At the height of the U.S. presidential campaign in September 2016, the debate turned briefly to an unexpected topic: taco trucks.
During an MSNBC interview about then-candidate Donald Trump’s immigration proposals, Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump, issued a warning: “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems,” he said. “If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
Almost immediately, the comment spawned the trending Twitter hashtag #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner and thousands of late-night jokes in support of easy taco access. A few days later, in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, then-candidate Hillary Clinton added her own. “A taco truck on every corner sounds absolutely delicious,” she said.
For the immigrant community they serve, however, taco trucks are more than a viral meme or tasty trend. They are a symbol of culinary and cultural identity—and this was far from the first time they had become a political flashpoint.
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Taco trucks—often known as loncheros—had been a Los Angeles fixture since the 1960s. Loncheros served inexpensive, traditional Mexican meals and acted as gathering spots in lower-income, majority Latino communities. Now, a new wave of mobile vendors is emerging, led by the success of Kogi BBQ, a gourmet food truck serving Korean-Mexican fusion. Early Twitter adopters could follow the truck’s progress through the trendy neighborhoods west of downtown.
The communities of East LA and nearby Boyle Heights were not trendy. However, the traditionally Latino neighborhoods’ proximity to downtown, along with planned public transit improvements, had made them attractive to real estate investors. Those who envisioned luxury condominiums and high-end retail might welcome gourmet food trucks, but they saw loncheros as an eyesore. They charged that the taco trucks were unsanitary, caused street congestion, and represented unfair competition for brick-and-mortar restaurants.
In response, in 2008 and 2009, the county and city of LA moved to limit the number of loncheros in East LA and Boyle Heights through the enactment of new vending restrictions—and strict enforcement of existing ones. New rules would make it illegal for a mobile vendor to park in one space for more than 30 to 60 minutes. The vendor then had to move at least a half-mile away and could not return to the previous area for three hours.
On its face, this law was a simple parking restriction, but many perceived it as an expression of anti-immigrant sentiment, since it effectively prohibited taco trucks in East LA and Boyle Heights. The penalty for a vendor convicted of violating these rules was $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
Such restrictions have long been used to limit or prevent vending by immigrant groups. Los Angeles’s very first street vending laws, enacted in the 1870s and 1880s, excluded Chinese vegetable vendors, and a similar taco truck battle had taken place in 2007 in Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans, where taco trucks catering to the Latino workers rebuilding the city in the aftermath Hurricane Katrina were perceived as an unwelcome sign of the region’s changing demographics.
“For food truck vendors in Los Angeles and across the nation, debates about their legality or proposed illegality reflect larger cultural contests about local and neighborhood identity, local economics, and public space,” the law professor Ernesto Hernández-López writes in his study of the “war.”
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If taco trucks are a political flashpoint, they proved in LA in 2008 that they are also a political force. Both traditional and new-wave vendors organized in response to LA’s restrictions, courting English and Spanish media attention and circulating petitions in support of the taco truck vendors of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. “Carne Asada is not a crime!” was the rallying cry. The vendors ultimately found relief in the courts, which overturned the most burdensome of the restrictions, and loncheros remain an important part of the LA landscape.
When taco trucks found themselves the target of anti-immigrant sentiment in the 2016 presidential campaign, vendors again made their voices heard. In a Las Vegas protest organized by the Culinary Workers Union, taco trucks formed a “wall” in front of the Trump International hotel, handing out “Taco Trucks Unidos” t-shirts and, yes, tacos on every corner.