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How These Guatemalan Street Vendors Feed an Army of LA's Day Laborers

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Affordable, homemade meals next to a Home Depot parking lot in Westlake

Guatemalan breakfasts at the Westlake Home Depot
Bill Esparza

“Oh, you like our food?” said a man at the Guatemalan night market. “Then you need to go to the parking lot of the Home Depot, right over there. There’s a women from San Pedro that makes really good food, very delicious, very traditional.”

Every morning, Monday through Saturday at 6 a.m., several food stands already have a line on the corner of Union and Shatto, in front of CARECEN, a center that assists jornaleros, or day laborers, in finding work. The center helps them settle disputes over unpaid work, tending to labor abuses as well as other issues for the vulnerable workers.

The first visit is a quest for Noemy, the woman from San Pedro, whose rotating menu of Guatemalan dishes is the talk of 6th and Bonnie Brae. The first line yielded a nice mole poblano and the second, a plate of frijoles con chicharrón from Noemy, who shows up a little later than the others. The other vendors need the head start.

“The most affordable meals, very delicious, very fresh, at these prices? I’m practically giving it away,” yells a Salvadoran street vendor named Sandra, to the chow lines, laughing as she spreads her arms over her wide selection of coolers full of hot food. Sandra caters to Salvadorans and has added dishes like mole de pollo to attract some of the Mexican jornaleros. Still, a plate of delicious home-cooked meat and beans covered in a rich stew is something that resonates with both the Mexican and Central-American workers, with portions that are grandmother-approved.

Noemy and a queue of jornoleros

While sitting down to have a taste of Noemy’s cooking, a young man next to the bike racks seems excited about something. But it’s impossible to tell because he’s speaking a Mayan dialect, possibly K’iche’ or Mam. All around, jornaleros are eating on hoods of cars, sitting on the edge of planters, or off in another part of the parking lot to dine in peace. On this morning, La Opinion reporters are interviewing the jornaleros for a story about the food vendors.

By 8:30 a.m., the stands are packing up and the jornaleros are jockeying for position to pitch their services for construction jobs, to help move furniture, or run a snake through clogged pipes. Some of the mostly Central-American men have trucks fitted with heavy duty tool chests and many are tight crews who’ve done more than a few jobs together. Each one has just had one of the best breakfasts in LA, all for the price a coffee at the Starbucks on the other side of the parking lot. And the workers will have the energy to help power some of the most difficult tasks in Los Angeles.

The jornaleros here get a rare peek into a Guatemalan mother or grandmother’s home cooking. These aren’t dishes or meals one can easily find at Guatemalan restaurants in Los Angeles. Noemy makes breakfasts with whatever ingredients she’s picked up, and the recados (traditional stews) change every day. The recado from a few weeks ago is very different from the one she serves this morning.

The vendors always offer popular dishes like carne guisada, a hearty stew of beef and potatoes in a rich tomato sauce kissed with cloves, cinnamon, thyme, and chile guaque. The vendors might fry up some chicken, or they might serve envueltos, which are egg-battered vegetables like pacayas, guisquil (chayote), and green beans. On another menu, the vendor was preparing egg-battered spinach and broccoli.

Estofado de gallina

Estofado de gallina (hen stew) comes full of carrots, potatoes, and a select cut of hen in a rich tomato stew with mild dried chiles. There are plenty of stews besides carne guisada like sometimes puerco guisado (stewed pork). These dishes are Guatemalan pot roasts thickened with bread crumbs, their fragrant sauces penetrating the rice and soupy frijoles colados, often staining the rice on the plate.

The vendors might make frijoles colorados con chicharrón, or bean stew with pork rinds, often with red beans or whatever beans are handy. The traditional stew is a simple dish of beans cooked with tomatoes, garlic, and onions in chicken stock, and perhaps pumpkins seeds called pepitoria, plus some pork rinds that are cooked to al dente pasta tenderness.

Noemy serves a hot masa-based drink called atole in the morning while a man next to her squeezes fresh orange juice from a shopping cart. Someone’s pouring Nescafe instant coffee, though the incapirina, an instant atól of soy and corn with supplemental vitamins, might make for a solid pre-workout beverage.

Each of Noemy’s plates comes with rice and beans, either whole or refried into a dark, creamy paste, and a choice of recado. Add precooked fried or hardboiled eggs, plus fresh cheese, Guatemalan cream, tomato sauce, or a mild hot sauce to complete the meal.

Depending on where the workers call home, they might request a warm bolillo (a small bun), plain corn tamales, or store-bought Mexican-style tortillas. There’s a Tupperware full of nostalgia in well-fried eggs steamed in a plastic container until they’re soft and oily, with a stack of pancake-thick corn tortillas that reminds Guatemalans of an impoverished childhood.

In 2014, on a lonely soccer field in San Martín Sacatepéquez on the way to Laguna de Chicabal in Guatemala, I saw three Mam (a Mayan subculture) children sharing a stack of corn tortillas and one egg among the trio, each taking turns tearing small pieces of the cold white flesh or hardened yolk to add a small luxury to a meal of corn tortillas. This is where the journey begins for work-aged adults, making the treacherous trip on the roofs of trains, in the bellies of semis, and on foot from Guatemala though Mexico, across the U.S. border in order to fulfill the labor force deficit in America.

In Westlake, Noemy’s breakfasts are luxurious and delicious postcards from home, with each jornalero customizing their nutritious, high-calorie meals full of carbs and protein, often ladled into their own to-go containers. No one leaves the corner of Union and Shatto in Westlake hungry. No one is far from their mother’s kitchen at these street food stands.

Every single one of the customers here are jornaleros, who come here for support, sustenance, and a taste of home. Many of them live alone, thousands of miles away from their families, far from their mother’s, and aunt’s, and grandmother’s kitchens. These hard-working men pitch in at numerous construction sites and home improvement projects across the city, but rest assured that they’ve eaten well, at one of the best street food breakfasts in Los Angeles.

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