This is Street Food at its Best: Food as Policy


ACTA - Posted on 18 December 2013

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Hoang Pham (left) in front of Chino's Dogs with Sheriff Lee Baca.

Since 2011, ACTA has been working with The California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities initiative in Boyle Heights to infuse culture as a vital tool in creating community health.  ACTA and the Activating Cultural Assets Task Force which it convened have led community members in the identification of Boyle Heights' "cultural treasures."  Over 100 people, places, events, and groups that reflect the cultural expressions valued by the community have been catalogued on ACTA’s website.

As a subsequent phase of this work, ACTA, in partnership with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, is helping cultural treasures create change in their community through engaged art-making with the residents of Boyle Heights.  The article that follows is about the first of three workshop series aimed at changing policies to improve the health of all.  This current workshop series is pairing the seemingly incongruous elements of son jarocho music and the campaign to legalize street food vending in Boyle Heights.  ACTA Program Manager Quetzal Flores is providing a central role in the design and implementation of this project, drawing on his background as a musician and organizer.

We’re proud to introduce guest writer Abel Salas, who was identified as a Boyle Heights cultural treasure through our project for his work as a writer, poet, reporter, and editor/publisher of the community arts paper Brooklyn & Boyle. His poems have appeared in The Austin Chronicle, ZYZZYVA: A Journal of West Coast Art & Literature, Washington DC's Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Huizache, the nation's premiere Latino literary journal, among others.  His work as a journalist has been featured in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, LA Weekly, The New York Times, and many others.  A version of the following article was published in Brooklyn & Boyle.

          ~ Amy Kitchener, Executive Director

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On the sidewalk in front of Los Angeles' Homeboy Industries and the Homegirl Café — two nationally-acclaimed programs led by Father Gregory Boyle that provide job training for formerly incarcerated young men and women — stands a hotdog cart, adorned with a graffiti–style logo that reads Chino’s Dogs.  Dressed in a black Homeboy Industries apron, the slightly built and heavily tattooed grille-master can’t really hide his former life as the only Asian in one of the many Boyle Heights neighborhood gangs.  Today, he smiles.  Virtually beaming, he serves up a menu that includes chili dogs, dogs with freshly cooked bacon bits, hot dogs wrapped in pretzel buns, as well as franks topped with sautéed and steaming bell pepper, tomato, and onion.  "It’s getting better little by little," says the vendor, Hoang Pham, 40.

 

As a former gangbanger who spent his younger years in and out of prison, being a street vendor with a blessing from Father Greg Boyle is his own personal road to redemption.  As an entrepreneur building a micro-business, Pham could be a poster boy for the campaign for street vendor legalization in Los Angeles being led by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation.

"Father G gave me a second chance, and God gave me a second life," he says. Serving about 50 dogs each Friday from 11am to 3pm, he is living proof that street food vendors do not take business from brick-and-mortar eateries, an argument many have long since used to oppose legalization of pop-up curbside taquerias, tamale or paleta (popsicle) carts or fresh fruit stands.

"It works out great. Nobody’s stealing anyone’s business, because if people want to go to Homegirl Café, they’re going to go to Homegirl Café.  At the same time, if they’re coming to Chino’s Dogs, their coming to Chino’s Dogs.  You know what I’m saying?"

Pham is from the East Los Angeles neighborhood known as Boyle Heights, where street vendors have long been a regular feature on the culinary map.  "They got a lot of them over there," he says.  In many ways, he resembles the great majority of them as the owner of his own small, highly mobile concern.  He is proud, he says, to be working toward a legal vending situation on university campuses like Cal State Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.

"It’s hard but, I’m almost there.  I have to have a business license, a permit from the Health Department," he adds, his voice full of friendly, hopeful optimism.

