The Taco Kings, Besieged
Street vendors straddle the line between street life and neighborhoods
By Michael May, Fri., Aug. 11, 2006
The four members of AVATACO, a newly formed association of Austin taco stand owners, spill out of a van on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Pleasant Valley and approach the Piedras Negras taco stand. It's part of a weeklong effort to contact every taco trailer in the city, and it's clear they mean business. They're all wearing pressed white button-down shirts with a photo ID dangling from the lapel, a taco insignia on the back and, above that, in large block letters "AVATACO." That's not quite an acronym for the organization's full name, Associacion de Vendores Ambulantes en Trailers de Comida en la Cuidad de Austin: the Austin Association of Mobile Trailer Food Vendors. President Apolinar "Polo" Cadena approaches Piedras Negras with a clipboard and a smile and introduces himself in Spanish. Another member, Salud Perez, begins to snap pictures. The owners of Piedras Negras are less than welcoming.
"First, I don't speak Spanish," a young Hispanic woman says, ready for a fight. "And stop taking pictures. This is private property. You think you can just come up here and start taking pictures? Just like that?!"
When Cadena senses resistance, he just opens his mouth. The words are hesitant at first, but then flow with a torrential force that allows little room for dissent. His limited English does not slow him down. "What we're doing is very good," he began, picking up steam. "It's very nice. We're together with you. I'm fighting the city to make life good for us. We're doing a census of all the taco vendors. We need names and phone numbers for every trailer in the city. The city made new laws for taco trailers this month. Here are the rules. We show you what's fine and not so good with your trailer. The menu is very nice. But that sign is not so good. The city says you can't have that sign there. The electricity is not good also." He points to an extension cord snaking across the lot. "You need a meter from the city. We show you. We help. Sorry you are angry like that, I don't mean to ..." He continues talking and begins to pull an official-looking AVATACO census form out of his clipboard.
A squat Hispanic woman approaches. She's clearly in the owner's posse. She looks sideways at Cadena and whispers loudly, "Why don't he talk right?"
Flavors of Mexico
In the five months since Cadena founded AVATACO, he's learned that bringing the hundreds of taco stands under one organizational umbrella is about as easy as teaching possums to dance the Cucaracha. In the first place, many vendors are undocumented immigrants who naturally fear getting involved with city politics. Also, most taco stand vendors have gone into the business, which is not especially lucrative, because they crave independence, not solidarity. As anyone who drives around town can see, the field has also gotten both crowded and competitive in recent years, and some are suspicious of Cadena's motives. He's a taco stand owner who appears to be enforcing city rules. And then there's the fact that taco stand vendors tend to work 12 to 15 hours a day and don't really have much leftover time or energy for association meetings.
Cadena presses on. Thanks in a large part to his work, the City Council has just enacted a new ordinance that, for the first time, regulates the operation of mobile food vendors in Austin (see below). Cadena hopes to bring every AVATACO member into compliance with the new rules, so the police and zoning officials will see the organization's colorful taco-insignia sticker on trailers and leave the members alone. But AVATACO is about more than quality control. Cadena hopes to unify taco vendors into some kind of collective movement that can, perhaps, help taco stand vendors control their own destiny. The irony is that Cadena's having a tough time organizing AVATACO and keeping his own life together.
The AVATACO team gets a better reception later in the day, when they stop at Austin's taco stand dynasty, Especialidad Tacos al Pastor, on Riverside and Royal Crest. There are three taco stands in the parking lot, one covered with custom neon signs, but Raul Rodriguez, whose family owns the stands, invites them into their restaurant (also named Al Pastor) to talk. Rodriguez says that when his mother opened the stand in 1982, it was the first in Austin. "We needed a job," he says. "And we thought it's time to bring a little flavor to Austin, a little bit of Mexico." The first trailer cost $20,000 to make from scratch, and it was stolen years later in the middle of the night. But the initial investment has paid off. Over the years, the family saved enough to open several other stands and a restaurant, and now Al Pastor employs dozens of members of the family. Rodriguez and his family are living the dream of every taco stand entrepreneur.
Rodriguez and Cadena discuss the new ordinance in the cool interior of the Al Pastor restaurant. AVATACO still has one major battle to fight with the city. The council has yet to vote on how close a taco stand can be to a residence. Rodriguez and Cadena worry it will be 200 feet, as in the original draft. "Are they going to use a helicopter to check on us?" jokes Rodriguez. His stand is in the midst of a sea of parking lots, but an apartment building down the block could be within 200 feet. If that proposal becomes official policy, hundreds of trailers will have to move or go out of business.
