The Woman Behind Oakland's Mobile Food Scene 

Emilia Otero fought to legalize the mobile food industry for immigrants in Fruitvale, but as Oakland expands its permits across the city, some fear the new regulations may put many out of business.

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Otero herself is somewhat of a conflicting figure. She supports regulation but also advocates for suspending rules. According to Otero, there are about 15 food trucks operating without proper city permits in downtown Oakland right now. She said it's been months since they applied for the new permits, and they can't afford to hold off until the city finishes their paperwork. She calls it civil disobedience, which falls in line with her history of activism and no-bullshit attitude.

For her efforts, Otero said she's been threatened with violence over the years and even has a restraining order against one of her biggest critics. Yet she remains undeterred.

"That's why I accomplished so much," Otero said. "I didn't give a damn."

Otero's face sat just inches from the small television screen in her office. A Mexican news program was on, and Otero's eyes aren't what they used to be. Wearing rectangular glasses and a hot-pink ensemble, the 70-year-old grandma shuffled over to a wooden desk that looked far too large for someone so small.

At less than five feet tall, Otero is dwarfed by the dozens of commemorations, certificates, and awards hanging on the wall behind her. They come from politicians and civic groups, including former senators, assembly members, and even the Guatemalan Consulate. Variations on "Woman of the Year" appear multiple times.

As she's gotten older, she's thought more about how she's gotten here from her native Tijuana.

It wasn't a quest for the American Dream. In Mexico, her politically active father was a business owner who provided their family with a comfortable lifestyle. But at age 17, Otero did something unexpected: She ran away with her boyfriend and moved to the United States.

"I knew there was something here, that I had to come to this country and do something," she said.

A year later, they got married in Southern California. She had five kids, who became her life. But she always had a knack for solving other people's problems. She decided that as soon as her children were grown, she would spend the rest of her life helping others — her Latinx community, in particular.

In 1993, her husband died battling cancer, leaving Otero enough money so she wouldn't need a job for some years. By that point, her children were all adults, but she moved to Oakland to help her youngest daughter, Aracely "Shelly" Garza, raise her baby.

She decided it was also time to help her community, and that community was now Fruitvale. She marched up and down International Boulevard introducing herself to every business owner. She linked up with a nonprofit to launch after-school programs, writing plays for kids and teaching their moms to sew ballet folklórico costumes. After about three years, however, she started feeling like an unpaid babysitter.

Then, Otero met with the 25 mobile food vendors and issued her promises.

"I want families to be able to have a food truck so they can send their children to universities," she said. "This is my goal: to have our people educated."

Getting that first ordinance passed was no simple task. After the director of the Alameda County Environmental Health Division told her the vendors needed pushcarts capable of dispensing hot and cold water, which would have cost $9,000 each, she flew to her vendors' native Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico, seeking a cheaper option. She ended up meeting with Jalisco's then-governor, Alberto Cárdenas Jiménez, who gave her 25 pushcarts, each costing less than $1,000.

But that was just one small step. A key ally was Ignacio De La Fuente, who at the time was the president of the Oakland City Council and represented the Fruitvale district. When he was first elected in 1992, he said there were only a handful of food trucks and vendors in the neighborhood, "but they were definitely more or less always in trouble."

"City police used to harass these people because they had no permits, no this, no that," he said.

Otero said she was constantly trying to get people to understand their plight. She held meetings with the health department, the police department, and city leaders. She made picket signs out of the city's cease-and-desist letters and encouraged the vendors to speak up at city council meetings.

"I used to get so frustrated," she said. "I'd have to go to two or three meetings in one day — long meetings — explaining over and over and over."

It took a long time for folks to come around.

"The city — everyone — was opposed back then," De La Fuente said. "It became very political. ... Councilmembers were concerned. They didn't want vendors in their neighborhoods."

To change the perception of the vendors, Otero insisted that they wear clean, white button-down shirts every day.

Otero said she also faced a backlash from members of her own community. In the middle of a grocery store, she'd hear comments like "Go back to Mexico" — from fellow Latinos. Otero said people picked fights with her because she was an immigrant and many of the vendors she was helping were undocumented.


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