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Hidden Economies in Public Spaces: A Study of Fruit Vendors in Los Angeles


Los Angeles has one of the most restrictive street vending policies in the country. Despite this, informal street vendors conspicuously and continuously mark the urban landscape. Issues regarding the use of public space and local ordinance enforcement are often complicated by the street vendors' ethnic and racial backgrounds as well as their immigrant status. In the last forty years Los Angeles has seen a surge in the number of immigrant and migrant street vendors. Yet, this phenomenon remains largely unstudied. This dissertation offers an in-depth look at the lives that undocumented migrant fruit vendors lead both on and off the street corners where they work. These vendors sell fruit salads out of pushcarts and can be found under brightly colored umbrellas in nearly every neighborhood of Los Angeles. This dissertation draws upon five years of ethnographic research, participant observation, and interviews with Los Angeles fruit vendors and their families in Mexico. I examine the crafting, strategizing, and deal making that fruit vendors engage in to make a sale, evade officials, and secure a livelihood in a high-risk occupation. I examine how migrant outcomes in the U.S. are tied to families and communities in Mexico. I interview vendors' families in Mexico to assess how life changed for them since their family member's departure and examine the lasting and broken ties between them. The outcomes for this group of undocumented migrant fruit vendors are grim. The main argument of this dissertation is that fruit vendors in Los Angeles lead very precarious lives due to both their undocumented status and their informal work. The prohibition of their presence in the country and as vendors on the street has negatively impacted them. Their lives in the U.S. are structured by limited to no upward mobility; the creation of bounded community and bounded opportunity; the threat and fear of premature voluntary and forced return migration; and strained ties to their sending community.

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