The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 5, 2004; Page B04

Vendors Get a Taste of Assertiveness

Aided by Pr. George's Lawmaker, Immigrants Try to End Food Truck Ban

By Nurith C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer

It was just after 4 p.m., normally the hour when Langley Park's pupusa vendors park their white trucks along the neighborhood's cracked sidewalks and begin selling their cheese- and pork-stuffed wares to the stream of fellow immigrant laborers -- painters, cement layers and housecleaners -- coming home from work.

But on this recent afternoon, nearly 20 pupuseros sat in a circle of metal chairs in the community center, listening closely as a political organizer explained how to lobby Prince George's County lawmakers to lift a long-standing ban on their businesses.

"It's always good to know some background about the people you are trying to convince, so you can break the ice by saying something like, 'Oh, Mr. Council Member, I hear you were born in such and such state -- I have friends who live there,' " advised Kimberly Propeack, advocacy director of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland, speaking in Spanish to the group of mostly Salvadoran immigrants.

Julia Umanzor nodded, then furrowed her brow as she studied a handout listing such tidbits as the fact that County Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) is a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and that council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) is the daughter of a state senator.

Umanzor said she had come to the training session last week -- one of a series to be held in preparation for meetings with council members this month -- because she is tired of playing cat-and-mouse with Prince George's authorities.

The vendors, who sell a version of tortillas popular in El Salvador, estimate that on most days as many as 150 pupuseros operate in the county's immigrant areas with impunity. But every few months, even weeks, county business inspectors crack down, showing up with police to issue a fine, confiscate the vendors' trucks or simply force them to close for the night.

Even under that best-case scenario, "you lose all the ingredients you bought for that day," said Umanzor, who said she helps support three children on the roughly $350 a week she earns selling pupusas. "And then you have to stay away for at least another two or three days, so you can lose more than half your earnings for the week."

The change in county law that the vendors are pushing, with the help of council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), is the product of three years of political organizing and reflects a growing assertiveness among Latino residents in communities still adjusting to their presence.

The ban on most mobile food vending, passed nearly a decade ago, was part of a larger effort to burnish the county's image at a time when Prince George's was emerging as a national mecca for affluent African Americans.

Although some pupusa trucks were operating in Langley Park then, county lawmakers were far more concerned with eliminating the traffic and aesthetic problems created by scores of crab and rib trucks lining major thoroughfares.

In the years since, the county's Latino population has swelled to more than 7 percent of county residents -- and more than 60 percent in Langley Park. The pupusa vendors, many of whom obtain food preparation permits from the county health department despite their inability to get a business license, have flourished by offering the new immigrants a taste of home right at their doorsteps, for about $4 per meal.

Shapiro, whose district includes Langley Park, argues that it is time for the county to recognize the pupuseros' central role in community life. The proposal he plans to introduce before the council would follow the lead of other jurisdictions with large immigrant populations, such as Montgomery County, which permits a limited number of pupuseros to operate in designated areas.

"I'm extremely sensitive to the reasons why the [ban] was originally introduced, and any legislative solution will take that into account," Shapiro said. "But Prince George's has become a very, very diverse county, and the time for one-size-fits-all legislation is long gone."

Several council members have expressed provisional support for the idea as long as the vending ban remains in place in their districts.

But Shapiro's proposal is likely to encounter some resistance from longtime residents of the subdivisions of single-family homes that ring the low-rise apartment buildings served by the pupusa trucks.

"This is a step backwards. This is not the kind of quality development that we have been seeking for years," said Judith Banks-Johnson, a 37-year resident of the nearby neighborhood of Chillum and vice president of its civic association. "And we cannot understand why people would choose to enter a country or an area and then want to change the way of life. They should respect the laws."

The pupuseros hope to counter such opposition with the lobbying skills they are learning from Casa de Maryland. By the end of last week's training session, it was time to break into groups for a trial run.

"Hello, how can I help you?" asked an organizer, pretending to be a council member.

The pupuseros stared back at her, tongue-tied, then broke into uneasy laughter.

Propeack was not daunted. "This is why we practice," she said, laughing with them.

© 2004