Yet for the most part, Rodriguez embraces the new regulations. In the two decades since he opened his first trailer, he's watched taco stands crop up wherever there are hungry Austinites and an open slab of pavement, sometimes only a neglected patch of grass. The reason for the boom is obvious. Immigrants are flooding into Austin, increasing the demand for quick and inexpensive (and Mexican) food, and there are few businesses that you can start with such a small investment. "There are people in Austin now that can make you a trailer for $6,000," he says. Indeed, Rodriguez, perhaps because of his own position in the market, hopes the ordinance will thin the competition. "There's too many taco stands," he says. "And not all of them have high standards. Some them have gone into residential neighborhoods to set up, and that causes problems for everyone. We're not in Mexico any more. This is the U.S."
Tacos and the Neighborhood
Cadena did not found AVATACO in pursuit of some lofty civic goal. He's fighting for survival, and the ordinance that he fought to pass is not intended to put his competition out of business. In fact, it should allow them to continue to exist. Despite the fact that they've been the center of a late-night cultural and culinary experience in Austin for decades, until the City Council passed its ordinance on June 8, taco stands were actually illegal.
Cadena learned that fact the hard way. For more than three years, he operated his lucrative, hand-painted taco trailer, Taqueria el Rey Polo, in the Gran Mercado on Riverside. Unlike some other taco stands, he had a sticker from the Health Department, and he paid his taxes. So, needless to say, he was shocked when the police showed up in February, told him he was operating an illegal business, and issued him a $1,500 ticket for operating without a site plan from the city's planning department. Cadena did not keep his cool. "I said, 'Fuck you! That's my job! I don't do anything wrong. I pay rent here, why don't you give my landlord the ticket if there's a problem!'" Cadena recalls that the policeman told him that he better move his business soon. "I'm not going to get tired of writing tickets." And he didn't. For weeks, the stalemate continued. Cadena refused to move his trailer. The police continued issuing tickets.
Cadena figured there had to be some mistake. He took his tickets and went to talk with city officials in charge of zoning and planning, and he found himself embarking on a dark and murky journey into the bowels of city government. Official after official told him the same story: Yes, it is unfair that Cadena was busted despite the fact that he paid taxes and bought permits, but the city's zoning ordinance does not have a provision for mobile vending units and that makes the stands illegal. Cadena remembers finding himself in the office of one official, literally begging for his livelihood. "I told him, 'I've been paying taxes to the city for three years. Please help me. I need to work. I must pay for my house. I must pay for my workers. Who can help me?' He looked at me and said, 'I don't know. Not me.'"
It turns out Cadena was caught up in a bigger struggle. Greg Guernsey, head of Austin's Planning and Zoning Department, readily admits that taco stands had existed in legal limbo for decades without any enforcement action by the city. As he explains: "We operate our enforcement on a complaint-driven basis." And not everyone was pleased with the homegrown street culture that brings Riverside to life in the wee hours of the morning. The complaints emanated primarily from a small, single-family neighborhood that lies buried between the student housing, bars, pawnshops, and parking lots that dominate the near-southeast landscape. Toni House, co-vice-president of the South River City Citizens neighborhood association, says that the explosion of taco stands encroaches on what little tranquility the neighborhood had left. "The busiest time for the mobile vendors is from 10 at night to three in the morning," she says. "We have a real problem with them contributing to the crime rate of our neighborhood, which is the highest in the city. The police spend an inordinate amount of time breaking up fights outside the stands. Drug dealers set up shop among the vendors. And the patrons are largely inebriated, which makes them easy prey for criminals." (Actually, the Austin Police Department says that East Riverside does not top the city's crime stats.)
House and her neighbors began a campaign to rein in the taco stands, and they started with the Planning and Zoning Commission. House says that the taco stands provide a service and should be able to operate just not so late at night and so close to the neighborhood. "If the taco stands weren't operating so late," she says, "there wouldn't be any reason for anybody to be on the streets. Some of these stands are right next to single-family homes. It makes it hard to sleep." The homeowners advocated for creating an ordinance like the one in San Antonio, which keeps taco stands from operating past dark most of the year. Yet because much of the Riverside-area taco business comes late at night from the nearby apartments and clubs, it would put most of the Riverside stands out of business.
