Taco Hell

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

Chriswell and other opponents insist the city has all the laws it needs to deal with mobile vending.

Says Chriswell, "The problem is the city just hasn't enforced its laws, so their position is, 'Why not just legalize this?'"

Neighborhood activists Alma Williams and Paul Barnes think the proposed new vendor ordinances are in the best interest of the city's neighborhoods.
Paolo Vescia
Neighborhood activists Alma Williams and Paul Barnes think the proposed new vendor ordinances are in the best interest of the city's neighborhoods.
Hernan Rivera sees his hot dog stand as a step toward owning a restaurant.
Paolo Vescia
Hernan Rivera sees his hot dog stand as a step toward owning a restaurant.

A fixture for years at swap meets and some street corners of south Phoenix, the taco vendors began to move north in the early 1990s, a sure sign that Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking immigrants were migrating beyond the city's traditional barrios and landing zones.

"These taco vendors are survivalists," says Reza, a community worker at Tonatierra, a Phoenix nonprofit educational center that sponsors programs for the region's growing Mexican immigrant community. In the spring of 1999, he helped organize a union of mobile vendors -- known as the Union Pochtecha Vendedores Ambulantes -- which has resisted neighborhood efforts to shut them down.

Reza adds, "They go where they can make a living. Mexican neighborhoods have always had these trucks and little ding-a-ling carts going around, selling tacos, tamales, ice cream, you name it."

Vendors make from $400 to $3,000 a week depending the size and location of their operation.

Hernan Rivera recalls that he and other vendors used to operate along South Central Avenue to cash in on the weekend cruising crowd. "But when the police clamped down on that back in the '90s, we all just moved out here, where the people were going."

City officials don't know how many mobile vendors are operating around the city. Maricopa County health officials say the county licenses about 1,740 food vendors. They say another 700 may be rolling around the Valley without the proper health permits.

Over the past six months, about 20 vendors have been operating within a mile of 35th Avenue and McDowell Road. Most cluster on commercial property near food stores and bars. They typically lease or sublease the property from the landowners. And they tend to be mobile in name alone. They operate more or less as permanent businesses -- erecting shade tents and awnings draped with signs -- providing everything from food and seat covers to tools and automobile repairs.

The practice is an extension of the outdoor neighborhood workshops found in just about every barrio. But longtime Anglo and Hispanic residents see it turning neighborhoods into another stretch of swap meets.

"What's happened is these people have come in here and they've turned the neighborhood into a business," says Ray Goodman, who's lived just east of 35th Avenue for four years, and supports the proposed new ordinance. "They're running businesses on their front lawns, back lawns, out of the houses. It turns the place into a mess. All we want the city to do is fix the mess."

The city and county began edging in that direction more than a year and a half ago when they established a joint mobile vendor task force. Its aim was to coordinate enforcement of existing vendor laws and end the funkiest operations. The task force began an enforcement sweep early last year.

"All of a sudden the sky was raining bureaucrats on us," recalls Dan Darroch, whose used car lot at 24th Street and Jefferson doubles as Hap's Real Pit BBQ. A repo man who gets happy -- thus the name -- by cooking barbecue, he's had good health scores at his nine-year-old food stand. He says he never had trouble until the west-siders began complaining about the taco vendors.

"I look up one day and we've got maybe 15 city and county cars in the parking lot across the street and they're all coming at me with clipboards and pens. That's a real bad sign."

He says the inspectors had come to pick his business apart. "Problem is, they can't find anything wrong. I think they found it a little bit embarrassing. So they left to write tickets out on the west side."

Phoenix Vice Mayor Doug Lingner, who represents the west Phoenix area, says the joint city/county effort was an attempt to get a handle on how well the vendors complied with existing codes.

However, faced with the many gray areas of the law, the city's Neighborhood Services Department asked a city zoning administrator to clarify mobile vending rules.

The ruling, issued in May 1999, was never implemented. But it would have restricted vendors to 20 days of business a year in some areas.

"When the neighborhoods saw that," says Lingner, who at that time thought the restrictions were necessary to protect neighborhoods, "they danced a little jig, thinking the vendors couldn't survive on 20 days of work."

But it also roused about 80 vendors to organize the union and hire civil rights attorney Stephen Montoya. He appealed the zoning administrator's ruling to the city's Board of Adjustment, and the union began a series of protests.

Newspapers and talk radio pummeled the city for trying to eliminate American entrepreneurs. That stopped the city's enforcement campaign.

"It really boiled down to the fact that these people just didn't like these Mexican vendors. Period," says Reza. "They wanted to wipe them out. They wanted to wipe out the vendors without ever talking to them or finding out who they are. I told the vendors, who are all mostly families, that the city wasn't going to respond until they protest. So we circled the City Hall with lunch wagons."

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