“I put myself in God’s hands”: Street Vendors fear for their safety as they work to provide

Everything stops at the identifiable sound of a bike horn squeaking— the universal sound signifying affordable, delicious and homemade snacks from the local street vendor— emerging down residential blocks, getting closer as the horn sounds louder.  The bold sound signaling for people to come out and get their elotes (corn on the cob), raspados (shaved ice) or elaborate fresh fruit snacks. Families rise from the couch in unison, children are distracted from playing video games and hurry to find the nearest adult with money, everyone is frantically looking for cash before the horn fades away into the next block.

But when the sound of their air horns fade, street vendors have more to worry about than how many elotes or raspados they sold that day. 

For Enedelia Aguilar, who has been selling elotes, raspados and other snacks in Long Beach for 12 years, it is the harassment and humiliation at the hands of a laundromat owner that has made her feel apprehensive about her route, but her mission to support her family holds her steady.

“He has always seen us selling elotes, but he has never really told us anything aside from sometimes mentioning that we can’t sell here,” Aguilar said in an interview in Spanish with the Signal Tribune

Whether she faces the cold wind of a California winter or the scorching sun rays of a Long Beach summer, Aguilar pushes her cart, loaded with the ingredients for shaved ice or other snacks, up and down the streets near a laundromat on the Westside of Long Beach. Her husband drops her off and picks her up on a residential sidewalk nearby.   

“The last two years he has become a little bit aggressive,” Aguilar said of the laundromat owner. “As soon as he sees us he tells us to leave, that our food is nasty and that it is trash. He will go inside the laundromat and tell those washing not to buy from me because my food is rotten.” Aguilar also heard him speculate to everyone in the laundromat about her immigration status.

Enedelia Aguilar prepared corn for a customer on the Westside of Long Beach on Saturday, Jan. 9. She has been vending in this area for 12 years. (Karla M. Enriquez | Signal Tribune)

Aguilar, who is at times accompanied by her 7-year-old daughter, does her best to ignore the comments, but it became more challenging to do so on an afternoon in early December.

After being stopped on the sidewalk by a customer near the laundromat to buy elotes for his family, the owner allegedly pushed Aguilar’s cart and yelled at her to leave, bringing the 7-year-old to tears, prompting her to hug her mother while pleading to leave.

A man who identified himself as the owner of the laundromat said in a statement to the Signal Tribune that the reason no street vendors are allowed outside his business is to slow the spread of COVID-19. He added that he does not allow eating inside his establishment for the same reason.

The street vendor feared the police being called during the incident because getting a ticket would be financially devastating.

Although Aguilar didn’t specify what type of ticket she was referring to, an example of how much fines can reach up to include $250 in the case of vending without a permit, for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third as specified in the California Government Code Section 68632 (a) or (b). 

“If I dont have money for myself or my family, I definitely don’t have money to pay for a ticket,” Aguilar said. 

Hearing of the incident, Tito Rodriguez, locally known as Hood Santa, visited the family for the holidays and gifted them toys and Diamond Supply merch.

“As a woman, I’m scared but I also have the need to go sell,” she said of the hardships that come with being a street vendor. “I put myself in God’s hands and there’s no other way for me but to go out and work.”

Crosstown, a data-driven non-profit news organization based out of USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism reported in October 2020 that according to Los Angeles Police Department data, crimes committed against street vendors in the city of Los Angeles, a street vendor hub, have been on a steady increase, up 337% from 2010-2019.

According to Brandon Fahey, public information officer at the Long Beach Police Department, there isn’t any readily available data on crimes against street vendors in Long Beach since it is not a metric that is tracked. 

Fahey added that there is no contributing evidence to indicate that there currently is a trend or a series of crimes involving street vendors in the city of Long Beach.

Aguilar isn’t the only one who has faced hardship while going about her work day through the streets of Long Beach. 

In an unrelated incident, Aguilar’s brother-in-law, also a street vendor, was assaulted and sent to the hospital three years ago while working in Long Beach. 

Similarly, in late June 2020, vendor Bililfo Fernández was assaulted and robbed at gunpoint while selling elotes in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Long Beach.

See related: “I’m alive by a miracle”: Street vendor community marches in solidarity with elotero Bililfo Fernandez

Bililfo Fernández speaks to the media in front of Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse on July 2. (Kristen Farrah Naeem | Signal Tribune)

“I gave them [what they ordered] I never thought that they were going to do anything to me, once I gave them the corn, they drew a gun on me and asked for the money,” Fernandez said in a statement in Spanish to the Signal Tribune in July.

The incident landed Fernandez in the hospital for two days where he was treated for the blows he received to the face and head with a handgun.

Fernandez was robbed of approximately $100 to $200 and his new phone, which had been gifted to him by his daughter weeks prior.  

On July 2, 2020 Fernandez’ supporters organized a march down Pine Avenue to advocate for him and other street vendors.

“I think I will return to work, but now I’ll be scared,” the vendor said to the Signal Tribune while at the march. “It won’t be like before where I went out happily.”

Just a couple of days later, on July 11, vendor Bernardo Nuñez was going through his route when he made a stop at a 99 Cents store on 53rd Street and Long Beach to purchase refreshments and napkins. The brief three minute stop was all it took for his cart to get stolen. 

See related: Christmas in July: Hood Santa and Local Hearts Foundation raise $10k for local street vendor who was robbed

Bernardo Nuñez spoke to the Signal Tribune about his ice-cream cart being stolen in late July 2020. (Image via screengrab of Signal Tribune video of Nuñez)

The street vendor told the Signal Tribune in July that he ran out the store and down 53rd Street searching for his cart, frantically asking anyone he saw on the street if they had seen it. Nuñez was so nervous he wasn’t able to dial his cell phone. 

“I felt bad because that was my source of income and although I wasn’t making a lot, it was something,” Nuñez said to the Signal Tribune.

The police were called, but Nuñez still searched for his cart on foot before they arrived hoping to find it. 

Unbeknownst to him, Rodriguez and the Local Hearts Foundation were organizing a GoFundMe with a $10,000 goal to get Nuñez a bicycle cart, which was presented to the street vendor in late July.

Rodriguez and his team have become patron saints for defending street vendors with their “Defend Eloteros” movement, in which they handed out hand sanitizer and other protective gear to vendors. They even made shirts with the same slogan, with proceeds going to the Local Hearts Foundation to support local street vendors. 

“No one has the right to intimidate us for not having a good job,”Aguilar said in Spanish. “I would like it if they just let us sell [our goods] without us being scared of who is going to harm us because they hate us.”

This article was updated with a statement from the person who identified themselves as the owner of the laundromat.

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