In this paper, I argue that Central American street vendors reshape traditional foods to fulfill the desires of transnational people because it is a way of feeling part of home. It is necessary to conduct ethnographic interviews in Los Angeles where there is a strong population of Central American street vendors. As each mode of reshaping traditional foods becomes more prevalent in the lives of street vendors and transnational people, it is important to examine and explore the impact of these Americanized changes. For example, altering traditional food to fit Americanized tastes, carries the risk of certain traditions becoming extinct. However, street vendors are left with little choice because they must earn a steady income. Ultimately, Los Angeles has become an important study in shared cultural spaces and shared survival through food and community.
When a newcomer migrates to the U.S. they bring with them their culture and traditions because that is one of their valuable resources they carry with them. Their culture and traditions are a huge part of their identity, and they bring this into a transnational space. However, their customs become a little fragmented because of assimilation. Traditional foods play a major role in the lives of immigrants because food connects them to their homeland, but through time their traditional foods are being altered for many reasons. This paper examines how traditional foods are reshaped by Central American food vendors, specifically in the city of Los Angeles that intends to satisfy transnational consumers. Since, newcomer migrants come for the purpose of finding new job opportunities for a steady income, some find the need to work in informal jobs such as street vending. Also, this paper examines how street vendors feel compelled to alter traditional foods in order to have a steady income while working under an informal sector. Through scholarly research, the effects on altering traditional foods in transnational places has shown how it has affected traditions and culture to the extent where the traditions in foods, such as the process and the making of the food, has become more Americanized. To answer these questions, this paper will conduct ethnographic interviews based on Central American women who work as street vendors. This paper argues and intends to address that Central American street vendors are reshaping traditional foods and creating new transnational desires.
In order for Central American street vendors to alter their traditional food, they first have to adapt to their local community and get familiarized with their surroundings. According to the examinations of Bhimji (2010), some cities in Los Angeles have a pattern between Central American street vendors. Bhimji writes, “At that hour, the sidewalk was lined with at least a dozen women selling traditional Central American and Mexican food items such as pupusas and tamales as international phone cards and soft drinks” (456). Through the author’s observations, female street vendors in the city of Los Angeles, feel compelled to sell traditional foods as an informal duty because legal rights do not permit them for formal job opportunities. It becomes a tradition for these Central American women to be part of a transnational space and sell to their customers. In addition, Bhimji also elaborates on her examination and observations (2010), “In this manner, the street vendors forged a pan-ethnic Latino Community west of downtown Los Angeles” (475) and (2010) “Their language, their daily struggles, and their commitment to supporting themselves and their families through selling in the early hours of the morning helped bring Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Southern and Northern Mexicans together on the three blocks composing in this very well known and prominent part of Latina Los Angeles ” (475). Through the commitment of selling foods to the locals for the purpose of obtaining a steady income to support themselves and their families, they have to overcome their daily struggles as immigrants, and one those struggles is to get a job with no legal status.
Through that rush of trying to pursue their commitment into receiving a steady income to better themselves they are also reshaping traditional foods, but before that, they are reshaping the community in which they are selling to in order to get customers. The community must feel like home and welcoming to the customers. They have to adapt to the idea that they have to be selling at a specific time, specific street, which also they are implementing their culture through language and supporting each other. In order for street vendors to alter their food, this article states the struggles street vendors face and one of the impactful experiences they experience once they migrate to a city where they have no legal status. Different cultural groups, such as Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Mexicans, get together to support each other and through their struggles they reshape urban spaces.
In the same manner, Munoz (2010) asserts how street vendors in Los Angeles reconfigure their neighborhoods by shaping and transforming the streets with their street vending. This is very important because neighborhoods and the community where they sell their traditional foods have a lot of significance to their business. Before reshaping traditional foods, informal spaces have shaped the lives of street vendors. Reshaping these spaces includes utilizing sidewalks, fences, walls, parking lots, and benches. Munoz states (2010), “Both informal and as a secondary measure, vendors seek to reshape the space in which they sell, places and spaces that have often been neglected or abandoned by local or state agencies(1). Furthermore, there is a visual transformation in the community by these street vendors that use a lot of the abandoned spaces so that they can implement their culture within it. Munoz mentions that street vending is visible to the people that sell, shop, or live, by that the author Munoz means that there is a certain pattern.
