Why you should care

Because if a grandma of 21 kids can challenge the system, you have no excuse.

Hours before Emilia Otero wakes up, her workday has already begun. Starting at 3 a.m., a dozen people sweat over pots and pans, cooking up a storm in Otero’s industrial kitchen, La Placita, in Oakland, California. These are the cooks staffing the city’s most popular street carts. When the petite 67-year-old finally saunters through the door at 9:30 a.m. to sweep and clean, the leftover smells of tamales and falafel linger. Doesn’t sound much like the start of an activist’s morning, does it?

Though Otero runs a kitchen, her days involve more rabble-rousing than stirring. Otero is concerned about the future of her vendor friends’ profession, and she wants to secure it before it’s too late. Selling food on the streets has long been a crucial stepping stone for poor immigrants, and the product is a newly fashionable treat for many young urbanites. The whole thing adds up to an industry set to reach $2.7 billion in the U.S. by 2017. But surprisingly, those carts are illegal in many places. Otero’s demand: Legalize street vending in her hometown of 400,000. The sprightly, partially blind grandmother of 21 squabbles with police, restaurant owners and skeptical city politicians alike to change that barrier.

Otero faces a legal history dating back almost a century. It begins in the lead-up to WWI, as war production swung into high gear and retail went from sidewalk to storefront. (“Peddler” as a profession was no longer listed in the U.S. census as of 1940.) But as job-seekers arrived in the U.S. in the decades following — many from Latin America — plenty found themselves without the means to wrangle a formal job. So they took to the streets to make a living. Oakland, especially, became home to immigrants of all persuasions: Latinos, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners. And many began vending food illegally. Fast-forward to 2001, when Otero pushed through a city ordinance legalizing the practice in a few select neighborhoods. Now, the city has about 200 vendors total.

Nationwide, a host of cities have already opened up their streets; street vending is legal and less regulated in neighboring San Francisco, and up north, food trucks have put Portland, Oregon, on the culinary map. Otero’s counterparts in New York are battling a litany of rules, including off-limit zones and a cap on street-food permits that restricts the number of legal vendors to 3,000 citywide.

In Oakland, at least, Otero says vendors can start up their businesses relatively cheaply: $4,000 will buy a decent used pushcart. With that, you can expect to bring home upward of $200 a day, says Otero. A savvy entrepreneur can upgrade his or her cart about every two years until landing a food trailer, a more permanent setup, for $80,000. With the more official digs, you can bring home up to $1,000 a day, says Otero. For Sara Santay, a client of Otero’s who has a trailer of her own, that’s enough to put her two kids through university.

But vendors can’t always compete with their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Last May, a half-dozen restaurateurs met with city council members and health officials to air grievances against street vendors supposedly stealing customers. Otero caught wind of the gathering just hours before (“I was so mad”). She burst through the doors and made it very clear that she thinks street vending is not hurting the restaurants’ bottom lines. The Oakland Food Policy Council concurred, saying street food helps restaurateurs by boosting overall foot traffic in the area. But Mark Everton, co-founder of the Oakland Restaurant Association, says street vendors are able to “skirt” a lot of regulations — like random inspections, restrictions on hours, pay and taxes — because they are more difficult to track.

As Otero speaks, you hear a practiced storyteller at work. It makes sense, then, that the Tijuana native’s hobby is writing short stories and plays, many for kids. “There’s a good reason I call her mom,” says Ehsan Nali, an Afghan-American street food vendor based in East Oakland. But then there’s also her penchant for referring to herself in the third person. Raised in the era of Cesar Chavez activism by politicians in Baja California, Mexico, Otero has had a boss only once in her life — while picking strawberries for a few months under a battering San Diego sun after the birth of her first daughter. But when the field owner made unwarranted sexual advances on the then 22-year-old, she quit on the spot. She recounts, in that famous third person: “Emilia Otero has a long history of being in charge … and now, she does everything on her own.”

Which may be problematic. Because successful organizing requires making partnerships, and that usually means sacrifices and compromises — something Otero isn’t hugely fond of. She may score the last laugh against her restaurant-owner “enemies,” but laughs aren’t legislation. “I’m not sure her enthusiasm alone can win the day,” says Alfonso Morales, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin.

At any rate, she’s indefatigable. Up next? A huge public march on Oakland City Hall. All her world’s a stage.

Photography by Sam Wolson for OZY.

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