There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The Bedford Station apartment complex, which fronts a silent University Boulevard, is dark except for three apartments. From the courtyard, a woman can be seen in each, working over a stove, moving swiftly in a barely 7-foot-wide kitchen. It’s 3:30 on a Saturday morning in Langley Park.
In one of the apartments, Emerita Laínez, 42, has been cooking since she awoke an hour-and-a-half earlier. The temperature feels as if it’s approaching 100 degrees in the kitchen, even though the window is open to the brisk night air. There’s no draft—the door is kept closed to allow four nearby bodies to continue sleeping. Two hours from now, she’ll join a row of women on 14th Avenue off University Boulevard selling home-cooked meals to men on their way to work.
Laínez has four burners going on the stove and two more on a plug-in range top. Chicken tacos, tortillas, eggs, red beans and rice, and several different soups move through the production process and are then deposited into Igloo coolers. The order and efficiency of the sizzling and bubbling comes from daily late-night frying. And with the routine come old aches. Nearly two years ago, Laínez hopped on the side of a train bound north from Honduras, where she’d sold fruits and vegetables in a street market. “I still feel the pain in my arm from holding on to the train,” she says. Every time she saw a police officer or border patrol, she says, she’d jump off and wait for the next train. She eventually crossed into Texas.
At 4:30, Laínez’s roommate and line cook Araceli Sánchez is up alongside her, mostly on tortilla duty.
Homemade tortillas and pupusas are big business in Langley Park, a town that 2000 census numbers say has a 64 percent Latino population. Andrew McDonald, a manager at the local Atlantic Supermarket—known as “Atlántico”—says that the vendors have been important customers for at least the seven years he’s been there. “They’re 20 percent of our business,” he says.
The success of the pupusa market in Langley Park, however, has brought on a backlash. Councilmember Will Campos, under pressure from the area’s business community, is introducing legislation this month that will cut by two-thirds or more the number of mobile trucks in operation; he’ll follow it with a bill greatly restricting table vendors such as Laínez. “[The problem is] very obvious. In that immediate community, it’s so blatant—there’s trucks after trucks after trucks. You don’t need anybody to tell you this is an issue,” he says.
But the bill, which Campos hopes will reduce the number of vendors on the streets, is in fact more liberal than the current law. Street vending is illegal in Prince George’s County.
Regardless, on the afternoon of May 5 at Merrimac Road and 14th Avenue—one of the hot spots for homemade food—four table vendors and 11 truck-based pupuserías vie for business. Within just a few blocks, another 40 or so trucks are parked on Langley Park streets; dozens of women have tables set up. Though there’s no apparent lack of customers for the services, the market contrasts with the residential nature of the neighborhood, annoying some longtime residents. The vendors have also drawn complaints from businesses a few blocks away on University Boulevard.
Several years ago, following an influx of new vendors, Prince George’s County police and business inspectors began cracking down on the vending: writing tickets, confiscating food, and towing trucks. In the spring of 2004, Casa de Maryland, which does tenant organizing in the area, stepped in on behalf of the vendors and negotiated a moratorium on enforcement while then-Councilmember Peter A. Shapiro worked on legislation to repeal the ban. Shapiro resigned shortly thereafter, however, and the issue languished. (A police department source confirmed that an unofficial moratorium is still in place.)
Up the hill from the intersection sits a truck owned by Juan Rivas, president of the Association of Vendors of Langley Park. The group was organized by Casa de Maryland in response to the crackdown, says staff attorney Delicia Reynolds.
The association, says Rivas, is hoping the council will regulate the open-air pupusa market so that a “certain number of vendors have the chance to sell to the Latin community.” Campos, who calls the situation “out of control,” says his first piece of legislation will do just that for the trucks; next he’ll address the women such as Laínez who have individual tables.
The “certain number” of vendors, says Campos, will be chosen through a lottery. His bill will create legal zones where winning truck owners will be allowed to sell. Four apartment complexes in the neighborhood have agreed to open their space to two vendors each. Another seven vendors will be allowed to sell on commercial property if Campos can win permission from the property owners. He’s not confident that he will be able to do so, but whether the bill allows for eight or 15 vendors, Campos says, he will be bringing order to a chaotic situation. “It’s my mission to clean up Langley Park,” he says.
Many of the truck owners, though, are not looking forward to the cleanup. Campos estimates that his bill will put at least 20 or 30 vendors out of business—or out of the county. “They’d have to go somewhere else to sell their products. Not everybody’s going to hit the lottery,” says Campos. “There are other jurisdictions. Montgomery County allows this kind of selling on residential property.”
It won’t just be bad luck in the lottery that will put most of the trucks out of business. Campos’ legislation will make eligibility difficult, he says, citing criteria such as a three-year valid permit with the county health department and a history of paying taxes. Residency status will also come in to play. “You would have to have a legitimate business but also legitimate credentials” as a legal resident, he says.
The strict qualification requirements, says Campos, may mean that a lottery won’t even be necessary, since fewer than 15 vendors might meet the criteria. “You can’t have one of those trucks where you plug in a generator; it has to have its own refrigerator power. We’re trying to have a level of quality,” he says. “We can’t just have any truck that wants to go out and sell.”
The proposed solution to the table-vendor situation could be equally devastating to those current businesses. “For the women with the tables, I’m trying to work on a farmers’-market-type location for them. I’m trying to get the vendors away from the street corners,” he says. But the farmers’ market, says Reynolds, will probably be open only twice a week. The rest of the week, Laínez’s form of street vending would be illegal.
For this suggestion, Campos has earned Laínez’s contempt. “If he was a good guy, he wouldn’t propose to take everyone off the street,” she says. Yet, if the farmers’ market location is near her apartment—and she has an opportunity to make a living—Laínez says that she’ll comply and that she has no problem paying a licensing fee or taxes. “If I have to pay somebody in the government to work, I will,” she says. Until then, she’ll continue selling on 14th Avenue, just off University, seven days a week.
As the sun rises, she and Sánchez fill three Atlántico shopping carts and wheel them over to 14th, where they join seven other vendors who have already set up and started selling. Though it’s Saturday, business is brisk, as regular customers stop by in pickup trucks or walk over to buy breakfast and lunch at once.
Laínez will close up shop around noon. If it’s a typical day, she says, she’ll pull in between $100 and $200 profit after paying for food and giving $50 to Sánchez, whose day ends once the table is set up.
Two to three hundred of Laínez’s weekly take, she says, goes back to Honduras, where it supports her son, who is living with his grandmother. The money also goes toward payments on a house she is having built there. Once it’s finished, she plans to return, looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
“I have faith in God this will be my last Christmas here,” she says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Roxana Bravo.