Why Indigenous Street Vendors Offer Free Meals in Los Angeles
Last Saturday, in the height of a scorching afternoon, Adela Ruiz and her husband, Paco, jumped out of their van and rushed to set up a taco stand on Pico Boulevard in Arlington Heights. They were late.
He and a few friends lifted a pop-up tent and unfolded a table on the sidewalk. She and her two daughters dragged pots and trays filled with refried beans, rice, rellenos and masa they had made at their home in Garden Grove. Paco connected a flat grill tank to a propane tank; Adela put on a beautiful pink-purple apron filled with roses and embroidered birds.
The couple, Zapotecs from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, were ready. Paco pulled out his smartphone, logged into Instagram Live, and started talking.
“Spend – free food!” He announced cheerfully in Spanish. âWe will be waiting for you here! He zoomed in on Adela, who worked as a boss at a tortilla press, while the youngest daughter was also filming on her smartphone. The earthy smell of slowly cooked masa filled the air. âCome here,â Paco added, âso these 100 Chilean rellenos can be finished!â
It was the third time in as many months that the Ruiz family had come from Orange County to distribute free homemade food from this part of Pico. They did it as part of, a bi-weekly event in which Oaxacan street vendors distribute free food to promote their businesses and feed anyone in need of a hot meal.
But don’t call Mid-City Cookouts a charity, because organizers and attendees don’t see it that way at all.
What they do is the art of guelaguetza, a Zapotec word and concept most famous in Los Angeles like the. It actually refers to helping each other, to the idea that giving is as important as receiving – and that communities must do both regularly to thrive.
âThis is something that we do as Aboriginal people, but now it is a matter of establishing it in the colony [neighborhood] where we settled, âsaid Manny Mireles, whose family runs Mid-City Cookouts outside their flower and clothing store,. “We would do it at home, so it is important for us to show the city now that this is a network that has always existed.”
In LA, Mid-City Cookouts’ version of guelaguetza fundraising online to pay vendors. These vendors, in turn, use this money to import Oaxacan products not only to improve the taste of their traditional dishes, but also to help local economies in their home country. And eaters here are learning about local vendors they can patronize or hire for catering at a future date.
“We show our culture and our food by helping people who need help now – and they learn who we are,” Paco, 43, said as he finished another video. “We do it with love and ganas.“
If there’s ever been a year for guelaguetza in Los Angeles, it was this one, especially for the city’s Zapotecs. They are perhaps the largest indigenous group from Latin America in Southern California, with an estimated population of over 180,000. Frequently discriminated against in Mexico and the United States by their Mexican compatriots because of their indigenous heritage, Zapotecs came together in 2020 to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has left in their community.
The activists collaborated with other indigenous groups from Mexico and Central America in the Southland onto fight against vaccine hesitation. Non-profit organizations organized food drives and to anyone who needed it.
But one great thing was missing from their efforts: festivals. Basketball tournaments and religious festivals in honor of the patron saints of the hometown. The local interpretation of the annual Oaxaca State Fair – also known as Guelaguetza – is not scheduled again until 2022. Imports from the state, the lifeline of Oaxaca restaurants in California from South, .
âWe Oaxacans know how to celebrate,â said Vicente Ruiz, 56, owner of a bicycle repair shop. âNot being able to organize fiestas was difficult. that’s why [Mid-City Cookouts] is important.”
âIt was about bringing us joy,â Mireles said. He and others took inspiration from the Mid-City Cookouts of. But they wanted to focus on the others Zapotecs, in a city that neglects them too often. âWe want to be visible as Indigenous people. We want to see each other.
There have been 12 Mid-City Cookouts so far and vendors are paid around $ 700 per session. What used to be weekly events are now bi-weekly, as funds are starting to dry up for reasons Mireles can’t quite assess. But the spirit of this miniguelaguetza easily spread to those who participate.
The Ruiz family has been running their restaurant business for three years. The pandemic has slowed down orders, so they would never have thought of giving their food to free. But Mid-City Cookouts “opened our eyes,” Paco said, “so we could help others and ourselves.”
A few blocks away, Melina Cruz Bautista and her sister are organizing groceries at their mother’s dry cleaner. She was in Yeaj Yalhalhj’s small gallery preparing for a reception later in the afternoon for her photographs of Los Angeles and Oaxaca.
âWhat I’m doing is thanking the community for watching me grow up,â said the 23-year-old, who also records a podcast with her sister on their activism. âLA is changing, so our generation from Oaxacalifornia [a portmanteau of Oaxaca and California] must make people listen to us instead of speaking for us.
Outside, Joe Nanjing filled a community fridge with bags of Brussels sprouts, bread and Girl Scout Samoa cookies. He originally came to Mid-City Cookouts as an eater, but soon became a volunteer.
“You hear about free food distribution but not so much mutual aid,” said the 31-year-old. âThe person you are feeding can also help you. It’s not just about feeding people, it’s about getting involved economically.
Right in front of the Ruiz taco stand, Alex Lopez mixed up a giant clay jug filled with tepache, a fermented pineapple drink. He had lost his job as a restaurant worker last year, so he started selling tepache door to door to make ends meet. When he heard about Mid-City Cookouts, the 39-year-old tried to approach the organizers for a concert, but Mireles invited him first.
Today, Lopez was handing out his tepache for free, refusing any payment from Mireles for his service.
âOaxaca or not, we want to help everyone,â he said. “As they say, ‘Organize and help.'”
By this time, a hungry and thirsty line of Oaxacans and other Mexicans, Koreans and Whites were ready for their free meal and drink. Mireles distributed Lopez’s tepache and Adela’s chili relleno tacos made from chili de agua, a pepper unique to Oaxaca. âThey aren’t too spicy today,â she laughs. “Probably because I wasn’t angry when I made them!”
A friend slipped in next to her to make tacos faster. Lopez shed more tepache. Paco filmed this miniguelaguetza and urged its viewers to come. Then, a happy eater jumped in front of his camera. âSorry, I’m late,â the woman said. Paco smiles.
“Late pero seguro, “he said. Better late than never.