Taco Hell

Mexican food vendors circle the wagons as community activists fume over neighborhood blight

These complaints have evolved over the past three years into a shouting match with the City of Phoenix. Chriswell, Williams and other neighborhood leaders who once backed each other up in their dealings with City Hall have split over the mobile vendor issue; some have negotiated an agreement with the vendors, others just want them out.

"I used to drive Vicki [Chriswell] to the doctor," says Alma Williams, who left Chriswell's anti-vendor camp last year to help negotiate a new city ordinance regulating vendors, "and she used to call me two dozen times a day. But now I'm the devil incarnate. They've lied about me, saying I was in the pay of the vendors, and called me just about every name in the book."

"Traitor" is about the most polite.

Vicki Chriswell
Paolo Vescia
Vicki Chriswell
Salvador Reza helped to organize the union of taco vendors that negotiated new regulations with the City of Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
Salvador Reza helped to organize the union of taco vendors that negotiated new regulations with the City of Phoenix.

"One day she was with us," says Chriswell. "The next thing you know, she's over there buddying up with the vendors."

On October 4, the Phoenix City Council will take up the mobile vendor issue and all its twisted threads when it addresses two proposed amendments to the city ordinances that would regulate mobile vending in the city. The city's Board of Adjustment will consider the issue the next day, October 5.

But these upcoming city actions aren't likely to end the hard feelings.

Says vendor advocate Salvador Reza: "These people in the neighborhoods basically want to blame the taco vendors for all the ills of society -- all the neighborhood's noise, prostitution, alcohol, drug dealers and trash -- and that if we'd go away, all those problems would go away, too."

Between 1970 and 1995, the Spanish-speaking population in Chriswell's neighborhood climbed from about 30 percent to 70 percent. Experts believe that the 2000 census data will show even more of a dominance by Hispanics.

"The immigration has really made the area much more transient," says a young Mexican-American woman who grew up in the area near 31st Avenue and McDowell. She doesn't want to be identified for this story, fearing repercussions at work, which brings her in contact with many immigrants. "The area is flooded with illegals. Many try and work hard, but they tend to see this neighborhood as a place they're going to spend just a few days or weeks or months. They know they're going to move on, so their stake here isn't very great. And they're generally pretty fearful of people they don't know, so they don't want to get involved -- with neighbors or anyone else."

Many old-timers, Hispanic and Anglo, distrust the newcomers. They see the incoming human tide filling houses vacated by old friends, and eroding the common links and values that had made the neighborhood look and feel like home.

"Sometimes it's hard to recognize this place," says an elderly Mexican-American woman who moved to the neighborhood just west of 35th Avenue and south of McDowell 30 years ago. She also asked that her name not be used. "Just look at the alleys. They used to be clean and safe. Now the cans are overflowing with garbage from too many people living in these houses. I've got a place behind me that's probably got 20 people living in it. We've just become Phoenix's new dumping ground."

Many Mexican Americans interviewed for this story say there is plenty of reason to fear retribution if they speak their minds about neighborhood problems and are identified in newspaper articles.

"We've been fighting gangs and drug dealers and all the rest of them out here for years," says Art Pimentel, "and there are plenty of us who've been targeted."

Chriswell's activism in the community got her car firebombed several years ago, she believes. Houses of other activists have been targeted in drive-bys. And, a few weeks ago, a young Mexican-American woman who voiced her concerns about the neighborhood in an Arizona Republic story found her cat beheaded in her yard.

"The people with the vendors like to say it's racism," says Marissa Morales, who moved to Chriswell's neighborhood in 1982. "But it's not. The issue is we want what's fair. That's basic. The issue is we buy homes. We invest time and money in them. And we don't want to see them or the neighborhood around them to continue to deteriorate the way this area has."

Williams says the race card has been easy to play on both sides of this issue, but that the charges of racism have obscured real issues that the city and the vendors need to address.

"The issue had nothing to do with racism," she says. "This is not affirmative action at all. The issue was land use and what does the law say."

Unfortunately, the city has no laws specifically covering mobile vending. The one that came closest was a rule governing temporary uses on commercial property. But, like many parts of the city's zoning code, it is vague at best, condemning enforcement to a gray area of constant questions, rather than clear answers. Further complicating enforcement is the fact that existing city laws cover only issues of land use. The county has jurisdiction over public-health violations.

Williams and Paul Barnes, another neighborhood activist from east central Phoenix who left Chriswell's anti-vendor alliance to help negotiate the proposed new rules, say the new ordinances would bring some order to the city's chaos of incomplete regulations.

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