The SRCC sees the taco stands as one of the obstacles in a plan to transform Riverside into a scenic roadway or, as House puts it, "the gateway to the city." The SRCC would like Riverside redeveloped with wide sidewalks, green space, and a mix of new retail and office developments. (It's going to take a while, especially because neighborhood advocates have opposed three proposed developments on Riverside, either because they were too tall or included apartments. Austin Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan believes these developments would actually bring more tranquility to the neighborhood, partly because if the area is redeveloped, the taco stands would find another niche. "They're filling a void of unused urban space," says Sullivan. "And developers are attracted for the same reason. But it's difficult to convince them to build if they can't increase the density there or build a mixed-use complex with apartments.")
Riverside Taco War
Cadena wasn't the only vendor caught up in the battle over the future of East Riverside. The police began to issue tickets to a number of taco vendors, and some stands ended up with thousands of dollars in fines. Cadena and other vendors believe they were being targeted for one reason. "Maybe it's because they don't like Hispanic people," says Cadena. As the crisis grew, Cadena managed to land a meeting with then Council Member Raul Alvarez, who lent a sympathetic ear. Alvarez told Cadena that there was only one way to get rid of the tickets and the police change city law to make mobile vendors legal.
Alvarez agreed to help, but he told Cadena that he must find other vendors willing to testify. That night Cadena took his fight public. "I'd never organized anything like this before, but the city was going to stop me from making money." He printed a flyer and began distributing it to hundreds of taco stands. It read: "To all taco vendors. This is an initiation to a big controversy that affects us. We have to win this case and change the law. If we lose this case, they won't allow us to work at our trailers. And for many of us, it's our only way to live."
It turned out that getting vendors to engage the city was going to take more than a flyer. "The other vendors were scared to fight with the city," he remembers, shaking his head. "One after another told me they wouldn't help. Some of them accused me of being a liar. They said that it was my problem. They accused me of not having a license to operate. I was very insulted." At the next meeting with Alvarez, only eight vendors showed up. Alvarez told him it wasn't enough. The council wasn't going to agree to change city law for only eight people. Cadena was going to need at least 20.
Cadena hit the streets again and started building the AVATACO organization, one member at a time. It now has about 70 members. Cadena says the eventual growth of the organization had little to do with his skills as an organizer or an outpouring of civic concern by the taco vendors. "After a while," he says, "many other vendors got tickets. So they decided they better join AVATACO." At the next meeting with Alvarez, they began to negotiate an ordinance that would regulate taco stands more strictly than in the past but would allow them to operate legally.
The final version of the ordinance was presented to the City Council in early June. It proposed allowing mobile vendors to operate with a temporary use permit. It also attempted to alleviate the concerns of neighbors by keeping vendors out of residential areas, preventing them from operating past 3am, and regulating the amount of noise and light they generated. The ordinance will affect all mobile vending stands, including those that sell pizza and hot dogs around town.
Around 35 mobile vendors, many with small children, crowded the City Council chambers on June 8, although few of them spoke. The Riverside neighbors were there as well. Cadena presented a petition signed by several hundred neighbors who didn't object to the taco trailers. Others approached the dais and simply asked the council members in Spanish to allow them to continue working. The representatives from the South River City Citizens argued that the ordinance wasn't tough enough and repeated their argument that the vendors were making the streets unsafe. But the council was clearly sympathetic to the vendors; Mayor Will Wynn actually joked that maybe the city should partner with taco stands to keep drunk people eating tacos instead of just getting in their cars and driving home. The ordinance passed unanimously, but with one major provision omitted a requirement that the taco stands locate at least 200 feet from residential zones. The Planning Commission was charged with determining a distance that would ease neighborhood noise without forcing the trailers out of business.
The 20 or so core members of AVATACO gather each Thursday under the arches of Plaza Saltillo to discuss strategy. On July 13, Cadena and Vice-President Esmael Lozano presented the results of the citywide census, which showed that a 200-foot buffer would force the vast majority of the taco stands in Southeast Austin to move or close. Lozano pulled out a photo of a simple white trailer and displayed it to the group. "This is the only trailer that is currently meeting all the regulations in the ordinance," he said. "The majority is in decent shape, more or less. But we have promised that all the trailers with the AVATACO sticker will not have any problems with the inspectors. If we don't get this right and prove to the city that we mean well, we're going to end up with a 100- or 200-foot buffer zone."
