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The Central Valley News Collaborative includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe. The project was announced in late 2020 and began its work in 2021 with the Collaborative's reporters shining a light on how the Central Valley’s communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, physically and financially, by COVID-19. The Collaborative is now exploring how the drought and climate change could reshape the valley, and the lives of the people who work in the agriculture industry. The Collaborative is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation, with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Community Organizers Are Providing Support For Street Vendors, Following Killing Of Vendor

A street vendor works the busy intersection of Tulare and Cedar avenues, March 31, 2021. Local advocates are fanning out across Fresno to do outreach to street vendors, offering them pepper spray and other forms of protection.

Angelita Rodriguez used to sell clothes and blankets on the sidewalk outside her apartment complex on South Maple Street.

“But it’s been awhile since I’ve done it,” she says in Spanish. “I haven’t gone out since they robbed me.”

Credit Madi Bolanos / KVPR
Alex Ramos-O'Casey shows Angelita Rodriguez the pepper sprays she can choose from. Rodriguez is on the phone with her niece, Valeria Rodriguez Pedroza, who will explain how to use the pepper spray in Spanish.

The man who robbed her pretended to be an interested customer, Rodriguez says. He asked her which blankets were her most expensive. She says when she turned to grab some of the blankets hanging on the fence behind her, he took off with as many blankets as he could.

“I was scared,” she says. “More than anything it left me shocked.”

Rodriguez says she yelled at the man as he drove off, telling him she had his license plate numbers. But she didn’t. And she says she didn’t file a police report either.

“We don’t have papers so we’re scared,” she says.

A new addition to the mural at 1444 C Street by Omar ‘Super’ Huerta, is the portrait of street vendor Lorenzo Perez, center, who was murdered on March 21, 2021.

And now she has another reason to be afraid. Two weeks ago, an 18 year old shot and killed street vendor Lorenzo Perez, while he was selling corn in south east Fresno. Rodriguez says she felt paralyzed when she heard the news.

“I wanted to cry when I heard they killed that man,” she says. “We are just out here looking for a better life.”

Street vendors in south east Fresno are preparing for a busy weekend as Easter Day approaches. Still, following Perez’s death, many are worried about the dangers they’ll face. Fresno Police say there were six incidents involving street vendors last year, but experts say many more go unreported.

Community organizer Alex Ramos-O’Casey says many street vendors don’t go to the police because they’re afraid they’ll be arrested for being undocumented or cited because they don’t have the proper permits. 

“They're just trying to take care of their families, they're trying to take care of themselves,” she says. “And especially when we're in the middle of a pandemic. Some folks haven't gotten any government assistance.” 

Advocates teach vendors to use pepper spray, Cash App

That’s why following the news of Lorenzo Perez's death, Ramos O’Casey and community organizer Valeria Rodriguez Pedroza began organizing community members to provide pepper spray and other forms of support to street vendors. 

At the city level, councilmember Luis Chavez, who represents the Fresno area where Perez was killed, is forming a street vendor association. He’s also calling for increased police presence in the communities where vendors work and a streamlined permitting process so vendors can operate legally. 

Ramos O’Casey says they want their efforts to be guided by the vendors themselves. 

“We just want to make sure that we're asking them, ‘this is the support that we can offer you at this moment, but we would like to continue, and make sure that you feel comfortable telling us, if there's additional means of protection that you would like later on,’” she says. 

Valeria Rodriguez Pedroza, a community advocate, center, talks with street vendors Francisco Matias, right, and his wife, Esperanza Rodriguez, about the use of pepper spray. Advocates are discussing safety with vendors following the shooting death of street vendor Lorenzo Perez.

And Rodriguez Pedroza says that protection might look different for each type of street vendor. The type of assistance they need might vary depending on whether they’re pushing a cart of paletas or elote or if they’re selling clothing on a street corner. 

“When you see someone that’s mobile it’s because they're at the very start of their business,” she says. “Oftentimes they’ll start mobile and then they have a corner where they have a developed group of customers that know them that know they’re going to be at that spot.”    

Rodriguez Pedroza says most vendors are usually alone and therefore vulnerable. That’s why she’s also introducing them to mobile payment services like Cash App. That way, she says, street vendors won’t have to carry as much cash with them.  

Advocates aim to provide “strength in numbers”

On the corner of Tulare and Cedar in South East Fresno, Rodriguez Pedroza is helping Francisco Rodriguez set up a cash app account.

Francisco and his wife Esperanza say they’ve sold shoes, purses and construction gear on this corner since the start of the pandemic.

“They closed the swap meet, so our sales dropped so we had to look for other options,” Rodriguez said.

Street vendor Esperanza Rodriguez, with husband Francisco Matias, talks about the anxiety that has gripped the street vendor community in the aftermath of the shooting death of vendor Lorenzo Perez. Local advocates fanned out on March 31 to make contact with street vendors, offering them pepper spray and advice on how to protect themselves.

Esperanza Rodriguez  says they’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety since they heard about what happened to Lorenzo Perez. 

“We are scared that something can happen to us,” she says. “We are here with our little business and this is how we live.” 

The couple says someone robbed sweaters from them in December. But they continued to work because it’s their only way to support their family. 

Rodriguez Pedroza says she and other organizers will continue to patrol the area so that the couple and other vendors can feel safe while working.

They will provide “strength in numbers,” she said, “just being there, being aware, paying attention to what's going on.” 

She says they will continue to provide personal protective equipment, pepper spray and video recorders to street vendors that want them.

Street vendors can call 559-248-1995 to get assistance. 

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.