Tamales Nos Cuidan: Social Cleansing, Kerry Morrison, Donald Trump, And The Battle For Legal Street Vending In Los Angeles And Beyond

Tamalera on Hoover Street, South Los Angeles, January 2018.
Recently, a little after 7 a.m. on a fine cool Los Angeles Winter morning, I found myself on Hoover Street a little South of Vernon. If you know the area, or areas like it, you won’t be surprised to hear that at that time of day there were tamaleras everywhere. At major intersections, of course, and also near schools, selling tamales y champurrado for breakfast. You can see a picture somewhere near this sentence that I took while waiting my turn in line.

The whole scene is entirely social. There are grandmothers buying a dozen at a time to take home, people on their ways to work buying two or three for breakfast, maybe for lunch too, and schoolkids buying singles to eat while they walk.1 The tamalera creates a little bubble of warm sociability around her, momentarily protecting those inside from the chill of the foggy damp onshore flow.

This doesn’t happen only on the streets of South Los Angeles, of course. Last month Gustavo Arellano published a lovely article in the New Yorker entitled The Comfort of Tamales At The End Of 2017 about the significant social role of this ancient food2 in Mexican-American culture. And you can feel that sociability strongly while waiting in line to buy tamales on an L.A. street in the morning.

But as you’re probably aware, it’s looking more and more likely that the City Council, despite their generally supportive pro-vendor rhetoric, is going to allow business interests and property owners to veto street vending on a highly localized basis for essentially no rational reason at all. One of the most random exclusionary zones recommended in the November 2017 report of the Chief Legislative Analyst is anywhere within 500 feet of Hollywood Boulevard.

And there’s really no way that Mitch O’Farrell or his idiotic colleagues came up with this on their own initiative. Ms. Kerry Morrison is famous for hating street vending of any kind anywhere in the two business improvement districts she controls, and Mitch O’Farrell is famous for implementing any random policy that Ms. Kerry Morrison whispers in his eager little ear, no matter how ill-considered it might be. The rest of the Council, of course, is famous for doing whatever any given member wants done in his or her district, no matter how stupid and antisocial it might be.

In this case, Kerry Morrison’s reasons for opposing street vendors on Hollywood Boulevard are so blind, so narrow, and so very based on her own parochial interests. For instance, look at this letter she wrote to City Council in January 2017, in which she states:

The Hollywood Entertainment District is a neighborhood with special circumstances. We already experience the crush of sidewalk activity which can make the pedestrian experience unwieldy and intimidating at times. Visitors and businesses complain of the unwanted advances by street characters, CD vendors and aggressive tour hawkers that line the Walk of Fame. Street vendors, sidewalk artists and performers already compete for crowded sidewalk space, especially near our busy transit stops. We also experience allday parking of food truck vendors, directly competing with adjacent stores. In these cases, the daily cost of a parking ticket is a small price to pay compared to the considerable expenses shouldered by the brick and mortar food businesses.

We appreciate that there are parts of the city where this will be viewed as a net benefit to the neighborhood experience and that the framers of this ordinance are looking to create opportunities for adaptability. We thank you for listening and considering the various points of view from throughout all of Los Angeles. In Hollywood, our position has been to opt out of this framework in the interests of public safety and improving the pedestrian experience for the millions of people who visit Hollywood each year.

That is, she wants to ban street vendors from Hollywood because they’re unsafe for some reason and they might get in the way of tourists or make them nervous. Also she’s worried that they will compete with restaurants in actual storefronts. And for whatever reason it never occurs to her that maybe tourists would find the actual culture of Los Angeles, in the form of its unique army of street vendors, more interesting than whatever the Morrison-approved sights are at Hollywood and Highland.

Now, I’m sure these matters seem very weighty to Ms. Kerry Morrison. After all, she’s been haranguing anyone and everyone about them for the last twenty years, just like she’s been haranguing tout le monde about CD vendors, street characters, and tour hawkers. These four issues are part of Kerry Morrison’s decades-long bout with totalitarian puritanical OCD, played out politically on the streets of Hollywood.

But clearly her issues are not everyone’s issues. Even she seems to realize that, as she states in her characteristically mock-humble tone that she “… appreciate[s] that there are parts of the city where this will be viewed as a net benefit to the neighborhood experience …” Even here, though, she seems unaware that neighborhoods are far too complex, far too organic, to be boiled down to something as capitalistically reductionist as “the neighborhood experience.”

