When he isn’t selling hot dogs out of a small, stainless steel cart in Santa Ana, Nico Armenta is helping street vendors like himself in more ways than one.
In just a year and a half, the 39-year-old hotdog-vendor-turned-nonprofit-founder has helped over 800 taqueros, eloteros and fruteros acquire permits to sell and provides them a safe space to do so every Sunday at the tianguis (an outdoor market).
What began as a conversation with his father over how to help their community that was reeling from loss during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—people were getting sick, losing loved ones, and losing their sources of income—quickly turned into a plan to create the first ever certified, “Tianguis Market” in Orange County, a name that Armenta says represents a culture of hustle and heart.
With the help of his family, Armenta has hosted an outdoor market every Sunday since Feb. 7, 2021, under the umbrella of the Tianguis Market Foundation, which became a full-fledged nonprofit earlier this year. The foundation now walks vendors through the dizzying permit process, giving them health and vendor permits for free and creates a space where vendors can sell and feel safe doing so, especially during a time when they are constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of being verbally and physically attacked or getting shut down by code enforcement.
At the tianguis—a Spanish word for market derived from tianquiztli in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs—attendees can indulge in the freshest tacos, birria, pupusas or mariscos and can cool down with an agua fresca or raspado. Local artisans sell anything from handmade soaps and candles to jewelry and cosmetics.
This Sunday, it’s coming to Long Beach for the first time and will be the biggest one yet, with over 200 vendors from across Southern California coming together in the Long Beach City College Pacific Coast Campus parking lot from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Aztec dancers will travel from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to perform at Sunday’s market and it will be held in memory of Severino Gutierrez Valez, a 34-year-old fruit vendor who was fatally shot in front of his 7-year-old daughter during an attempted robbery on Aug. 5 in Gardena. Valez was known to his community in Gardena by his nickname Elias.
“It’s going to be phenomenal,” said Armenta, whose enthusiasm was palpable.
Born in Mexico City, Armenta came to the U.S. at 2-years-old and grew up hearing nostalgic stories about the life his parents and grandparents had back home. His grandparents were farmers and every week they sold and traded goods at the tianguis to survive. As a young boy, Armenta’s father helped his parents sell anything from nopales, tomates and chayotes to lambs, chickens and cows.
When Armenta was reunited with his hometown 10 years later, he was able to visit the famed tianguis for the first time and was enamored by the amount of culture among vendors and customers alike at the outdoor market, where colorful tents stretched along the road for miles.
“It is so close to us, it’s our heart and it’s been forgotten for so many years,” he said.
After the success of the first market, he knew he had created something special and when they caught the attention of local television stations like KTLA, he knew it was something he had to nourish.
“This cannot be temporary,” he remembers thinking to himself.
Beyond connecting to his Mexican roots, Armenta hopes that Tianguis Market will show elected officials that solutions are possible and street vendors deserve to be protected, not criminalized.
”Es un desmadre,” he said to describe the barriers that currently prevent street vendors from obtaining food safety permits and selling legally. “It’s a big ol’ mess.”
In Santa Ana, where Armenta lives, city officials recently considered whether they can classify attacks against street vendors as hate crimes. Councilmember Jonathan Ryan Hernandez, who introduced the proposed ordinance at a council meeting in July, said that verbal and physical assaults with an undercurrent of anti-Latino racism were becoming increasingly more common.
The issue has also plagued Long Beach. Last week, as reported by L.A. Taco, indigenous taquero Lionel Perez, owner of “Tacos Lionel,” was verbally assaulted by an older White man who was caught on video yelling, “Let’s get the migra here. Let’s get ICE here!” The man then proceeded to throw Perez’s containers to the ground before walking away pointing the middle finger at everyone.
Santa Ana city officials will vote on the proposed ordinance within the next two weeks.
State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, is also trying to simplify the process and keep vendors safe with Senate Bill 972. The bill strives to modernize and simplify current rules for street vending that make it nearly impossible for vendors to operate their businesses as is.
“But the policies that currently dictate the landscape for how street vendors can do business are leaving hardworking people…out to dry—and even worse, subjecting them to increased harassment, criminalization, and deportation that can cost families their livelihood,” Gonzalez wrote in a recent op-ed in the Orange County Register.
There’s no doubt that street vendor attacks are on the rise, Armenta said, and every time he learns of another, it hurts like a punch to the gut. While he has never been attacked during his 12 years as a hotdog vendor, Armenta suspects that criminals will often target the most vulnerable due to their size, age or the language they speak.
For the first time, Armenta will also be providing 11 local street vendors with their first health permits. Many of them have been victims of violence in the past.
Armenta spent four months working to obtain those permits from the city, and among those he is helping is Eliu Ramirez, a Long Beach street vendor who was attacked by a group of people last May.
“This is a dream come true for so many and my main goal is to open as many tianguis as I can for this purpose,” said Armenta.
Though the permits will only be valid to use while they are selling inside the Tianguis Market, it serves as an example to prove that the markets should be funded and held more frequently, said Armenta.
“Though there are still a lot of hurdles, Tianguis tells them ‘don’t worry, you are safe here.’”
The Long Beach market is one small drop in the bucket for what Armenta has envisioned the Tianguis Market Foundation becoming. In the short term, he hopes to provide valuable resources to the community every Sunday including mental health booths, job fairs and a church. Eventually, he hopes to provide scholarships to young entrepreneurs or give away proper carts for street vendors to work in peace.
“There’s people to help, solutions to figure out … and it has definitely brought me back to my roots.”
Sunday’s market will be held once per month from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 1305 E Pacific Coast Highway. To make a donation to the Tianguis Market Foundation or volunteer at upcoming events click here.