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An Outdoor Night Market Blossoms As LA Recovers From COVID-19’s Devastation

"We want residents and vendors to make a living but we urge all participants to remain in compliance with the City Ordinance and comply with ADA, safety, and COVID-19 guidelines," Conrado TerrazasCross, Cedillo's spokesman, said in a statement.

On a recent Friday even before sunset, a handful of people were lined up at Avenue 26 Tacos where they charge $1.25 per taco. The stand now has two spots, one along Artesian Street and the other along Humboldt. The enticing smell of the al pastor trompo competed with that of corn smothered in butter.

At the night market, vendors call Paulina Luna "reina de los esquites" — queen of the esquites, a buttery soup of kernels and spicy ingredients. She keeps corn on the cob and kernels in 5- and 10-gallon orange water coolers. Both longtime Lincoln Heights residents, she and her husband began selling here more than four years ago along a nearly empty and darkened street. As seniors, their job options were limited.

Neighbors looked out for the couple and in return, Luna would give them leftover corn. People called her idea of adding a Hot Cheetos topping a "locura," crazy. And so their business' name was born: Esquites Locos, Crazy Corn.

They were there most weeks for years. Then, two of their children contracted COVID-19 and landed in the hospital. In January, they lost their adult daughter. The next month, a son.

"We thought we were going to go first," Luna said.

They didn't return to the street for months, busy attending funerals and grieving their loss. Fellow vendors didn't forget them, saving the couple a space. But when they returned a month and a half ago, more corn vendors had popped up at the night market, meaning fewer sales. Her customers felt hampered by their inability to park in front of her stand and get corn as they had in the past.

The couple couldn't give up though; they are responsible for the 13-year-old son their daughter left behind. The teenager sells candy and soda at a stall next to his grandparents. "We have to keep moving forward," Luna said. "Here, we've met and talked to people and we forget sometimes what happened."

They've found comfort among vendors they've known for years. One of them gave Luna an LED sign for the stall that flashes "crazy corn." The couple joined in when vendors sang "Las Mañanitas" — a traditional birthday song — to the woman selling pupusas who has become a close friend of Luna's.

For customers, the market has provided the same sense of escape from the shutdown.

"Last year when the whole COVID thing started, halfway through the year, everybody started coming out and this motivated more people in the neighborhood to come out, come see each other," said Salvador Bonilla, who lives near the market on Avenue 25.

"That's what brings a lot of people to keep on going and not just get stuck and just think about the bad," his friend, Jonathan Barrera added as he pulled money out of the ATM. "There's good still out here and we can keep on going."

Shortly after 9 p.m., there were 115 vendors on the street. At Churros El Bochito, where Pavon and Reynoso have worked for three years, the family sold their sweets near a Volkswagen Beetle that they had painted blue and white for the Dodgers. At Babycakess, workers dressed up round, fluffy pancake balls with powdered sugar, whipped cream and Oreos; one of the owners had lost her job because of the pandemic. Nearly everyone has signs urging you to follow them on Instagram.

One vendor, selling tacos, tortas and quesadillas, said he makes double here what he did working in a restaurant, and for fewer hours. From their stalls, men and women shouted "hot dogs," "esquites" and "burgers" as children ran around with pink and blue cotton candy.

To Shon Davis, who had just polished off four asada and two al pastor tacos, the market reminded him of Mexico where he'd spent the last six months working remotely.

"This is definitely a lot more than I was expecting," the Chinatown resident said. "It's like the extension of the Santee Alley — at night."

Toward the middle of the market in front of DJ Magic, a growing crowd joined in or watched as Dru Tillis IV danced to Oscar Padilla's song "El Tamalero." Only a few songs in and his blue shirt was drenched in sweat.

Tillis IV, who is Black, has been dancing here for three months, posting videos to his TikTok. In them, he dances with Latino vendors and promotes Black and brown unity. One, wishing a "Happy Cinco De Mayo From the Black Community," garnered more than three million views.

"We need more unity and peace between cultures," Tillis IV said. At 12:30 a.m. as the music died down and the street began to clear, Luna and her husband prepared to head home. She sighed as she stared into an orange cooler that was just under half full. She hadn't sold enough that night and would have to throw out what remained.

She would try her luck tomorrow night when the town appeared once more. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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