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Crackdown on street vendors is all about racism

The Arizona Republic - by Ruben Navarrette, Jr. May 30, 1999

Ask a sociologist about the impact of Mexican immigration on an American city and you may get a scholarly dissertation on economics, nativism and politics.

I think in terms of taco trucks.

Not long ago, in my hometown in central California, an immigrant soccer league sprung up in a neighborhood park. Market forces took hold, and one day a taco truck appeared next to the field. Neighborhood residents were naturally unsettled by the changes occurring in once-familiar surroundings. They got angry and called City Hall.

About the same time, unsettled and angry residents in Los Angeles secured an ordinance that reined in taco trucks there.

Now, it's Arizona's turn.

For the past two years, residents in some neighborhoods have complained about street vendors. Common concerns include unsanitary conditions, health concerns, noise and the late hours of the trade.

Now the city is cracking down. A few weeks ago, a Phoenix hearing officer laid down the law. While the city has long treated the industry as an afterthought and let it run wild, the proposed restrictions are arbitrary and silly. They include a 10 p.m. curfew, which seems unfair since most vendor business is conducted after midnight. There is also a musical-chairs requirement that vendors not remain at the same location for more than five days in a row for four times a year. (Or was it four days, five times a year?) And vendors are barred from parking on vacant lots - vacant lots having so many other practical uses and all.

While every business has to put up with government-imposed rules and regulations, it looks an awful lot like the city is trying to put the street vendors out of business.

It also looks like this isn't just about traffic, trash and trauma.

The residents say their concerns are not based on race or racism. While the average mobile food vendor of today is often an immigrant from Mexico who speaks little English, we are asked to believe that those objecting haven't noticed that. Just as we are expected to believe that they would be as concerned about shiny catering wagons operated by Americans as they are about taco trucks run by Mexicans.

The vendors don't believe it. Many of them have been in the same location for years and they wonder why they're being picked on all of a sudden. They say that they've made improvements but worry that the restrictions will shut them down. Though many avoid politics, they are jumping right in out of concern for their families.

Last week, the vendors retained a lawyer and filed an appeal of the restrictions. A convoy of 10 taco trucks streamed along Washington Avenue toward City Hall. About 60 vendors marched in front of the building in near 100-degree heat.

The city Board of Adjustment will hold a hearing July 1.

One of the more colorful protesters was 36-year-old Jose Moreno, who wore a sombrero and an apron.

"They want to take away our right to work," said Moreno, who works 12-hour days to support his family with a taco truck parked at the southern end of Central Avenue.

"Why don't they crack down on the drug dealers doing business in the same neighborhoods where we work? They're still in business.

"We work night and day. We pay taxes. We're not bothering anyone."

Wrong. Taco trucks disturb everything. They upset the order of things and serve as a reminder that Phoenix is changing.

The changes aren't lost on the reader who wrote me to complain that west Phoenix now "looks and smells like a border town." He accused immigrants of turning the area into something resembling the Mexican towns they left behind.

The phenomenon is everywhere. In the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, Ga., residents recently rebelled against foreign language signs. They won a city ordinance barring businesses from hanging signs in languages other than English. The law was supposed to be neutral, but when it was enforced the signs that were confiscated were mainly in Spanish.

Cities change. People panic. And government is asked to wave a magic wand, turn back time, and return Anytown, U.S.A., to what it used to be. It can't. But the fearful needn't worry. Those who change America are also changed by it.

Witness the taco truck vendors. They have an entrepreneurial spirit. They marched on City Hall with picket signs, petitions, and a lawyer.

These are the folks who are turning Phoenix into Mexico? It looks more like their time in Phoenix has turned them into Americans.

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