“We are good people, we come here to work. We don’t do bad things. Please help us by purchasing something.”
In neighborhoods across the country, the ring or honk of an air horn often means the elotero or paletero is coming by with some tasty snacks.
It also increasingly means that these vendors are putting their safety at risk every time they go to work.
According to Crosstown, a news website created by the University of Southern California Annenberg, in its data for Los Angeles County, the LAPD reported an alarming rise in cases of assault and robbery against street vendors from 2010 to 2019. Crimes against street vendors rose from 38 to 166 crimes per year, an increase of 336% over the decade.
The rise of attacks isn’t confined to Los Angeles though.
One of the most vicious and tragic attacks this year left a 52-year-old elotero (corn vendor), Emilio Garza, in Milwaukee robbed and shot to death in August.
On Nov. 20, another corn street vendor was killed. The victim was a 53-year-old José Luis Rivera, who was shot near a busy intersection in the central California city of Fresno.
When street vendors are not worrying about getting attacked and robbed, they also have to be aware of traffic.
In October, a 64-year-old Dallas area street vendor José Gerardo Arrendondo was struck and killed by a car while walking his ice cream cart.
Despite the surge of attacks, street vendors continue to work because their job prospects are often limited, especially during the global coronavirus pandemic.
Roberto, a 24-year-old street vendor in the Los Angeles County suburb of Downey, who sells elotes, esquites, chicharrones, churros, and raspados, said he continues to work because he hasn’t been able to find another job.
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“I lost my job because of the pandemic. They offered me a job and this is what I dedicate myself to. I don’t earn much, but it allows me to pay rent and my bills,” Roberto told The Americano.
He came to the US from Mexico two years ago and started working as a street vendor in addition to his other job when he arrived. Now he is solely working as a street vendor.
While Roberto said he thankfully hasn’t been attacked, he has had experienced instances when customers have swindled him out of his money.
“On occasions customers have asked for an item and they leave me running, and they don’t pay me. They say ‘give me that’ and once I give it to them, they ask ‘How much do I owe you?’ but they just stand there and don’t pay me. I’d rather just not tell them anything instead of having them get mad,” Roberto said.
“I do have a bit of fear,” Roberto said about continuing to be a street vendor. “I am always on the streets, including nights. I have a little bit of fear of people doing bad things to street vendors. Colleagues that I know have had their money or things stolen.”
“We are good people, we come here to work,” Roberto said. “We don’t do bad things. Please help us by purchasing something.”
Some users on social media are taking it upon themselves to do more than just purchase food items to aid street vendors in need.
TikTok user juixxe encourages his followers to raise money in Venmo challenges for street vendors across Los Angeles. In different challenges this year, he has raised amounts ranging from $300 to $20,000 for street vendors.
Local nonprofits have also stepped up to help street vendors. In August, Los Angeles nonprofit Local Hearts Foundation bought a new ice cream cart for 66-year-old street vendor Bernardo Nuñez, along with presenting him with $10,000.
“HJ and I came up with this plan to help street vendors out after they’ve been attacked left and right,” Local Hearts co-founder Tito Rodriguez told ABC7 News. “We said, ‘That’s not right. We’ve got to find some way to help them.”
Rodriguez and co-founder HJ Chong handed out PPE to street vendors across the county before they heard of Nuñez’s case when he was robbed of his ice cream cart in Long Beach.
Street vending officially became legal in Los Angeles in 2018 and nearly 80% of the estimated 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles are women.
Roberto says he is faithful there are more good people out in the world than bad, and continues to work in Downey while remaining cautious.
“You just have to be careful. Thank God, I haven’t had to call the police [for being attacked],” Roberto said.
Latino street vendors will need to continue to be careful while battling both a pandemic and nefarious assaults on the streets across the country—because they don’t have another financial option.