People, actual human beings, live in neighborhoods and create and recreate their local culture on their streets. And they have the right to do this, all together, as people will do. They have the right not to have alien cultural norms imposed on them by strong-armed outsiders who unilaterally impose their foreign cultural ideas without any political input from or responsibility to anyone who actually lives in the place in question.

Strong-armed outsiders, that is, like Ms. Kerry Morrison, who moved to Los Angeles from a white supremacist stronghold on the Palos Verdes Peninsula specifically to socially cleanse Los Angeles. And to cleanse it of Latino influence, if her attitudes toward, e.g., graffiti-themed artwork or dark-skinned nightclub patrons or her Peruvian-hating friends and colleagues, are any indication. Not to mention the fact that the Latino population of Hollywood has declined precipitously in the 20 years that Kerry Morrison has been running her BIDs.

If the City Council’s street vending ordinance passes in its current form, not only will people around Hollywood Boulevard be deprived of the social comfort of buying and/or selling tamales y champurrado and other goods from and to actual human beings, not only will they have been deprived of this human right without any meaningful avenue of political recourse, but this will have happened through the untempered unilateral whim of one single person. This makes the deprivation even more harmful, since it’s harmful to our political ideals as well as to people’s actual lives in Hollywood.

And it will have been for no purpose at all. Clearly Kerry Morrison’s vision for Hollywood, in fact, the unilaterally imposed vision of any single person can never be as good, as natural, as life-affirming as an organically grown socially developed communal vision. Nothing good can come from allowing a single person so much unchecked, unbalanced power over the lives of tens of thousands of other people.

Which brings us back once more to Gustavo Arellano’s article, The Comfort of Tamales At The End Of 2017. As the title makes clear, Arellano isn’t just writing about the comfort of tamales in general, but about the specific comfort of tamales at the end of the specific year 2017. Last year, of course, is famous for having posed multiple threats to people’s well being, in fact, to their organically grown and socially developed communal visions for how their lives and their cities should be organized and lived in, and these threats had their roots in the paranoid unilateral antisocial whimsical vision of a single person. As Arellano says:

At the end of 2017, a year of persistent chaos and anxiety for Mexican-Americans, tamales are a special kind of comfort food, and the tamalada3 a time for reflection.

He closes his powerful article with a powerful story about an undocumented tamalero in Santa Ana, selling his wife’s tamales to raise money for surgery in defiance of the Donald Trumps and the Kerry Morrisons of the world: “Tamales nos cuidan,” he said — tamales take care of us. And tamales también nos cuidará en Los Angeles, if only we have the strength and the will to let them.


Postscript: Earlier this week, Southern California state senator Ricardo Lara introduced Senate Bill 946, which would (a) prohibit cities from making street vending illegal until they have a permitting process in place and (b) prohibit cities from adopting unreasonable restrictions on place and time of vending unless for “objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.” And then, miraculously, the bill states that “… perceived community animus or economic competition does not constitute an objective health, safety, or welfare concern.”

Now, it’s likely that this bill will garner serious opposition. We have seen in the past how much juice BIDs can muster in Sacramento when it suits their Satanic purposes to do so. Who knows what will happen? But at least this bill makes it clear that the Los Angeles City Council and our evil gang of BIDs aren’t fooling anyone with their nonsense about safety concerns. Find your state legislator and tell them what you think of this bill.

Postscript 2: The incomparable Emily Alpert Reyes published an excellent article on Lara’s bill in the Times this afternoon (after I posted this, I just have to point out!). She interviews opponents and shows clearly the gathering storm of opposition, including from a bunch of short-sighted Councildudes, looking at you, Joe Buscaino. Grow up, why don’t you?


Image of tamalera on Hoover Street is ©2017 MichaelKohlhaas.Org.

  1. Until fairly recently I didn’t understand how one might eat a tamal while walking, but the method is simple and quite ingenious. The tamalera puts the tamal in a styrofoam coffee cup with the corn husk end on top and then pulls off the husk, leaving the stripped tamal in the cup. She then puts a fork in it and slides a plastic lid over the whole thing with the fork handle extending from the sippy slot of the top.
  2. According to the Wiki tamales may have been made in Mexico as early as 8000 BC.
  3. According to Arellano, a daylong ritual performed each year by an army of female relatives and friends in which many tamales are put together.
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