanted to know how they feel because we also didn’t want to be invasive either,” Martinez said.
Through online donations, the group put together street vendor protection packages that include face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, pepper spray, sunblock, and counterfeit pens that detect fake bills. They gathered a group of volunteers to distribute the packages in the last two weeks.
Hernandez said that Inclusive Action focuses on the policies and legislation that place barriers in front of vendors. The organization co-founded the LA Street Vendor Campaign (LASVC) to legalize street vending and it took over a decade of work to make that happen. The City of Los Angeles approved a permit process for street vending in November 2018, but the ordinance took effect on January 1, 2020.
Then the City of LA banned unlicensed vending during the pandemic. “Now folks can’t sell legally in the City of LA and on top of that, the county of LA is fining vendors $1,000 misdemeanors fines. Misdemeanors penalties have implications with the immigration system,” Hernandez said.
She added that some of the street vendors are undocumented, so getting a misdemeanor fine could have negative immigration consequences. “I think Inclusive Action tries to focus on that state violence because street vendors are ignored in all of the new plans that the city and different localities are coming up with to open up the economy again or support business folks, but we try to focus on that and find a way of supporting street vendors,” Hernandez said.
Nansi Guevara saw similar injustices in Brownsville, Texas. “I think people are working their ass off even more so right now and it doesn’t make sense to me that my community members are working so hard and still not having enough to make a living and paying for rent and food. That’s outrageous to me,” Guevara said.
Guevara comes from a family with three generations of street vendors. Her mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother were able to make a living through this type of work in Mexico. So she and two friends, Xandra Treviño and Monica Sosa organized a GoFundMe to collect donations for a Street Vendors Relief Fund in Brownsville. The initial goal was to raise $5,000 to distribute $500 to 10 families, but they raised a total of $5,500, allowing them to help 11 families.
“I can imagine it’s so stressful each week and I hope that they find some relief from this help,” Guevara said. “We just want our community to thrive. We want the community to have what they need.”
Archuleta also helped her community by seeking donations from fellow vendors to purchase school supplies and backpacks for the new school year. The vendors may be struggling during the pandemic, but she said that some were able to help. They distributed 100 backpacks filled with supplies to students ranging from elementary school to college.
“Even though they’re not going to school, they’re still going to do their work at home and they need paper. They need pens and all that to write their notes,” Archuleta said. “We’re able to do that to help the children of the vendors. This way they didn’t have to worry about one more thing. A lot of the kids were happy.”
Hernandez suggested to those that feel compelled to help Los Angeles street vendors to support the Inclusive Action emergency fund by either sharing it on social media or donating. She also suggests buying from and tipping street vendors. “Oftentimes I think folks are like ‘Oh, this is some cheap food I can get.’ This is also a business owner that needs that sort of money especially right now,” Hernandez said. “I think buying from street vendors is very valuable.”
“That’s a beautiful thing,” Archuleta said when she heard about these campaigns. “To hear something like that, it’s nice. In the Bible, the hands of the giver would never be empty and those are the people that care. A lot of people, they just see us as we’re at the bottom. We can’t work and we don’t have green cards or we’re like the lowest of the lowest because we’re on the street. No, there’s a lot of stories why people are doing it. Everybody’s different.”