On the sunny afternoon of Monday, July 20, Bernardo Nuñez rides down a street in the Northside on a brand new ice cream cart. He wears a “Defend Eloteros” tee-shirt as a badge of pride as he rides on the cracked asphalt. His black Diamond Supply mask matches the design on the top of his cart, both from the Local Hearts Foundation.
On July 11, however, the local street vendor’s story was different.
According to Nuñez, at approximately 3:00 p.m. he stopped from his usual vending route, which started at 11:00 a.m., to buy refreshments and napkins at the 99 Cents store on 53rd Street and Long Beach Boulevard. He had been in the store for about three minutes when as he was about to pay for his items, he noticed his cart was gone.
“I ran out and looked everywhere and couldn’t find [my cart],” Nuñez said in Spanish to the Signal Tribune. “I asked if I could see the cameras to see who had taken it, but the employee said she didn’t know anything about that.”
Nuñez ran down 53rd Street, leaving the items he was going to buy behind. While on the search for his cart the 66-year-old man stopped and asked several people he encountered on the street for help.
At one point a person pointed him in the direction they believed they had seen the cart heading, but Nuñez ran there and found nothing. Another passerby helped Nuñez dial the police to make a report.
“I was so nervous I couldn’t grab my cell phone,” Nuñez said before closing his eyes and taking a deep breath.
While waiting for the police to arrive, Nuñez kept the mission to find his cart alive, reaching Sunset Street and Locust Avenue.
“I felt bad because that was my source of income and although I wasn’t making a lot, it was something,” Nunez said of the impact of the robbery.
And then Tito Rodriguez, also known as Hood Santa, heard of Nuñez’s story.
Rodriguez, who is known for his year-round good deeds through his non-profit, Local Hearts Foundation, put out a call via Instagram’s IGTV asking the local community in the area of the theft to drive around and keep an eye out for the cart.
After a day of handing out masks and pepper spray to street vendors in North and Downtown Long Beach, as part of his team’s recent Defend Eloteros movement, Rodriguez got a call informing him of the robbery. Rodriguez has spent the last couple of weeks promoting t-shirts whose proceeds will go to the Local Hearts Foundation to support local street vendors by giving them protective items such as masks, pepper spray and other items they may need.
The shirts are emblazoned with the message: “Defend Eloteros” or “Defend Street Vendors,” two elotes (corn on the cob) resting across each other as symbol of solidarity. The distinct lettering and design came from renowned artists Big Sleeps and Defer while the printing is done by Black Sunshine Distribution. The idea for the shirt as a means to raise money came collectively and has seen about 200 shirts sold so far.
After a phone call and a meeting with Nuñez, Rodriguez and his team created a GoFundMe for the street vendor with a goal of $10,000 to get him a bicycle cart as a surprise and to help him get back on his feet. The goal was surpassed. At the time of publication, the fundraiser stood at $10,401.
“He has no family, he’s all on his own, let’s take care of him like he is our family. #defendpaleteros,” the description in the GoFundMe page said. Nuñez has been a Long Beach resident for almost 16 years.
In order to keep going financially, Nuñez was able to got a job at a car wash for a few days, until they suddenly closed until further notice, leaving him out of a job once again in the days leading to the Local Hearts Foundation’s surprise.
“They all hurt, but when it’s your own neighborhood, it’s a little bit different because you feel like he is the community,” Rodriguez said regarding Nuñez and other street vendors being robbed. “Why are you damaging the community? He is the community. Why are you robbing the community? He is that community.”
Just on June 29, another local street vendor, Bililfo Fernandez, was physically assaulted and robbed at gunpoint as he was selling elotes, also know as “corn on the cob”, by two individuals. A GoFundMe set up by his daughter was able to raise a total of $85,335 from the community for Fernandez.
For Rodriguez, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to harm street vendors, people who he believes work hard in order to pay their rent.
“He has a small little place that he rents out, that he probably has to sell [a] thousand ice creams to pay half of the rent, for somebody to steal his stuff, it makes me upset. It’s a heartbreaking feeling.”
On Monday afternoon, Rodriguez and his team showed up to Nuñez’s home and delivered the new ice cream cart and a check with the proceeds from the GoFundMe.
That afternoon, Nuñez, with a smile behind his black mask, went up and down the streets of Long Beach, this time pedaling forward with his new bicycle cart.