The pattern consists of a cycle visible to street vendors where Central American people help one another in public spaces and especially spaces that are abandoned. It makes more sense for street vendors to sell in an area, such as Los Angeles, where there is a strong population of immigrants. Typically, this leads to street vendors catering to their culture. However, as they prepare their cultural foods, they also understand that they are in a new transnational space with a lot of diversity. Portnoy, in her project that discovers the scene and the culture behind street vending, observes the following (2016), “As I drove around this huge metropolis, I was stuck by how persuasive Latino culture was in Los Angeles…there were rainbow-colored umbrellas signaling Latino fruit Vendors at nearly every major intersection” (2). She also observes that “white catering trucks selling tacos and cemitas dotted the landscapes” (2). The way in which the street vendors trigger their customers to feel a sense of home is exactly by making them feel like they have stepped into a market from the motherland. Attracting the Americanized customers through rainbow-colored umbrellas is something that is a tradition in Central America. By being persuasive to their customers, street vendors show the impact they have on the community and in turn they receive a strong support for their food.
Ethnographic interviews of Erika Zaldivar and Ana Cabrera help explain their experience with altering traditional foods in order to get some income. The first interview with Erika Zaldivar happened in Westlake near McArthur Park in Los Angeles. I examine and explore her street vending while she assists and host her space. She states, “First you have to make the customers feel welcome because everyone misses home. I miss my neighborhood where I lived in Honduras and in the ‘mercado’ (street market) everything is traditional, so you have to make it the same” (Zaldivar). In order to have a pattern, as mentioned by Munoz (2010), there must be a persuasive way to attract people. Erika agrees she tries to persuade the customers to feel like home by having market carts and umbrellas.
The second interview is with Ana Cabrera who is from El Salvador. She is a street vendor in Korea Town where there is a block dedicated to street vendors called, “calle ocho” (8th street). She works there every Saturday because that is when it is the busiest. She mentions that a lot of customers buy traditional food because they missed traditional food from where they come from. She sells mainly pupusas and she stood out the most because pupusas are a stuffed tortilla with cheese. She had pupusas with peperoni, and on the side of her street vending table, she was frying fries. She states, “The kids don’t like pork with cheese pupusas, but they will eat it with fries” (Cabrera). She then explains, “Kids like them and also parents…They often just want the pupusa by itself and it makes me waste money on the leftover sides” (Cabrera). I asked why she needs to feel the urge to alter the food if people are not buying it, and she states, “People seem to like it and they miss home, but they are used to being here in Los Angeles and I need to see what to do so they can buy my food” (Cabrera). Central American street vendors reshape traditional foods to fulfill the desires of transnational people because it is a way of feeling part of home.
It is necessary to conduct ethnographic interviews in Los Angeles where there is a strong population of Central American street vendors. As each mode of reshaping traditional foods becomes more prevalent in the lives of street vendors and transnational people, it is important to examine and explore the impact of these Americanized changes. For example, altering traditional food to fit Americanized tastes, carries the risk of certain traditions becoming extinct. However, street vendors are left with little choice because they must earn a steady income. Ultimately, Los Angeles has become an important study in shared cultural spaces and shared survival through food and community.
Bhimji, F. (2010). Struggles, Urban Citizenship, And Belonging: The Experience Of Undocumented Street Vendors And Food Truck Owners In Los Angeles. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 39(4), 455-492
Cabrera, Ana (2017, November 25). Personal interview.
Muñoz, L. (2012). Latino/a immigrant street vendors in Los Angeles: Photo-documenting sidewalks from 'back-home'. Sociological Research Online, 17(2)
Portnoy, S. J. (2016). Food, health, and culture in Latino Los Angeles. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Zaldivar, E. (2017, November 25). Personal interview.