Fontana's Black mayor is cracking down on Latino street vendors. Both sides allege racism

FONTANA, CA - DECEMBER 15, 2023: A crowd forms at a street vendors taco stand off Sierra Avenue on December 15, 2023 in Fontana, California.This street vendor is from Los Angeles. Recently, a food vendor had all her food tossed and equipment confiscated by code enforcement. The city of Fontana just passed an ordinance contracting a third-party company for $600,000 to patrol and impound street vendors' equipment that lack the required permit.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A crowd forms at a street vendor's taco stand in Fontana. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

At meeting after meeting, activists, social justice groups and residents took their turn at the lectern in the Fontana City Council chambers in the fall to sound off against Mayor Acquanetta Warren. Their denunciations of the city's first Black mayor were relentless, and their anger resonated beyond the council chambers.

For months, Warren had been the driving force behind a crackdown on street food vendors selling goods without proper permits. Under a series of regulations approved by the City Council, unlicensed sellers could be arrested on misdemeanor charges. Their food and equipment were now fair game to impound and trash.

"It's time to take a stand," Warren told the packed chamber at one October meeting, standing firm against the onslaught. "We've tried everything we can to help people get legal. ... Now it's time to grab a couple of hammers."

In a city where Latinos make up the majority of residents, some view the criminalization of street vending as a direct attack.

"It's fascist, classist, racist, xenophobic and a grave injustice," Fontana resident Evan Webb, a staunch ally of local activist groups, told the council at another October meeting. "Because of your votes, people will be traveling to poverty, debt, trauma and deportation."

In the months since, activists have continued to ramp up their campaign against Warren, a Republican who has been open in her concerns about illegal immigration. Their verbal attacks, some laced with profanity and racial overtones, ripple across social media. And even as critics accuse city leaders of an ethnically motivated crackdown on working-class Latinos, Warren's defenders say the backlash itself is racist in nature — a move to undermine a clear-eyed leader because she is a Black woman.

"I have followed this anti-Black behavior brought on by this immigration group since it surfaced back in October," Hardy Brown, a longtime activist in San Bernardino's Black community, said during a December City Council meeting. "They have called us everything but a child of God and using racial stereotype language I choose not to repeat."

A police cruiser drives by a taco stand serving guests.
Fontana city leaders say their crackdown on street vending is about protecting health and local businesses. Activists call it an attack on Latino culture. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The cat-and-mouse game between unlicensed street vendors and city code enforcement is not new for Southern California. It's been an ongoing point of tension in relatively white suburban communities for years, particularly in Orange County's posh beach cities. But what's unfolding in Fontana represents a new front in the battle as the debate spreads into unfamiliar terrain: the Inland Empire, where large numbers of Latino families are relocating to escape unaffordable housing in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In Fontana, the talking points in the standoff are in many ways the same as what's played out elsewhere: City officials say unlicensed vendors represent a health risk to consumers, unfair competition to bricks-and-mortar restaurants and lost civic revenue from unpaid taxes and fees. Those defending street vendors say their trade offers an economic lifeline to hardworking people and, for many Latinos, calls up a nostalgic mainstay of Mexican culture.

But the discourse in Fontana has also veered into barbed and more personal territory, highlighting the growing pains of a Latino-majority community led by Warren, a controversial figure determined to establish Fontana as an up-and-coming suburb.

Alfonso Gonzales Toribio, an associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, notes another distinction: Along with Warren, many of those taking on street vendors in Fontana are Latinos and other people of color using nonracial terms to say why it's a problem.

"There is this class dynamic that they're trying to sell the Inland Empire as sort of the middle-class suburban alternative to living in Orange County," Gonzales Toribio said. "And in doing that, they're trying to create the image of these pristine uniform suburban spaces that don't have room for street vending."

A crowd forms at a taco stand at night.
Fontana officials say they pursued ordinances criminalizing street vending only after the city had exhausted efforts to bring unlicensed vendors into compliance. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Fontana indeed has transformed since its founding. Unofficially dubbed "Fontucky," the area was once home to agriculture and rolling hills and later to the Kaiser Steel mill, the largest steel plant on the West Coast during World War II.

Warren joined the City Council in 2002, and her successful mayoral bid in 2010 was lauded as a historic turning point in a city with a cruel history of segregation. As mayor, she has courted warehouse development, bringing in scores of facilities and hundreds of jobs. Critics of the approach dub her "Warehouse Warren" and question the environmental fallout of a local economy reliant on mass distribution centers and truck traffic.

From the start, Latino activists also took issue with her stance on illegal immigration.

Street vendors are quick to pull out their cellphones and call up a clip where Warren says, "If you get here illegally, you need to learn how to speak English. You need to understand the culture in America." The doctored clip is presented as if Warren said this amid street vending discussions. In fact, the clip is from a 2010 council meeting where a San Bernardino public official called Warren racist after a newspaper story quoted her expressing support for a controversial Arizona law, passed that same year, that gave police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Portions of the measure were subsequently voided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Warren, a council member at the time, rebutted the accusations of racism and said she advocated for stronger border protections because people entering the country illegally were taking low-skilled jobs from impoverished Black communities.

