‘An honest living’: Vegas street vendors say new law could bring their work out of the shadows

Jannelle Calderon
Jannelle Calderon
Street vendor Luis Sanchez waits for costumers at his stand in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent).

Under his rainbow umbrella, which protects him from the harsh summer sun, Luis Sanchez happily serves one of his usual customers a raspado — shaved iced — into a plastic cup with homemade strawberry syrup on top. 

For the past five years, Sanchez has sold snacks from a cart in a North Las Vegas neighborhood as his sole source of income. He said he wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to prepare his cart — wash the coolers, cook the corn, make the syrups and refill the sauces — and be ready to sell in the afternoon. 

“It's like a normal job. But I am my own boss of my own work, of my own business. If at a job I would get paid $150, I'll earn that here. But I'm not going to work eight or 10 hours like at a job … It's six hours that I'm going to be working,” Sanchez told The Nevada Independent in Spanish. “Those who say ‘This looks easy,’ I tell them nothing is easy.”

Sanchez is just one of many Southern Nevadans making a living as a street vendor — an often marginalized profession that typically operates off the books. Research by IBISWorld estimates that more than 1,000 people work in the industry in Nevada. 

Vendors without licensing sometimes see their carts and wares confiscated by local authorities, prompting an effort by lawmakers during the legislative session to bring the unlicensed entrepreneurs out of the legal shadows.

Sanchez added that while the North Las Vegas residents and police officers don’t bother him, even sometimes buying from him, officials have in the past approached him and told him to pack up and move. He recalled one occasion where his merchandise was thrown out. 

“But I'm not stealing, I'm not doing anything bad, I'm just earning a living … There are many, many people who are selling drugs. I am just earning an honest living. They still took my things. They left me with nothing,” Sanchez said of the incident. “I know they are doing their job. I have been here for five years, and I have never had a complaint from a customer that my food was bad or made them sick.”

Street food vending came naturally for Sanchez, he said. As a teen living in Arizona, he learned the industry from his dad, and throughout his adulthood, Sanchez has come to realize other jobs did not satisfy him — nor did they financially sustain his growing family.  

“I’ve had other jobs, but I was neglecting the business a bit. And I said, ‘Well, let’s focus more on just selling since there’s quite a bit of customers,” he said. “I left that job even though they were telling me 'Don't go. Look, there's work!' Yes, there is work, but I'm also neglecting the business that has always left me [profit].”

Earlier this month, Gov. Joe Lombardo signed SB92 into law, establishing regulations at the state level for sidewalk vendors. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and championed by pro-immigration groups including Make the Road Nevada that have sought to improve the working conditions of street vendors, allows county commissioners in Washoe and Clark counties and health agencies to require street food vendors to submit information about their businesses, and allows vendors to hold a permit or license for sidewalk vending along with a state business license. 

Sanchez said he hopes sidewalk vendors are included in future conversations with county commissioners and that regulations are not too restrictive nor permits too expensive. 

SB92 also creates the Task Force on Safe Sidewalk Vending, an entity charged with reviewing existing laws and recommending strategies to legalize and improve sidewalk vending.

County commissioners can also set hours of operation, sanitary standards and distance limitations, in addition to the requirements already in the bill that vendors do not operate within 1,500 feet of a resort hotel, an event facility with a capacity of 20,000 or more people that accommodates a major or minor league sports team or a convention facility run by the county.

Sanchez said the street food vendor community is close knit, and vendors often help each other out. Especially when someone is just starting out, he said other vendors might step in to help guide them and even pitch in to help buy a pedal-driven cart for them — which might run between $300 for a used one to $600 for a new one.

“Sometimes we are cousins, sometimes we are acquaintances … But everyone works on their own,” Sanchez said. “If there are four or five siblings here and a cousin from [Mexico] wants to come, well, between the four or five — we put in equal parts. We buy a cart for whoever comes along [and we tell them], you know, ‘Work and then you pay us little by little.’” 

For Maribel Rojas Flores, a vendor who sells fresh chopped fruit cups and agua fresca — fruit-flavored water — the bill’s passage helps her feel as if she can continue to sell without worrying that she’s doing something wrong.

“That way we can come with more confidence. Imagine, we invest to sell, to then get everything taken from us [by an authority]. We no longer have anything,” she said in Spanish, recalling an encounter she had with some police officers. “They told me to leave and they gave me a paper saying it was the first notice, and that in the second they were going to arrest me or give me a fine ... And they were telling me to throw my things in the trash, but I told them, ‘No, someone is coming to pick me up. Give me a chance.’”

The bill also prohibits county commissioners from banning or criminalizing street food vendors, although penalties for violations — such as suspension of street vending permits — may be imposed.

Before moving to Southern Nevada, Rojas Flores was a homemaker in Puebla, Mexico, and she would often make donuts to sell to her neighbors to make some extra cash. Selling fruit now is not strange to her, she said, but dealing with the summer heat and learning English has been a challenge. 

“Fruit never fails. Agua fresca is refreshing right now because of the heat,” Rojas Flores said, adding that in the winter she switched to selling atole (a hot Mexican beverage typically made from corn dough) and freshly made buñuelos (fried dough covered in cinnamon sugar). 

UNLV assistant professor of anthropology Iván Sandoval-Cervantes said the street vending profession is common among Latinos because of the shared cultural importance of socializing, using available resources and seeking better opportunities. 

“First of all, maybe you've been sold the idea that if you work hard, you'll get more money and you'll become wealthier. But it has not happened. I think people start looking for other opportunities outside the expected position,” Sandoval-Cervantes said about the motivation to get into the street food business. 

In Mexico, tianguis are flea markets or swap meet markets that trace their roots back to prehispanic Mesoamerica and where shoppers today can find food, clothing and other products. The main characteristic of the tianguis is that they pop up on certain days and might move around — similar to street food vendors. Though Sandoval-Cervantes was uncertain that sidewalk vending and tianguis were directly linked, he said they both connect people “not only economically but also socially.”

Sanchez agrees.

“You need good seasoning and to do things from the heart. Because there are many who come, want to sell, do the same thing but for nothing more than just wanting to make money. I don't see it that way,” Sanchez said. “I feel that you have to do things well, with a good attitude, with love, you could say.”

Updated June 26, 2023 at 9 p.m. on to reflect that city officials do not have the authority to confiscate food.


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