But the local campaign to support Los Angeles' independent food vendors, who not only provide alternatives to fast-food outlets but whose physical presence on the streets contribute towards a richer, more vibrant neighborhood, has been tough.  "The current climate criminalizes micro-entrepreneurs, who simply want to earn an honest living," says East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) President Maria Cabildo.  "They create jobs, build healthier communities, and cultivate safer streets."  ELACC has been a vocal supporter of more traditional community foodways in its fight to help legitimize the many vendors who are part of their constituent member base, but does not distinguish between someone like Pham or dozens of other Boyle Heights vendors who make and sell food from carts.  The current City of Los Angeles policy on sidewalk or street vending was written in the first part of the 20th Century and is just completely outmoded, says representatives from ELACC, the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN), and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, the latter two organizations equally involved in the efforts to draft a new city policy and subsequent ordinance that more closely reflects today’s economic, social, and cultural realities.  Providing a legal framework for a permitting process that would guarantee health and safety code enforcement would allow street vendors to work unimpeded by fear of fines and police intervention, say street vendor advocates.

Participants in Cesar Castro’s (center) fandango workshops perform at the Street Vendor Summit on International Street Vendor Day (November 14, 2013) in Los Angeles.

In an effort to bring that point home, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts has partnered with The California Endowment — through its Building Healthy Communities initiative in Boyle Heights — to create a series of fandango workshops in support of the Legalize Street Vending Campaign.  The traditional music of Veracruz, which revolves around the Fandango celebration of poetry, music, and dance, has become a mainstay across LA’s musical landscape.  Led by Veracruz native, César Castro, the workshops have sought to teach students basic son jarocho rhythms on traditional instrumentation.

More importantly, the workshops have resulted in the composition of songs with lyrics that emphasize the positive role of street vendors in the community while educating traditional business owners, who are often hostile to street vendors. Through the creative braiding of ideas about food and music, the workshops embrace an entirely new practice that helps improve the quality of life by equating culture with sustenance and self-sufficiency.

The workshops, held for three hours twice a week for nine weeks, are for all ages, says Quetzal Flores, a Grammy Award-winning exponent of son jarocho himself and a program manager at ACTA.  The program will culminate, he explains, with a series of posada–style processions through Boyle Heights and a final fandango, in which workshop participants share all of the elements that comprise the traditional celebration.

While son jarocho, by nature and since inception — including the significant call and response element — has always addressed social and political issues wherever is has been played and performed, these workshops mark the first time the musical form has been enlisted to bolster and support a specific campaign that addresses the issue of socio-economic justice for micro-entrepreneurs such as Pham and those perhaps less visible but no less important street vendors who populate the pedestrian pathways of LA.

 

"It’s really all about engaging community at the most basic, street level," Flores explains.  This series of workshops, he adds, marks a turning point in the development of son jarocho on a local level as a way to create community and generate positive awareness of the benefits a legalized street vending infrastructure.  But, in his estimation, fandango has always been imbued with a sense of social rebellion and were often as much "manifestations" of resistance as they were expressions of the creative and cultural impulse.

"Being that it's coming from a mixed community, African and indigenous, if you look at the Church archives, you’ll see evidence of rebellion and uprising," explains Flores.  "There are even theories about the term 'la bamba.'  The church officials called these [underground and unchristian] manifestations 'bambarillas.'"

"Along with chronicles of love, triumph, and struggle, embedded in the son are these ideas of social justice, the message is about feeling human and belonging," Flores continues.  For him, the birth of the fandango — where mixed races in a highly stratified society congregated freely and danced sensuously together — make the fandango a perfect vehicle for that "transformation," both on a personal and a social level.

"Sure there are rules and protocols, and you learn to engage and find your voice within that.  That's why César is perfect to lead the workshops.  He is a master of the tradition," he says.  Castro understands the rules and the musical as well as lyrical structure of the form as well as how "to respectfully engage within the framework of that tradition"

And it is precisely that respect for human dignity — as well as tradition that makes the convivencia, or community gathering in celebration, that typifies fandango — such a glittering opportunity for the transformation of both private and public perceptions and attitudes around the street vendor movement.  Take for example, an array of the lyrics, structured along an age old system of meter and rhyme, produced in Castro’s workshops thus far.

Llegamos las jaraneras/y jaraneros del son/pidiendo en buena manera/por la legalización/de la venta callejera (The jaraneras/and jaraneros players of son/have come to ask in good faith/for legalization/of street vending).