A woman sets up a roadside sign for a food stand.
Digna Orozco sets up a roadside sign for her Fontana food stand. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Still, street vendors tend to think the mayor's crusade against their vocation is rooted in animosity toward Latinos and immigrant culture.

"She doesn't know us," said Digna Orozco, who sells pambazos and tacos de canasta on a dirt patch near semi-trailer truck lots in Fontana.

Orozco said she turned to street vending after suffering a heart attack triggered by stressful work as a seamstress at high-end wedding boutiques. She didn't think her heart could handle a return to boutique work, but she had bills to pay, so she turned to vending at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"She doesn't know that it's out of necessity." Orozco said. "I wanted to tell her, 'I'm an American citizen from Fontana and my children grew up here.'"

Read more: Inside the ruthless crime wave targeting L.A.’s vulnerable street food vendors

Fontana city officials have repeatedly said the vending ordinances are not meant to target a demographic group. Warren declined The Times' request for an in-person interview, but offered a statement blaming the tensions on social activists who have twisted the dispute into a "racial or social equity issue to promote their political agenda."

"The businesses most impacted by their intentional disregard for our ordinance are mostly Latino-owned small businesses," Warren said in the emailed statement. "They are the ones requesting city action, and they are the ones negatively impacted by this outrageous behavior. This group has attempted to make this a racial issue, and they are the ones who have resorted to personal attacks and threats of violence. The city will continue to enforce the law and stand up for local residents and businesses, regardless of the tactics employed by this group.”

The Times reached out to several Mexican food establishments, whose owners declined to speak on the record. Some cited fear of retaliation from pro-vendor activists, while others worried they might alienate fellow restaurateurs if they expressed support for street vendors. In general, they said they agreed with the need to curb unlicensed vendors; some suggested setting a radius clause where the same goods couldn't be sold in front of a bricks-and-mortar establishment. Yes, street vendors are common in Mexico, one owner said, but in the U.S., fellow Latinos should shake off old habits and strive to eat better and cleaner.

Amanda Morales, a self-identifying Latina and special projects coordinator for the Fontana Chamber of Commerce, said the street vendor ordinances are not racist in nature but instead an effort to lift and support Latino-owned businesses.

"We have heard story after story of our restaurant owners on the verge of shutting down and laying off their employees that live in the city because they are unable to compete with the price points of street vendors,” Morales said.

A woman cooks pambazo at her food stand.
Digna Orozco, right, prepares pambazo at her food stand. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Council members contend they pursued the new ordinances only after the city had exhausted its efforts to work with unlicensed street vendors to bring them into compliance.

Code enforcement officers have distributed fliers explaining the licensing rules in English and Spanish. The city created a program in June to offer financial assistance of up to $2,000 to help cover expenses involved with obtaining permits from the city and county. Three months later, the city shut down the program because no applications were submitted.

Instead, Deputy City Manager Phillip Burum said, illicit vendors have memorized when officers begin their patrols. They pack up their food when officers drive by — and wait until the officers are gone to start selling again.

In October, the City Council approved spending $600,000 to bring in a third-party vendor to help with the crackdown. Pleasanton, Calif.-based 4Leaf Inc. will provide code enforcement services, such as giving warnings to first-time unlicensed vendors, impounding equipment and food from repeat offenders and, if necessary, calling in police for support. Under the six-month contract, six security workers will patrol the city during eight-hour shifts six days a week.

"We're not objecting to people making money, but you need to do it the right way," Warren told audience members at the October meeting where the expenditure was approved. "Our public looks upon our council and our region to keep them safe, and if you looked at the conditions they cooked [in], you wouldn't be eating at these places. There's no bathrooms. How [are] you going to sit there for eight hours with no bathroom? Where are you going to wash your hands?"

Warren's admonitions have done nothing to quiet the pro-vendor forces. And as tensions have heightened, Fontana has added more police officers to stand watch during council meetings.

Read more: He defends street vendors. Now he's on trial. Did he fly too close to the sun?

In October, Edin Alex Enamorado, whose strident activism has made him a social media sensation, organized a protest in front of the mayor's house that police declared an unlawful assembly. Enamorado and a cohort of activists have since been jailed and await trial on allegations they used violent tactics to harass and intimidate perceived enemies of street vendors and certain other causes in multiple cities. The defendants deny the accusations, presenting themselves as crusaders using their 1st Amendment rights to stand up for the oppressed.

Coalition groups such as the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice have galvanized vendors to share testimony at council meetings about what drew them to the occupation. Several explained in Spanish that the vending ordinances were upending a food service many residents appreciate and see as part of their heritage. Frustration has mounted as city-provided interpreters sometimes struggle to accurately convey what Spanish speakers say within the time frame allotted for public comment.

"When you talk about public health and safety of the community, you say that street vendors are a danger, that street vendors are a nuisance," Joaquin Castillejos told the mayor at an October meeting. "You know what to me is a danger and a nuisance? It's PM2.5 contamination from trucks going into our lungs every single day in the streets, and you wanna put warehouses next to a school—"

Before he could finish, his allotted time elapsed.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.