Underground Economy Thrives During Tamale Season

By Brenda Gazzar
Daily News, Los Angeles.

With a steady line of hungry customers facing her, Maria keeps a watchful eye for police and city officials as she plucks her steaming tamales with rapid precision from her shopping cart on a busy Northeast San Fernando Valley sidewalk.

For Maria, who makes a profit of some $16,000 a year selling her tamales and drinks on the street in violation of Los Angeles city codes, the holiday season brings a welcome infusion of cash. She usually makes around $500 extra each November and December because of the higher demand for her specialty.

For street vendors and solo entrepreneurs who often operate in the informal or underground economy, the tamale — an iconic tradition in Latino households during the holiday season — is king from Thanksgiving through Jan. 6, which marks the end of the Christmas period.

“This is the season for tamales. People make a lot of money right now” ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­whether they operate in the formal or informal economy, said Abel Valenzuela, chair of UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies. “They can still get tamale orders from weddings, birthdays, quinceañeras, but it really doesn’t compete with this current period.”

Maria, who asked that her last name not be used, acknowledges her job is not easy. Four times police and city officials have confiscated her tamales. She used to sell about double the quantity but has scaled back to avoid detection.

The city of Los Angeles is now considering a proposal that would regulate street vending and allow an estimated 10,000 vendors to legally hawk edibles, artwork and other goods on city streets.

“They have taken away my tamales, but I understand. They are right because there are persons that are very dirty when they make tamales and they aren’t hygienic,” Maria, 45, and a mother of three said in Spanish. “I ask, ‘How come they don’t come to the houses to check?’ That would be best. … My kitchen is impeccable.”

Maria, an undocumented immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, starts preparing the masa, salsas and fillings the night before — tasks that often take her until 3 a.m. She then wakes up at 5 a.m. to steam them on her stove before heading out with her shopping cart with coolers of pork, chicken and jalapeno and cheese tamales and a thermos of the warm chocolate-based atole drink known as Champurrado that she also sells.

“My husband doesn’t have very steady work so I have to help him,” Maria said. “If not, how are we going to pay rent? Bills? And later my children, I don’t have any help from the government. I have to work.”

Advance orders are a family affair

While tamales are a part of the daily life of many street vendors, the holiday season is an opportunity for them not only to increase their sales with advance orders but a chance for the whole family to work together, said Emir Estrada, assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach, who studied street vendors working in East Los Angeles and Long Beach for her PhD dissertation at USC.

Advance orders allow them to continue selling without having to risk being on the streets in the early morning or late night hours, she said.
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“This is the time where they pool resources from all family members,” Estrada said, noting that street vendors often rely on help from their young U.S.-born children year around. “During high seasons, during the holidays, this is a time where all family members, including children, who live in the household, they all help and contribute in the making of the food, whether it be by running errands, buying the chilies or by delivering the goods.”

Many children develop an “economic empathy” with their parents because they see first-hand how difficult it is for them to make a living as street vendors, she said.

Leslye Mendez, 20, of Boyle Heights, grew up helping her mostly single immigrant mom, who sold tamales and then quesadillas from her own cart on Cesar Chavez Avenue and elsewhere after school and on weekends. During the holiday season, the whole family had to pitch in due to the high volume of tamale orders, she said, and one year she recalls the family making some 6,000 tamales together.

“Me and my brothers all had a duty,” Mendez said in a phone interview. “I would put the meat, someone (else) would put the sauce, and then someone would wrap them. To me, it was normal.”

As she grew up, however, she realized “that not everyone would do that.”

Immigrants who labor in the underground economy are largely driven by limited resources and abilities, such as language barriers or lack of a visa, said Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociology professor. Immigrants who work off the books in their own community often do so to amass enough capital so they can buy a business and participate in the legitimate economy, he said.

“It’s a first portal for immigrants not necessarily because they are down and out,” he said. “They are looking for a means to creating a foothold in the American economy.”

Venkatesh defines the underground economy as commercial activities not regulated by the government, including “both legal goods and services where income is not reported and criminal behavior where the activity itself is illegal.”

Mexican emigre Martha of Pomona, a mother of two who works for a house cleaning agency, said she takes orders for tamales and soft tacos on occasion to help supplement her salary of between $100 and $300 a week. This Christmas, she has received at least one order for five dozen tamales that she will make in her home.

“When one has an opportunity to earn some extra money, you’re not going to think about it,” she said in a phone interview in Spanish. “If you’re tired, you have to run the extra mile because you have an expense you have to pay.”

Boosting legitimate businesses

Many legitimate businesses that sell tamale ingredients, such as La Villita Inc. in South El Monte, or the finished product also see a significant spike in their sales during the tamale season.

“Tamales are a very essential part of the Hispanic culture and tradition,” said Jorge H. Moreno Jr., quality control director for La Villita, an importer, wholesaler and distributor of Mexican foods since 1995. “Tamales help increase our sales by 30 percent (during the season).”

The company caters to the public with a cash-and-carry store and also supplies corn husks and chilies to customers in grocery chains, to companies such as Diana foods and Ramona foods as well as restaurants, Moreno said.

Back in the San Fernando Valley, Maria said she has decided to break her routine and not accept any orders during Christmas week this year so she can spend more time with her children. And she’s not even sure she’ll be eating the tamales she makes that are the rave of the Pacoima neighborhood where she has become a fixture.

“I make them all the time and smell them and that fills me,” she said. “I don’t (usually) eat them.”

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