Breakfast in America

A Guatemalan street vendor cooks traditional foods for immigrants hungry for a taste of home.

The little food stand, operated from the back of a silver Toyota 4Runner, sits at the edge of the parking lot of my local Home Depot, directly beneath eight lanes of one of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles. The setting is shadowy and sooty, dominated by the massive concrete columns that hold up the freeway bed, some 75 feet above. Planted at the foot of one of the columns amid the industrial grays, the stand is a smudge of color: the orange coffee dispenser, the green banana leaves that cover the tamales, the white Styrofoam cups for serving cinnamon-spiked cafe de olla. During the morning rush, the stand has plenty of customers, most of them day laborers who have gathered in the parking lot by the dozens hoping for a few hours of work in painting or demolition, plumbing or electrical.

The stand is run by Lydia, a 33-year-old native of Escuintla, Guatemala, who prefers not to give her last name because she is an undocumented immigrant. She has raven hair and shiny black eyes. She wears skinny jeans and knock-off sneakers. She arrived in the States five years ago, spurred by the desire of a single mother to provide for her three children, two of whom remain in Guatemala.

Lydia pops the tailgate of her 4Runner at around six in the morning, six days a week. With the help of her 24-year-old sister, Mari, she sets up a small folding table alongside the rear bumper and puts out a plastic dispenser for the coffee and another for atole de avena (a thick, sweet drink made with oatmeal and cinnamon). The sisters tie plastic bags to the vehicle’s bumper and hood—one for garbage, another for cash, yet another for to-go bags. The preparations are carried out quickly, without a word. Their work here will last for two and a half hours; at the end of it, Lydia will go on to her other job, cleaning houses.

Usually, a line of customers forms even before Lydia and Mari have finished setting up. The men call out their orders: pan dulces (pastries), chicken tamales, milanesa (breaded beefsteak), ham tortas (baguette-style sandwiches). Lydia’s breakfast special is a plate of refried black beans, rice, two handmade tortillas, and guisado (stewed chicken, beef, or pork); it is a nourishing meal, substantial enough to bend the paper plate.

Street-food scenes like this one are ubiquitous across the vast horizontal expanse of Los Angeles. Taco trucks and tamale stands, hot dog carts and grills for roasting corn on the cob, vendors whacking at coconuts alongside freeway off-ramps: LA should now once and for all be able to dispel one of its most popular stereotypes, that of the car city sorely lacking in street life, the anti-Manhattan.

Some mobile vendors—like the trucks crisscrossing the city these days selling Kogi tacos, a Korean-Mexican fusion food—attract hipster buzz, their locations announced on Twitter and foodie websites. But Kogi trucks and their ilk represent only a tiny fraction of LA’s street food, which owes its existence to the city’s Latin American immigrants and their taste for home.

“I am here because of my need,” Lydia told me when I visited her stand on a rainy, cold December morning; she used the Spanish word necesidad, a term much more common in Latin America than its English equivalent is here. “And I am here because of their need as well,” she said, referring to the laborers. “We aren’t here to make a huge profit.” She said she never charges more than $2.50 for her breakfast special, which includes a hot drink. And if someone shows more necesidad, there is a sliding scale, a line of credit, or the quiet offering of a free meal.

Just a couple hundred yards up the street is a McDonald’s. The laborers rarely eat there. “Here, one comes to eat exactly as one does back home,” said a young man from Solola, a provincial Guatemalan town. “A hamburger isn’t a meal for us. A guisado with handmade tortillas—that’s a meal.” The men come for the tastes of a life thousands of miles away, for foods cooked in a home kitchen every morning starting at three.

These are also the tastes of economy and thrift. Lydia chooses ingredients on the basis of the best deals she can get at the Big Saver supermarket. Take her tamales: while the traditional Guatemalan versions are famous for the number and variety of ingredients stuck into the banana leaf-wrapped masa—green olives, raisins, potatoes, peas, garbanzo beans—Lydia’s are minimalist renditions: masa, chicken (dark meat only), and a few raisins. “I’d have to pay more for the other ingredients, which means I’d have to charge more,” she said. The same goes for the tortillas, which she makes herself. Lydia’s are thinner than the typical Central American ones, but they’re delicious. So is everything else the sisters make. It’s some of the best comfort food I’ve ever had.

When I visited Lydia’s stand later that month, the atmosphere in the parking lot was tense. The previous day there had been a scuffle between a few day laborers and some guards from the private security firm hired by the Home Depot, which generally tries to keep the workers inside a fenced-off hiring hall. As I was sipping my atole, one of the security guards strode purposefully toward Lydia’s stand and informed her that she was trespassing. He gave her ten minutes to pack up.

Twenty minutes later, Lydia was still selling and the security guard was nowhere to be seen, but she knew she would have to move. For two years she had been working in this same dark corner of the parking lot, which was always empty except for the gleaming Silverados, beat-up old Rangers, and other pickup trucks that pulled in with crews of workers. The laborers represented a crucial part of Lydia’s livelihood, so for her it was only a question of where she would set up her stand the following day. The easiest answer would be to move a few feet away, off Home Depot property and onto the public sidewalk. But there she would be much more visible to Los Angeles Police Department officers, who ticket unlicensed vendors. (Lydia had been ticketed three times already; a week before I met her she received a citation that would cost her $400.) Eventually she told me that she’d settled on a location about 100 yards away, on a slice of concrete just paces from the main entrance to the Home Depot, that was owned by another retailer, one whose manager was sympathetic to both her and the laborers.

On my most recent visit, Lydia and her sister were in their new spot, the 4Runner parked alongside the neighboring retailer, a store that sells granite countertops. Business at the stand was as brisk as ever; she and her sister were surrounded by about a dozen men who were eating and drinking, steam rising from their plates and cups in the morning chill. I gazed toward the Home Depot and did a double take. There, in Lydia’s old spot, was a new stand, another splash of color against the gray concrete columns. That one, too, was tended to by two women. A few men huddled around them. I wondered how long the women would last there and where they’d move to next.

Lydia seemed content with her new location, but if her customers overflowed into the parking lot, the guards could always call the LAPD. If Lydia was worried about that outcome, she didn’t say so. There would always be another spot to sell from. This was her job, she said, her necesidad. —Ruben Martinez, author of The New Americans (The New Press, 2004)