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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"The newcomers think, 'How do I get on it? The city is thinking, 'How do we get as much money as possible?'" she said, adding that the one informational meeting she attended mostly drew white business owners.

She's most concerned about the fate of undocumented vendors. While the new program allows them to apply — thanks to Otero's efforts — there is a lurking fear that the added scrutiny will alert immigration authorities. The Lumpia Lady views the "gatekeeping" as an attack on Oakland's Latinos.

"Mobile vending is not only the economic foundation but the cultural foundation for the Latino community," she said. "For immigrant families, selling food in the streets is how we sustain ourselves."

For other Oakland-based vendors, the new program is too little, too late. Whitehead of Fist of Flour Pizza Company followed the city's mobile food policy progress for six years until he decided focusing on private events made more sense financially. Because his operation, which consists of a big school bus hauling a trailer carrying a pizza oven, doesn't involve cooking in an enclosed space, he isn't even considered a mobile food vendor by the city. Instead, Fist of Flour is a "temporary food facility," requiring a tent and one-day permits for every event. "We wanted the same opportunities as the food trucks," he said.

He launched his mobile operation in 2010, when the food truck frenzy had hit basically everywhere except Oakland. He remembers his friends starting up gourmet food trucks and having to journey to Emeryville or San Francisco. Now, they've either left town or are out of business.

"Perhaps if there was more comprehensive policy, they would have found their spot," he said. "Unfortunately, these opportunities weren't available for us."

At 9:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday, La Placita is already winding down. A cook lugs a 10-pound bag of yellow onions into the building. A woman checks the ripeness of a mango before slicing. Another preps tamales for a local market. Otherwise, it's quiet. Most vendors file into the spacious kitchen around 3 a.m. and leave by 7 a.m.

Otero isn't here. Her son Erick Diaz and daughter-in-law Pamela Smith took over operations in April, after Otero suffered her second heart attack. One month after opening up Oakland to mobile food, Otero's body finally told her she needs to rest. These days, she stays at home and works on her memoir, while Smith maintains two fat manila folders full of vendors' applications.

"She's been a great inspiration and a great leader, someone you really want to follow," Smith said. "Her heart is with mobile food. It's to see people be entrepreneurs and take ahold of that dream and run with it."

Smith and Garza believe Otero's most recent heart attack was the result of stress from a years-long dispute with La Placita's most vocal critic, Elmy Kader, the owner of Royal Egyptian Cuisine. Kader once operated out of Otero's commercial kitchen, but the two had a falling out. In May, the family obtained a restraining order against Kader out of fear of violence — it protects Otero, Smith, Garza, Diaz, and five children. It's one reason why Otero has become less involved with Oakland's mobile food scene in recent months.

Kader built a following while serving illegally in the Jack London district, but after run-ins with the city and police, he moved his truck to Berkeley earlier this year. Kader said he doesn't think he's in the wrong and plans to legally challenge the city of Oakland over the new ordinance. He contends it unfairly benefits Latinos.

"Let's go to court," he said.

Otero doesn't live in Fruitvale anymore. Neither does Smith. The family can't afford Fruitvale's rising rents and has been pushed deep into East Oakland.

They still call Fruitvale home, though. After all, Otero helped shape the district in ways beyond food trucks and La Placita. She's also behind Fruitvale's Día de los Muertos festival and Cinco de Mayo, and she had a hand in the erection of the César Chávez Educational Center.

"You can see where she's assisted and brought people together," Smith said. "It wasn't an easy job. I don't know how she did it."

Otero still dreams of buying a house in Fruitvale, even with the housing crisis and rent at La Placita rising. She acknowledges that some people still take advantage of her kindness. Over the years, she estimates she's helped at least 2,500 vendors, who are now spread out around the world.

"I was an activist for almost 30 years," Otero said. "Giving, giving, giving. I end up with no money. I gave even my retirement money my husband left me to live well the rest of my life — gone. ... It's something that I'm learning.

"I do want to live better, at least to be able to buy a house. A nice place where I will die. I don't want to die in a rented house."

Even in semi-retirement, Otero's phone rings constantly. People still have lots of questions. Some vendors are still afraid of being deported. And many new folks are interested in entering the mobile food industry, especially now that Oakland has a real, comprehensive program in place.

"Now, it's like the second round and I'm too freaking old," she said. "I don't want to have another heart attack, but there's still lots of work to do."


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