New Orleans taco truck ordinance highlights new tensions
NEW ORLEANS -- In the parking lot of a drive-thru daiquiri bar that sells frozen White Russians in plastic to-go cups, Fidel Sanchez is running an illegal enterprise that's too unwholesome to be tolerated, according to politicians here in suburban Jefferson Parish.
Sanchez is selling tacos out of a truck -- and judging from the lunch-hour line outside Taqueria Sanchez el Sabrosito, many Louisianans have become fast fans of his flavorful carne al pastor and spicy pork chicharrones.
But not everyone is enamored of the newest cheap eats to captivate the Crescent City. Jefferson Parish politicians, who have long turned a blind eye to whites and blacks peddling shrimp out of pickup trucks and snow cones on the street, recently outlawed rolling Mexican kitchens, calling them an unwelcome reminder of what Hurricane Katrina brought. Soon, Sanchez will be run out of business.
"What they're doing is just mean," the Texas native, 49, said in Spanish, noting that he'd secured all needed permits before officials changed the rules last month. "I do think they want the Mexicans out. I don't see any other explanation."
Nearly two years after Katrina led thousands of Hispanic immigrants to New Orleans in search of reconstruction work, it's obvious that the new arrivals are having a cultural influence that reaches beyond repairing homes and businesses -- and that's making some people uncomfortable.
Authentic Mexican food is now widely available here in taco trucks and storefront taquerias, adding a contemporary Latin tinge to a famously mixed-up culinary scene that's always managed to preserve its unique Cajun and Creole flavor even as most of America has become homogenized.
But the new ethnic eateries are emerging at a time when many traditional New Orleans restaurants are struggling in the face of sagging tourism and a smaller population -- one that's noticeably browner than before Katrina. New Orleans now has about 260,000 residents, down from about 460,000. Roughly 50,000 are Hispanic, up from 15,000.
So taco trucks have become fodder for a larger debate over whether to recreate the past or embrace a new future in New Orleans -- a discussion that's thick with racial undertones.
To advocates of reclaiming the old ways, new establishments that do not build upon the city's reputation, and may not even be permanent, represent a barrier to progress. As New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas recently put it in an interview with the Times-Picayune, "How do the tacos help gumbo?"
Yet many New Orleanians welcome anyone willing to repopulate the city -- and surprising numbers are eagerly munching tongue and cow's head tacos, broadening their palates in a city where the civic pastime is eating and talking about where to eat next.
Mary Beth Lasseter, who chronicles food history at the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance, said she was helping rebuild Willie Mae's Scotch House, a famed New Orleans soul food restaurant, when she sampled the offerings of a taco truck in the parking lot of a home improvement store. Most clients then were Hispanic workers coated in mold and dust. A few months later, half the customers were native Southerners like her.
"That was the first time the dots connected for me and I realized we were about to have a food revolution in this city," Lasseter said. "Food so often tells the story -- that's our premise here -- and that is when I knew that New Orleans would be changing again."
So far, the revolution looks one-sided: Hispanic laborers don't seem to care for shrimp Creole, oyster po' boy sandwiches -- or even hamburgers, as long as there is Mexican food around.
"Crawfish? The little lobsters? I tried it, but to be honest it did not suit me," Abel Lara, 33, said as he stopped at a taco truck during a quick break from his job laying floors at a medical center. "I don't understand why it's so popular."
More than any history book, New Orleans' cuisine has memorialized the waves of immigration that shaped and reshaped the old colonial port.
The Creoles' jambalaya remade Spaniards' paella with Caribbean spices. The Cajuns' gumbo melded andouille sausage with African okra and sassafras leaves from Choctaw Indians. Sicilians spread olive relish on a crusty round bread called muffuletta and fashioned a sandwich that every New Orleans tourist now samples.
New Orleans also has a lively tradition of street food that's humorously represented by the ubiquitous Lucky Dogs, the frankfurter vendors found on every corner of the French Quarter and immortalized in the comic novel "A Confederacy of Dunces."
But taco peddlers apparently are different.
In New Orleans, the city council president wants them off the streets -- although Mayor C. Ray Nagin has indicated he opposes such a move. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, the move last month to ban them was swift.
The vendors were given only 10 days before they'd be cited for breaking the new law. It requires any mobile vendor selling cooked food to offer customers restrooms and washing stations -- things a taco truck clearly cannot do.
"It's narrowly drafted, and it's discriminatory," said Dr. Vinicio Madrigal, a Jefferson Parish physician and community leader who serves on the area's economic development commission. Madrigal studied the ordinance and said it clearly aimed to outlaw taco trucks while permitting other street vendors. He fired off an angry letter to the politicians and said he got a call from one who chided him for siding with outsiders.
"I told him, I didn't know anyone when I got here either," said Madrigal, a Costa Rican immigrant.
Some taco vendors got the message and immediately rolled out of the suburb, which is now more populous than New Orleans. Others chose to stay and fight.
"It's racism; they're basically saying that we are dirty," said Cristina Falcon, 30, the owner of a taco truck called Tres Banderas that carries the flags of the United States, Mexico and Honduras.
Even before the ban, Falcon said, inspectors kept coming by her truck, which is parked on the same avenue as a Taco Bell that's still shuttered with plywood, to poke thermometers in her meat.
Jefferson Parish Councilman Louis Congemi, the author of the ban, refused to discuss it. Councilman John Young said the motivation was strengthening zoning standards that have deteriorated since the storm, not racism.
"We're trying to move beyond Katrina, and this is just another example of us trying to get back to where we were," said Young, who offered to help truck owners open restaurants. "Look, I love Mexican food. But this is not a New York City-type of environment. This is a suburb. We did get complaints from some of our civic leaders that the taco trucks were unsightly."
Jefferson Parish leaders also raised fears that taco trucks were unsanitary. But Louisiana health officials who investigated the mobile kitchens found nothing wrong.
"There are zero valid complaints about taco trucks in Louisiana," said Lauren Mendes, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "The Jefferson Parish officials who complained about these establishments as a public health hazard did not even contact us to learn whether there were violations."
A fear of change, and a feeling that quality of life will suffer due to the arrival of so many foreigners, are fueling some of the anti-taco sentiment. Many of the workers are illegal immigrants who were lured to Louisiana by the promise of good wages with no questions asked.
"We don't want to be another La-La Land, that's for sure," Rock Pitre, 63, joked as he left a Jefferson Parish restaurant advertising an "All-American Meal" of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. "You gotta have some standards."
Sanchez, the taco truck operator, said he has already opened one small taqueria in a former snowball stand. But he has a lot invested in his four trucks, which feature a picture of a smiling 2-year-old in pigtails -- it is Ashley, his granddaughter who was killed by a drunk driver.
"This is a country of people who came from all over the world, looking for something better," he said, as a harsh afternoon rain forced him to close down his truck. "Why are we being treated differently?"