For more than an hour, Lozano and Cadena passed around photos of 70 taco stands in Austin, with a lesson for the members about each one. But the two were clearly frustrated with the response by the vendors. "Most people gave us phone numbers that don't work, or no one answers," said Lozano. "People need to understand that we've got to start working together."
Lozano owns a trailer as well, but his vision for AVATACO goes far beyond self-interest. He's been in the U.S. for almost 20 years, and he's an orthodox assimilationist. He's one of the leaders of Crisol ("crucible" or "melting pot"), a local organization that educates recent immigrants about U.S. laws. He believes that AVATACO should foster personal growth and reflection among its members. "I believe in this country and the opportunities here," he says. "It's not all about work and money. Many of our people don't think ahead and prepare for the future. They bring children to work with them in the taco stands, but it's not safe. And as soon as they get $5,000 saved, they go and buy a big truck with a giant stereo system. It's not that I'm a big man with all the answers. I believe if we come together and identify problems, we can come up with solutions."
Cadena and Lozano both have a vision for AVATACO that extends beyond the new ordinance. They'd like the association to raise money by providing services at city events. They hope it will hold its own festivals with music and food. Cadena wants the vendors to ultimately pool their money and buy some land, so they won't be dependent on renting from other businesses.
The next week, Cadena brought the photos and figures from the census to a meeting of the Planning Commission subcommittee on codes and ordinances. He proposed a 70-foot buffer, which he said would force the stands closest to the neighborhood to move but allow most AVATACO members to stay in business. An SRCC neighborhood activist, Dawn Cizmar, was also at the meeting, to advocate for a 200-foot buffer. "I'd like to say that these vendors have never come to the neighbors to try and work things out," she said. "It seems like they'd rather take a political approach." Cizmar and her neighbors don't understand or believe that AVATACO would also like to see the most rowdy stands go out of business, so they can return to operating in peace. The meeting ended without a decision.
The next meeting was even less productive. Although the subject up for discussion was the distance of the buffer, the residents who showed up spent a long time arguing that the fixed taco stands should not qualify for a "mobile" designation since they often stay put and still more time blaming the stands for a host of neighborhood social ills. "It seems like you want to get rid of taco stands," said Chairman David Sullivan. "And we're not going to do that." Cadena and Lozano brought a translator, UT student Raul Ramirez, who accused the residents of "having a problem with Hispanic culture." The subcommittee members struggled to keep the conversation civil and on track, proposing solutions such as limiting the hours of operation for the taco stands closest to homes and requiring security guards. It's clear that the main problem lies with a few stands in large parking lots, where their patrons have room to do drunk, stupid things like drive doughnuts around the lot. After the meeting, Cadena and Lozano had a heated conversation about how to confront the owners of these stands, whom they blame for bringing down the law on all taco stands. Meanwhile, the subcommittee continues to consider the ordinance and plans to have a proposal ready for the full Planning Commission on Aug. 22.
Cadena founded AVATACO out of self-interest, but, despite his partial victory at City Hall, he himself is in desperate financial shape. Just a year ago, he truly was the king of the Gran Mercado, employing several workers at the Taqueria el Rey Polo. Raul Ramirez caught his reign on film for the documentary project East Austin Stories. In the film, Cadena chops mountains of fresh tomatoes and onions in preparation for the early morning rush. He swaggers around his trailer, greeting customers and talking about his plans to open a real restaurant. "Other people go back to Mexico and say, 'The United States wasn't any good,'" he says in the film. "That's because they're asses that don't know how to adapt and progress. Thank God, I've managed to advance a lot. A whole lot. And I owe it all to this country."
But once the city tickets began accumulating, everything fell apart. Cadena got in a serious disagreement with the owner of the Gran Mercado, who Cadena says allowed vendors without proper permits to sell food there. Cadena has now moved Taqueria el Rey Polo to a lot just north of the Riverside HEB, in front of a dilapidated and abandoned strip mall that once housed the Champion store. His regular customers don't know where to find him. His earnings, once as much as $3,000 a week, have dropped to around $500. He can't pay the mortgage on his home, nor the rent for his trailer, and bill collectors are threatening to cut off his water and electricity. "My trailer's no good for me any more," he says sadly. He's created another flyer and posted it along Riverside. It's a humble plea to his old customers. It reminds them of the good food and good times and asks them to please come find him.
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