This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2016.
In Los Angeles, selling a steamed ear of corn on the street can land you in jail.
Andrés Santos Medina can attest to this. He slept two nights in LA County jail and had to pay a fine of $1,000 for selling corn on the street in 2010. They also confiscated his custom-painted cart and all of his equipment, but not even the law can stop him from answering his family calling.
He is a second-generation elotero that sets up in the Highland Park neighborhood. His stand, which he has colloquially called The Corner Corn, has been standing in front of the same location for 20 years now. He is a living relic of a past Highland Park, one that was the home to a mostly Latino demographic. That may not be the case anymore—the neighborhood is a poster child for gentrification in the city—but Medina refuses to give up his family business
If you're walking down Figueroa Street in the fall or winter, the comforting smell of boiled corn wafting from his cart will stop you in your tracks. Medina specializes in boiled, whole corn in the style of Morelos, Mexico, notable because of the addition of skunky epazote in the water used to cook the corn. He also serves esquites, a cup of shaved corn mixed with a little bit of mayonnaise, Parkay Squeeze margarine, lime juice, cotija cheese, and a squiggle of fiery hot sauce that he makes at home. And lastly, champurrado: a hot, chocolaty beverage thickened with nixtamalized corn masa. In the warmer months, he sells raspados (shaved ice) with pulpy syrups that he makes from scratch.
Using the Square app has helped me out for sure. I get maybe an extra $50 a week. It's not much but something is something.
Law enforcement has not bothered him in the last few years. Nonetheless, like the thousands of other street vendors in the city, he knows that his business is in jeopardy during every single service.
Last year, his daughter helped him create a Facebook page, although, ironically, the more publicity he gets, the more susceptible he will be to getting shut down. The last printing of his business cards depicts a corn with a smiley face and now also has a Yelp logo. However, the most fascinating development in his attempts to keep up with the quickly changing times of his neighborhood may be that he now accepts debit and credit cards through the Square app, something that was previously unheard of for LA's street vendors.
"Using the Square app has helped me out for sure. I get maybe an extra $50 a week. It's not much but something is something." Medina says that he found out about the app through a friend. He noticed that more of his customers started asking if they could pay electronically. "It's better than having my customers just leave without buying anything like they were doing before."
Nonetheless, the tone of the conversation quickly changes to how few Latinos the neighborhood has left, and how as a result of that, his business has dropped by more than 50 percent in the last decade. On a Thursday night from 8 PM to 9 PM, his only customer was a young Latino man who lives a few blocks away. "My sales have dropped immensely," Medina tells me. "I used to have a line of people halfway around the block many times a week. Now I'm lucky if I sell more than $100 a night, and that's not factoring in the cost of the ingredients and of my time."
Medina continues to open up and share the main reason why he continued his father's street food vending way of life. "I liked the flexibility of owning my own business and not being subject to someone else for my wellbeing. I couldn't find work for a long time so I made my own work."
Sounds like a true entrepreneur.
At 9 PM sharp, Medina begins to close up shop and lug his cart into a van to call it a night.Right then, a young Latino couple shows up smiling and asks for two esquites to go; they run toward him hoping to catch a scoop of corn. He stops packing up and serves them his last ear of corn. "I have people who come visit me from as far as Palmdale," he proudly tells me. "They call me first just to make sure that I'll be here before they make the 60-mile drive to visit me and their family members who live nearby."
When asked about the future of his business, Medina just shrugs and responds, "I'm going to work for as long as my body can handle. I don't think my business can get much worse than where it is now, but we'll see."