I’m going to tell you a story. Put yourself in it.
It’s 103° outside, and you can feel the heat of the street through the rubber soles of your shoes. A car is bumping music from its stereo behind you, and the bass is in your chest as you stand on the corner. A cart vendor is talking at the speed of light, in a language that isn’t English, to someone that isn’t you, while you watch him make your order. You hand him your pocket change. He hands you a full plastic cup, and your whole face cracks a grin.
Take yourself out. Where are you? In my mind, I’m in three places.
First: down the street from my grandma’s house in Mexico City in front of an elotero. He’s making esquites, off the cob elote smothered in mayonnaise and dusted in Tajín brand chili powder.
Second: in front of my aunt’s house in Mumbai, staring at a rainbow of syrups on a gola cart—Indian shave ice. I can’t choose between rose, mango, and kala khatta, blackberry cumin.
Third: near my own house in Los Angeles, the sheen of sweat on my cheeks reflecting the summer sun. A hand reaches out to pass me a smile-stainingly-orange Thai iced tea, with perfect pearls of tapioca.
I’m Indian-Mexican-American—I know, right? The story of my parents is one of immigrants; my dad from India, my mom from Mexico. They arrived with nothing, and they made something.
There is an idea in the mind of the first generation immigrant that no matter how much they have contributed to their country, they are not a part of it. They think they are separate entities until they die. They achieved the American dream—but they do not see themselves as American; they are Indian and Mexican. I experience the classic immigrant child problem: I am not Indian, or Mexican, nor am I American. I belong nowhere.
Street food is the opposite: you had no idea where I was in my own version of the story, because cart vendors belong everywhere. Ubiquitous for the rich and poor alike, found in every country. Roots can be traced to ancient Greece, when small fried fish were sold on the road. Poor urban residents of ancient Rome whose tenement homes did not have kitchens often consumed food from the streets. In ancient China, wealthy residents would send servants to buy this food and bring it back to their palaces.
Today in Bangladesh, the sale of food in public spaces is a war. Thousands of street vendors hawk wares in the metropolis of Dhaka, one of the most densely populated parts of the world. It provides food security to the thousands of poor, mobile laborers who rely on cheap food that is readily available. It is necessary.
The authority figures argue that it is unhygienic. They argue that it is encroaching on the streets, and therefore not only disorderly conduct, but also illegal. The government has waged battle after battle with vendors, evicting them regularly. They have created a trail of economic and social hardship, forcing many to sell in secret. They forget: the vendors are there because people want them there.
The leaders of Los Angeles did not want them, either—but the Angelenos did.
We began with Chinese immigrants working metal pushcarts and Mexican tamale men in El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Regulation cracked down on the tamaleros and pushcart owners. Regulation failed miserably, because the food was too damn good. The city instead forced owners to pay for licenses. The licenses failed miserably, because the food was too damn good.
So, sidewalk vending was legalized in Los Angeles. The food brought us together and it evolved us. It created change. Food off of the street is relegated to “cheap eats.” It is discredited. It is often under contextualized, and always under politicized. It has been colonized, appropriated, even erased—and yet, it has more power than one can fathom, because it brings together.
Street food unifies.
Millions upon millions of people are standing on a busy corner. They are in front of a cart, reaching for that plastic cup with a grin. I am not American. Or Indian. Or Mexican. I am all of them, unified.