Salgo a la calle cantando/por gusto y necesidad/al tiempo en que estoy mostrando/cultura y felicidad/ahora me viene el recuerdo/de lo que hacia mi abuela/cantando vendía tamales/a la vuelta de la escuela (I go out to the street singing/with joy and need/at the same time I exhibit/culture and happiness/now comes my memory/of what my grandmother did/sold tamales singing/around the corner from the school).

The lyrics refer to community and tradition and culture as a dynamic, multi-faceted, every-day process where earning a living is tied to preserving sacred rites of passage.  The song continues:

De elote y de masa/todos estan calientitos/y para todo el que pasa/su canto abría el apetito/Al reunirnos en la esquina/con familia y amistades/en donde existe armonía/para todas las edades/Por falta de informacion/y a causa de la ignorancia/perdemos la tradición/ y recuerdos de la infancia/de la familia y nación (Of corn and masa/they are warm and toasty/and for all who venture past/her song makes them hungry/Gathering on the corner/with family and friends/where there is harmony among all ages/For lack of information/and because of ignorance/we lose the traditions/and memories of childhood/of our family and nation).

Participants in Cesar Castro’s fandango workshops perform at the Street Vendor Summit on International Street Vendor Day (November 14, 2013) in Los Angeles.

 

"I'm very pleased with the progress we've made in the workshops," says César Castro, who was proud to present his students at the first-ever Street Vendor Summit held on November 14, 2013.  The Summit was also a forum to celebrate a motion presented by City Council Members José Huizar and Curren Price to begin crafting a new ordinance which will finally make street vending legal Los Angeles.

"In addition to the musical instruction, we've collectively prepared 5 sones which are ready to be performed in support of the vendors, wherever they may need us," Castro adds. "Although they are simply written, there was a lot of work and time involved."  He explains that the initial idea for the workshops was to create a "La Rama con Fandango" whereby the jaraneros would visit businesses and organizations to share their songs in support of the campaign.  The rama (Spanish for “branch”) is a way of reflecting the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem in search of shelter.  The branches become the different homes in which fandango celebrations occur on the march to "Noche Buena," or the miracle birth on Christmas Eve.

"It’s similar to the traditional Christmas posadas, except that we celebrate with different music and dances," Castro explains. Son jarocho, he says, has traditionally been an expression of those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.  This underscores is why it lends itself so well to the street vendor cause.

"In a way, it also vindicates this music as an art form for and of the people, whether here or in Mexico.  It has rarely been supported by the upper-classes or by government institutions," he concludes.

 

Caridad Vazquez serves posole in Boyle Heights.

Caridad Vazquez often parks her cart at the corner of 4th and Breed in the heart of Boyle Heights.  Vazquez, proprietor of Karina’s Food and winner of a 2012 Los Angeles Vendy Award, has become somewhat of a local legend for her quesadillas de huitlacoche (a corn fungus used as filling and considered a delicacy).  She offers fare that has shaped meso-american diets for hundreds of years — fillings or toppings such as squash blossoms and nopales (cactus) — in addition to staples like posole, a traditional soup or stew, and pambazos, a traditional chorizo and potato sandwich, lightly glazed with oil and browned on the outside.

Vazquez, and her family have roots in Colima and Michoacan, two regions in Mexico where ancient, indigenous practices co-exist with contemporary, modern culture.

"I have been a street vendor for many years.  I have always wanted to have our Mexican food be recognized and to keep our traditions alive.  I want people to come see me in Boyle Heights to try all the different plates that I offer," said Vazquez.  "This is street food at its best."

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For more information about the fandango workshops, which will continue in 2014, or for more information about the next two workshops series, subscribe to our The New Moon e-newsletter, follow us on Facebook, or contact Quetzel Flores.

The next workshop series pairs community artist and radio producer Omar Ramirez with youth, working within a restorative justice framework to improve graduation rates and provide productive alternative paths to high school graduation.  The third workshop series, featuring artists Ofelia Esparza and her daughters Elena Esparza and Rosanna Esparza-Ahrans, will lead community members in the construction of traditional altares as a medium to encourage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act.

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