Video Credit: Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Push cart food vendors crisscross the residential neighborhoods around Fairmount Avenue in City Heights.
They’re known as paleteros, a Spanish term for mobile food workers, and residents can hear them coming down the block by their unmistakeable ringing bells.
Paleteros serve ice cream, frozen treats, soda and snacks from their mobile cooler.
These workers, along with mechanics, handymen, child care providers and residents holding regular yard sales make up what the City Heights Community Development Corporation refers to as the “informal economy.”
A 2013 report prepared for the City Heights CDC shows that the informal economy thrives in City Heights because of its concentration of immigrants who are used to a more informal economy, because it provides low-income residents with discounted services, and because it’s an income generator for those otherwise unemployed.
The report says that over 70 percent of consumers surveyed in the neighborhood use this informal economy for food, clothing and basic services.
Interns with the Employee Rights Center are now trying to learn more about the paleteros.
“Paleta!” Adriana Huerta-Reyes calls out a car window for a paletero to stop. The ERC community health educator is driving around City Heights with San Diego State students Bryan FitzGerald and Marcial Gutierrez.
The students have an internship with ERC and are conducting a survey on health and safety concerns for mobile food vendors.
It’s a challenge for the interns as the mobile vendors are scattered around the neighborhood and are rarely in the same spot twice. Some are also temporary foreign national workers and unfamiliar with the permits, licenses and laws necessary to be a legal mobile vendor in San Diego.
FitzGerald and Gutierrez said that their conversations with paleteros so far have revealed they experience pain in their feet, knees, calves and lower backs from walking the streets with their food carts for over eight hours each day.
While ticketing from the police was a concern to the paleteros surveyed, more stress came from the fear of not making enough sales for the day or the possibility of their all-cash business being robbed.
Huerta-Reyes said the ERC has interest in organizing the paleteros for fair pay and better working conditions, but for now they provided the mobile vendors surveyed with premium shoe insoles, recommended exercises to relieve foot pain and legal resources for labor and immigration.