Clara Weston: History Undergraduate Takes Statewide Honors With Research on Street Vendors
When Clara Weston was looking for a topic to present as her senior seminar project in History 490, she was directed by her professor, Ericka Verba, to find one at the Southern California Social Studies and Research Library in South Los Angeles. While looking through several options, the 60-year-old history major at California State University, Dominguez Hills found documents that described initiatives that were established more than 20 years ago to regulate and protect Los Angeles’ growing population of street vendors.
After presenting her findings on “Street Vendors: Compelling Voices on the Pathway to Social Justice and Acceptance” at the CSU Dominguez Hills Student Research Day last February, she took her project to the 23rd annual CSU Student Research Competition earlier this month, and placed second statewide in the Humanities and Letters category.
“I just want to say I started this project just to get a good grade,” she laughs. “All these other things came out of it. I think the street vendor culture is important to the city because it provides a resource for people in communities who don’t have transportation or they don’t have the facilities to get out to the malls or other places.
“When the general public looks at the street vendors, they don’t know their stories, where they’re from, their living conditions or what social adjustments they have to make to live here,” she says. “They have to obtain housing, they have children. They’re no different from anyone who wants a home for their family. Not only is it a project relating to history, it’s a project about humanity and how we look at people and view them.”
Weston has an affinity for the typically misunderstood lifestyle of the street vendors; she used to be one herself. As a single mother raising three children in the 1970s and 1980s, she saw that selling homemade baked goods, Avon products, or novelties that she purchased in the downtown garment districts would generate enough income to support her family. She did just that for two years without any issues with law enforcement.
In her writings, she explains that the immigrant population of vendors garners attention from city officials because they tend view the practice as giving a “third-world” taint to the community, or reminiscent of peddlers of stolen or bootleg wares.
“When we look at who the street vendors are, this is part of their culture,” Weston says. “In Puerto Rico, Honduras and Guatemala, you have families that have done this kind of work all of their lives. They come to the United States and attempt to do the same thing because they don’t know that there are any legal ramifications to it. They automatically assume they can set up their carts and present whatever merchandise they have for sale.
“This is just who they are. They enjoy… that it gives them freedom. I read through some of the documents and saw how it afforded many women a way to make a living and also care for their children.”
Weston’s research revealed that while street vending—provided that proper certification and health codes are adhered to—was legalized in 1994. However, citywide task forces that were seeking to protect vendors within the law have since become less active. While there are a few organizations that still work with helping the vendors regulate their businesses, the enterprises for the most part, according to Weston, continue as part of the “informal economy” of Los Angeles due to the fact that many vendors feel that the cost and effort of securing permits far outweighs their profits.
“One of the main problems that the health department recognized with the street vendors is that they don’t have facilities for running water to wash their hands and do sanitation,” Weston says. “We don’t want them to break any laws. But we also want them to have the opportunity to provide their services and make a living for themselves.”
Weston hopes to continue her research on street vendors as she prepares to attend graduate school and continue her study of history and women’s studies, in order to eventually teach at the community college level. A transfer student from El Camino College, she has relied on the support of several mentors. Ruth Banda-Ralph (Class of ’78, B.A., political science), Stephanie Rodriguez (Class of ’89, B.A., history; ’92, M.A., education counseling), and Gloria Miranda (Class of ’72, B.A., history/Chicano studies), are three Dominguez Hills alumnae who as administrators at El Camino College counseled Weston as she prepared to enter the university. She is also grateful for the assistance of Clare Weber, who as a former coordinator for the Associacion de Vendedores Ambulantes (Street Vendors Association), donated the papers to the Southern California Social Studies and Research Library that Weston used, and Verba, who was her faculty mentor for the project.
“I just can’t describe the experience of working with [Dr. Verba],” says Weston. “She’s so knowledgeable and gets you to think critically of the right questions to further your research. She has been an outstanding mentor for me and I really appreciate her and all the other teachers in the department.
According to Weston, the goal of many street vendors is not to leave the streets, but to flourish in the underground economy. She too plans to take to the streets to form an update on the status of the vendors and new measures to protect them as a legitimate part of the city’s economy. In the meantime, she supports the trade.
“Street vending] helps to unite the people,” she notes. “You get a chance to fellowship with them and find out who they are. What has happened to the city [is that] with people moving at such a fast pace, they don’t really get a chance to find out who anyone is. This gives us an opportunity to just spend a few minutes with a person, speak to them, or just look out for someone. If I had my way, when I’m going down Alameda, I would stop and converse and buy something from all of them.”
- Joanie Harmon
Class of ’03, B.A., interdisciplinary studies/English