The risky life of an L.A. ‘Tamalero’

Marketplace Staff Aug 4, 2009

The risky life of an L.A. ‘Tamalero’

Marketplace Staff Aug 4, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. And a recent study from Pew shows that many of them have chosen to stay here during the recession, even with a rising unemployment rate. Here in Los Angeles, undocumented workers make up almost 12 percent of the city’s labor force. So they do what they can to get by. Devin Browne has more.

DEVIN BROWNE: Antonio sells tamales in MacArthur Park. That’s a neighborhood in downtown L.A. He’s been selling tamales here for 14 years to support himself. It’s his only job.

ANTONIO: Tamales! Champurrado!

He doesn’t have permits to sell tamales on the street. He also doesn’t have papers to live legally in the United States. Most of the other tamaleros use shopping carts, or strollers with their hot tamales hidden under blankets. But Antonio has figured out an even faster way to get his job done, and not get caught.

He sells his tamales on a tricycle with a big, wooden box wedged between the two back wheels.

ANTONIO: I get on my bicycle and off I go. It’s exercise, and it keeps me and my work from being noticed.

The police constantly watch all the goods and services that are sold illegally here: drugs, sex, fake IDs, even street food. Health inspectors have to dispose of all food that isn’t to code and that might be unsafe. Sometimes they dump full carts of tamales into the gutter. And the gangs in the area, they charge rent to any vendors who sell goods on the streets that they’ve marked as their territory. Here’s Antonio.

ANTONIO: It’s dangerous. It’s very, very dangerous. You have to be careful with the gangs, you have to be careful with the police, you have to be careful with the cars. There are a lot of dangers in the street.

The tamaleros play a game, sort-of like a high-stakes version of hide-and-go seek. And there are rules that all the street vendors have to follow.

ANTONIO: Don’t throw trash in the street. Second of all, if you see the police, don’t make eye contact. And the gangs have asked me to pay rent, but no I have refused to do that.

Selling tamales is competitive in the neighborhood. At any moment, there are dozens of tamaleros in the park. But the vendors do look out for each other.

ANTONIO: Everyone’s warning each other, ‘Spread the word! They’re coming to take your things! The Health Department is coming! The police are coming!’ Or ‘Immigration is here! Let’s go, everyone, let’s go!’

Antonio makes about $30 a day. That’s after he buys all the ingredients he needs to make his chicken and pork tamales. It took him more than a year to save enough money to buy his bicycle.

ANTONIO: Oh yeah, there are a lot of people that want a bicycle like mine. And I would sell it to them, but they haven’t offered me the right price.

Which for Antonio, is $400 or $500. And as fast it is, it’s still not fast enough.

ANTONIO: If I see immigration around here, I would run. I’d leave the bicycle, and run.

In Los Angeles, I’m Devin Browne for Marketplace.

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