A few weeks ago the nation was up in arms over a Trump endorser’s forewarning to American voters: opening up the borders to Mexican immigrants would usher in an era of “taco trucks on every corner.” The meme set the internet alight and flooded social media with both panic and celebration over the tantalizing--and to some repugnant--idea of mini Mexican eateries swarming like locusts over Middle America, invading White Bread Anytown USA with the sizzle of succulent lengua and the musk of warm tortillas.
For all the schizoid messaging about taco bowls (good, according to Trump) and taco trucks (ethnic hegemony, according to Trump surrogate) more Americans embrace the taco tide as part of the long tradition of culinary democracy.
The subtext of the taco question is the symbol of the street food vendor as a sign of change in our cities. And in many regions of the country where immigration has bought an efflorescence of new tastes and colors to local neighborhoods, food has become an important marker of social and cultural empowerment for newly settled communities. In many areas, though, it has raised tensions about who runs the streets, and whether the economic attraction of street vendors helps or hurts locals. Often some vendors prosper at the expense of others due to byyzantine permitting restrictions, and as with many issues involving control of public space, tensions with police and brick-and-mortar businesses often lead to friction and discriminatory exclusion.
In two food truck capitals, Los Angeles and New York, street vendors struggle to ply their trade on a politically volatile, rapidly gentrifying economic landscape. Though many are seasoned full-time entrepreneurs, they're getting kicked to the curb by local authorities. Permitting limits and other legal restrictions on sidewalk-based vendors mean that many of the mom-and-pop carts who hawk horchata or har gows (while supporting about 18,000 local jobs) must be constantly on alert about police seeking to ticket or confiscate their wares.
The Street Vendors Project is campaigning to remove arbitrary caps on the number of vendor permits granted by New York City and allow street food culture to flourish freely on streets that are becoming increasingly colonized by chain stores and luxury condos.
The call to dismantle barriers to street vending is also direct challenge to the authoritarian style of law enforcement that has pervaded city streets since the onset of “broken windows” policing in recent years. Advocates reports that under “New York’s aggressive ‘quality of life’ crackdown,” street vendors "have been denied access to vending licenses. Many streets have been closed to them at the urging of powerful business groups. They receive exorbitant tickets for minor violations like vending too close to a crosswalk — more than any big businesses are required to pay for similar violations."
So when food carts roll onto the pavement, with or without the precious licenses, they’re defying the oppressive regime of “zero tolerance” policing with a multicultural, ethnic panoply of sweet and savory flavors.
For prize-winning vendors like Tacos El Rancho, their labor of love occupies just one corner of the city but takes 13 hours a day, seven days a week and a ton of pride to get every creation perfect.
In Los Angeles, the East LA Community Corporation’s Legalize Street Vending Campaign reflects a mass movement to reclaim community control over neighborhoods strafed by cultural and economic segregation.
According to local activists, local vendors are currently treated as criminals, when in fact they’re part of a subsurface economy that could become a major asset for the city's commercial ecosystem. Cultivating the neighborhod street food scene also gives local vendors a stake in promoting a healthier food infrastructure, with links to farmers' markets and homegrown cookery, and offer an alternative to generic cappuccinos, chintzy designer boutiques and other “up and coming” enterprises that the city seems more interested in accommodating. Moreover, scarce access to public space and growing competition in the sector could give rise to a sort of streetfare food chain, with hipper, pricier hawkers displacing old school peddlers.
The pushback from both governments and businesses goes back to the question of what a taco truck on every corner really means: something as simple as a food stand is a symbol of a migrant culture putting down roots in the local political and economic firmament. The dumpling truck and paleta pushcart are the first bricks a community lays on its path to urban citizenship.
The debate over fair streetfare representation in our neighborhoods has been brought to a boil in this election season, but as any street hawker will tell you, change happens one day at a time.
Maybe the best hope for urban food democracy lies in the taco trucks that have begun registering people to vote--a different kind of fast food franchise. The “Guac the Vote” initiative is a patriotic fusion of civic duty and cultural life. Grabbing a ballot in one hand and a burrito in the other is a tasty way to make America great again, one corner at a time.