El Paso Food Vendors Biting at City Laws

In El Paso, food vendors say they are forced to break the law every day just to make a decent living.

Maria Robledo says she came to El Paso from Mexico several years ago for a better life and opened up shop as a street vendor. For awhile she was getting by pretty well, selling snacks and beverages, but under a new law, she says, her profits are diminishing.

Across town, Yvonne Castaneda hardly brings in enough money for her and her disabled husband to get by, she says, but she claims it wasn’t always this way.

Castaneda and Robledo are two of four food vendors filing a lawsuit along with the Institute for Justice against the City of El Paso, fighting to change what they describe as strict rules against selling food and beverages on the roadside. Since the regulations were put into place in 2009, food vendors haven’t been able to operate within 1,000 feet of any restaurant, grocery or convenience store. If they do, they’re hit with hefty fines.

Some local restaurant owners approve of the rules, saying without them their business suffers.

“It would be unfair for them to just come and take up the business,” says Rosa Vasquez, owner of Zahuan Restaurant in El Paso’s business district, through her daughter Priscilla’s English translation.

Vasquez says restaurant owners have to increase their prices to keep up with high operating costs and rent.

“They don’t have to pay for that,” she says of the street vendors.

Right now, according to the controversial rules, food vendors can’t park and wait for customers on public roads, and they argue this is taking away from their Constitutional right to earn a living.

El Paso attorney Rodger Davies says it boils down to what the court determines, after considering the rights of the city and vendors.

“The judge will decide: Is this regulation reasonable and is it reasonably related to a legitimate interest of the city?”

The Institute for Justice reports that food vendors nationally are struggling with similar regulations. In Pittsburgh, a food vendor can’t operate within 500 feet of a restaurant selling similar items. In St. Louis, vendors must stay 150 feet away.

Castaneda says it’s normal for her to loop around city blocks waiting for someone to flag her down for business.

"You have to figure if there’s a parking spot, for one, and second, if there’s not a cop that’s ready to turn around and pull you over,” Castaneda says.

And she’s seen the fines — some hundreds of dollars. “It’s embarrassing,” she says.

Castaneda says she is coming up with solutions to pick up profits. She now pays to park her vending van in the parking lot of an auto shop, which is allowed under the law. But she says it’s harder for her to attract customers because access isn’t as easy as when her van is in the street. In the last year, she says her sales have been cut in half, and she’s finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Castaneda says she’s among 250 food vendors in El Paso affected by the new law.

Meanwhile, Robledo doesn’t want to negotiate any new laws -- she says she wants the rules lifted. Until then, she’s looking closely over her shoulder.

“If work is a crime, than I guess I am a criminal,” Robledo says.

Vasquez says she would like to see the government be involved, so that everyone can be successful.

“If the government could reserve a place for them to operate and be more manageable for us, maybe they wouldn’t have to compete going around the streets either,” Vasquez says.

Davies says both have valid arguments.

“I think there will certainly be two sides of the story, I don’t think it will come down to an easy decision.”

El Paso’s public affairs office wouldn’t comment on current litigation.