food gentrification labor

LA Taco Trucks: Food, Gentrification, and Survival

The taco stands of LA exist as a part of the informal city. According to the edited volume Street Food: Culture, Economy, Health, and Governance, it is the unregulated, renegade food source that encompasses three fundamental human rights: “the individual right to work, the collective right to access and use public spaces, and the right to food security.” The taco stand is the exercising of agency by a group largely deprived of it. It is one of the few avenues of entrepreneurship for people from socially and economically vulnerable groups. They are providers for their community. They are the fabric of the cultural identity of the entire city of Los Angeles. And while they all exist as a part of this subculture, no two stands are the same. The stands are a reflection of the vast array of backgrounds of the people who run them, breaking the hegemonic image placed upon the Latinx community of Los Angeles who are solely responsible for this subcultural phenomenon.

Street food is an essential part of Mexican and Central American cultures and this subculture is an import of the immigrants from those areas. The taco stands have existed and thrived in LA since 1870 despite the constant threat of harassment by police and harsh regulation by the city. Street food was only decriminalized in 2018 and even that brought more hardship with the implementation of a new set of permitting rules and fees. And now with its entrance into the mainstream of Los Angeles cultural canon, hipster foodie trucks threaten the subcultures entire existence. So my research question is how much do taco stands mean to LA? Who are the people behind these micro-businesses? And how has gentrification and regulation affected the stand’s ability to survive?

The food of the taco stands are themselves an act of rebellion. They are a rejection of Americanized Mexican food, they are an act of defiance against the hard shell taco. The al pastor with a slice of pineapple, the birria de res, the soft shell taco, these are all examples of the true Mexican food that you can only find at these stands. The stands themselves are revolutionary because of the opportunities they provide to people with little others. Street vendors come from “socially and economically vulnerable groups such as lower classes, ethnic minorities, the elderly, and women” (Ibid.) so these businesses are tools of empowerment.

I frequent the taco stands that line the streets of Mid-City at night. One stand in particular around the corner from my house, piqued my interest not only because of its delicious food but also because of its elusive schedule. The stand was always located in the same parking lot of Jay’s Market on Pico but seemingly never there on any consistent basis during the week. Finally, I managed to get lucky and catch them open for business one night. I ordered my al pastor and carne asada tacos and enquired to the taquero about what was up with their schedule. He replied, “Depende del clima.” which I found very funny because it’s LA and everyday the “clima” is basically a given. But I realized later that the implications of the proprietors of the stand choosing their own work schedule were profound. In the 9 to 5 society we live in it’s very rare to come across people who dictate their own work schedule, even more rare amongst Latinx immigrants. So the taco stand is a means of liberation from the oppressive work culture that dominates American society.

There is also this idea of the American Dream embedded into the stands. They are entrepreneurs who can start out at the very bottom as undocumented immigrants selling their traditional food to survive and maybe one day they can own their own brick and mortar restaurant, a dream that has been achieved by some in LA.

To truly understand the taco stands I realized that I would have to better understand the Latinx, largely Mexican, diaspora living in Los Angeles. The story of Latinx people in Los Angeles is a story of struggle and hardship. The US colonial shitshow caused by the Monroe Doctrine and the American thirst for colonies after the Spanish-American War, led to proxy wars, death squads, coups, and propped up dictatorships all across Central and South America. This was all done in the name of American economic interests and caused destabilization within these regions which became the root cause of the massive influx of immigrants who could no longer survive in their home countries which the US had destroyed. Many come to the US, specifically Los Angeles, every year seeking a better life and a future for their children. But a better life is often not what awaits them. According to an article published in the Journal of Urban Health there is immigrant health research that suggests, “recently arrived Latino immigrants have better health than US-born latinos and their health deteriorates over time.” This is all due to the broken American healthcare system and the stressors associated with immigration status and enforcement.

There is also a term referred to in the book Fluid Borders about a separate mental process that accompanies the physical immigration and they call it “Internal Migration.” It is the psychological subconscious action of making sense of your new surroundings and new life undertaken by immigrants and their children. So, for many Latinx immigrants I would imagine having a strong community of people who understand your culture and language is crucial to helping guide this internal migration process along. And I would imagine that the taco stands are a part of this.

The taco stands are for the community. They have “zero food miles” (The Informal American City), which means that all of their ingredients are locally grown/purchased, and are a part of this self sustaining economy that is both culturally necessary for Latinx Angelenos and necessary as a source of food/income. It is also a subculture within a subculture because the stands themselves are representative of people with varying backgrounds which is reflected by their food. The majority of street vendors are Mexican but that group is far from a monolith, the food from Oaxaca is entirely different from the food from Tijuana and so who has the best al pastor or who has the best mulita is a source of subcultural capital. At the end of the day the biggest source of capital in the subculture is just how good the food is. The better your food, the longer your line will be. If you have a line going down the block every night, you are in the upper echelons of this subculture. And those who are able to gain local popularity through the quality of their food may be on the path to convert this subcultural capital into an actual restaurant or at least multiple stands/trucks.

Another facet of this subculture is the rivalry between neighborhoods as to who has the better stands. The local stands are a source of pride for where you live, so believing that your local taco stands are the best even if they aren’t is in your best interest.

These stands exist as a part of an informal economy that accompanies most lower class neighborhoods in major cities. Most are illegal activities but not criminal. They include everything from selling clothes on the street to selling tacos, they are a vital part of a cities economy because it functions to serve those who are in need of such a marketplace most. This informal economy comes under threat when gentrifiers encroach upon the spaces occupied by these businesses. The new permitting regulations will require the street vendors to pay for at least three different types of permitting licenses, this has been the price of decriminalization. The permit costs that come with being a vendor gives the advantage to the gentrifiers. These regulations are clearly not designed to help anyone, it is a poorly crafted infrastructure thrown together by the City Council in order to attempt to generate revenue off of the street vendors. These regulations will only serve to hurt taqueros but they are a resilient bunch. Selling street food in LA has been illegal for almost its entire existence, and the street vendors have not only survived but they’re thrived becoming one of the most culturally important staples of Angeleno cuisine. Gentrification however is posing an extreme threat to the survival of the taco stands because with the arrival of white hipsters and their coffee shops also comes police. A key component of gentrification is the increased policing of “hip” neighborhoods in order to make them appear safe enough to potential white residents and white businesses.

The taco stands acceptance into the mainstream of Los Angeles cultural canon means that so long as this city still stands, the taco stand will never die. But the commercialization that comes with mainstream acceptance is only going to harm the real taqueros because it will be a formalization of the informal economy without any compensation given to those who started it. Our only hope for the future is that the activists within the Angeleno Latinx community are listened to by those in power and there will actually be a political movement interested in helping this community. One small thing each of us can do to help the taco stands is to buy from the real taquero(a)s, not some hipster foodie bullshit. Get the real stuff. It’s much better, I promise.