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The Life Of Street Vendors

Published: December 17, 2014

A new face in Sociology balances her professional and personal lives to study street vendors and their children.

Emir Estrada, who joined the university this fall, examines Latino/a families who employ a pooled income strategy in order to make ends meet, specifically analyzing the role that children play in the family income and decision-making process. Their experience is echoed by Estrada who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico, before moving to Long Beach and enrolling in Long Beach City College in 1998 to learn English. She transferred to UCLA where she earned her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Chicano Studies in 2004.

“When I saw the job description at CSULB, it had my name written all over it because it was connected to my research,” she said. She earned her M.A. in Sociology in 2010 and her Ph.D. in Sociology in 2012, both from USC.

Recent papers from Estrada include “Changing Household Dynamics: Children’s American Generational Resources in Street Vending Markets” (published in Childhood), “Intersectional Dignities: Latino Immigrant Street Vendor Youth in Los Angeles” (published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography), “Economic Empathy: “When They Realize How We Earn Money from Street Vending, It is Difficult for Them to Take the Wrong Path” (under review in Ethnic and Racial Studies) and “Capital Socio-Femenino: Latina Adolescent Street Vendors Protecting the Men in their Lives” (under review in Gender and Society).

At first, the vending community perceived Estrada as a police officer, a social worker, an immigration officer or a health inspector.

“But after I shared my experience working with my parents when I was young, or brought my daughter to the research site, that made me less of a threat,” she said. “My Spanish helped me establish rapport. I was able to ‘code-switch’ or to jump from English to Spanish and this made the youth in my sample more comfortable. What I thought would be challenges in the field turned out to be ways of establishing rapport with my respondents.”

She interviewed 66 respondents including parents and children between the ages of 10 and 18.

“I also conducted an ethnography for three years where I helped to prepare and sell food with my respondents,” she said. “I shadowed five families and visited their homes, churches and hospitals. I even accompanied them to parties and nightclubs. I made myself available for two months at a time. Whenever I was welcomed, I went anywhere they allowed me to go.” She also created a photo-documentation project where the young vendors were given disposable cameras and asked to photograph their environment.

Estrada found that the U.S.-born children of Latina/o vendors use their citizenship to protect their often-undocumented parents. “The children might say, ‘I’m a U.S. citizen; what could happen to me?’ But their undocumented parents can be arrested and deported,” she said. “But because these children speak English and are familiar with the U.S. culture, they represent resources they can bring to the family and the street-vending businesses. They bring more than money to the family. They can tap into different forms of technology such as Facebook and Twitter to advertise.”


Estrada’s research touches on the stigma of street vending.

“You cannot get a street-vending permit in L.A. You can get cited, arrested and see your goods confiscated. The children are very aware of the risks involved in street vending,” she said.

What once looked chaotic to Estrada now seems anything but. “Street vending is part of the informal, unregulated economy, but it is very organized,” she said. “Street vendors transform the streets but they are very territorial. There is very little informality to the informal economy. On the street where I conducted my study, there were about 60 street vendors. From 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., two parking lots would be transformed into an open market resembling a Mexican plaza. Each stand had a certain amount of space. When that space was violated by another vendor, there would be trouble.”

Estrada’s research debunked the notion of once a street vendor, always a street vendor.

“Many of these young vendors aspire to become lawyers and police officers to help their communities and people like their parents,” she said. “Plus, street vendors do not import street vending culture with them when they move to the U.S. I encountered examples of Mexican families, living in Mexico, who often sent financial assistance to their relatives in the U.S. I talked to a successful street vendor who won awards for her food but who described her siblings in Mexico as professional. One of her brothers is a university professor another is a lawyer. She would talk about missed opportunities and different choices but people love her food. She has been written about in blogs and the media. She is proud of her culinary entrepreneurship in the U.S. It was an important finding that street vending is not a cultural transplant.”

Estrada sees her interest in street vendors as continuing.

“I always will be an ally and supporter of street vendors. My eventual goal is to publish my research as a book. Whenever I see vendors I interviewed, they ask about the book. I’m getting more pressure to publish from them than from my department,” she laughed.