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‘I Want Change for Our People:’ This Former Hot Dog Vendor Helps Street Vendors Get Their Permits

Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO

Nico and Evelyn Armenta founders of Tianguis Market Foundation stand in front of their weekly market in Santa Ana.

Nico Armenta and his wife Evelyn founders of Tianguis Market, stand proudly in the middle of their weekly Sunday market in Santa Ana.

It’s Sunday, and “bailamos con el tuca tuca tucanazo!” is heard playing in the distance in downtown Santa Ana; the smell of carne asada, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and elotes lures you into what is now Orange County’s first certified “Tianguis Market.” 

But what makes this open-air market different from others in Southern California? The founder of Tianguis Market Foundation, Nico Armenta said it's all in the name and the work that they do to uplift street vendors and their community.

For Armenta, who considers himself an entrepreneur, the idea to open a market came to him in 2020 when everyone, including himself, was searching for a little bit of hope.

“We noticed our people out on the streets hurting; during that time there were a lot of attacks on vendors too. It was complete chaos,” Armenta said. “I was just thinking, what can we do to help? What can we do to provide a safe space for vendors and the community?”

Armenta said he also knew firsthand how badly small businesses were being impacted by the closures in 2020. His boutiques where he sold accessories for dogs were no exception to the shutdowns and were permanently closed. Struggling to figure out what he was going to do with all the merchandise left behind, and with recent street vendor attacks looming in the back of his head, Armenta did what anyone would do: he vented to his father.

“I was telling him, ‘man estoy agüitado’ (‘man I’m down.’) I don't know what we’re going to do,” he told his father. To which his father replied, “mijo vete a la calle to sell them, like at the tianguis.” “Son, go to the street to sell them, like at the tianguis.”

A light bulb went off in his head, and flashbacks to visiting the tianguis as a child crossed his mind. His thought process?

“I’m trying to create something to help all of us. Not just me, but all of us, where we can actually sell and it be legit and safe,” he said. 

So he decided to put his savings into this tianguis idea, but stateside. And soon after, the market, which first made its debut in Irvine, eventually set its roots in the city of Santa Ana, the city he grew up in. Now for the past two and half years, over 50 vendors come together to sell food, merchandise and produce every Sunday on 4th street. The atmosphere at the market is nostalgic; 20-foot flags on each side of the street wave down anyone passing by. 

Last Sunday’s market was kicked off by Aztec dancers, and a local DJ kept the energy going by playing a mix of cumbias and reggeaton for four hours. The market also does a raffle every Sunday. For every $20 spent on a stand, shoppers get a raffle ticket and the prizes range. 

That day a woman won 60 free tacos from one of the food stands in the market. 

As for the vendors, they are able to set their schedules and are not obligated to attend every Sunday. Beyond providing a fun and safe space for the community and street vendors, Armenta, who was once a street vendor, is doing what most markets don’t do, helping vendors with their permits. 

“I used to sell hot dogs, I was never attacked or mugged, but I think people pick on vendors who are more vulnerable,” he said. “I want change for our people. That's why it's really important for me to educate and equip them with information and get them certified. It's very personal to me.”

Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO
Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO
Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

Street vendor Edgar Alcaraz Arlanzón, owner of 626 Sushi Taco in La Puente, a stand that sells Mexican-style sushi, said they are very lucky they never experienced an encounter with the health department while unpermitted. Partly thanks to other vendors who would alert them if they ever saw the city coming to raid them. When he first started, he said all he had was a table, and he would set up on the sidewalk with his family. 

“We didn't have permits, and we honestly didn't know how to get them,” said Arlanzón on Sunday. “But when we met Nico, he helped us get all the permits we needed and explained everything to us.” 

Armenta not only helped them with their permits which have allowed them to sell at other markets and special events but he helped them in setting up their stand. Assisting with setting up a canopy for the heat and getting banners with their menu and logo printed on them. “Fue una gran ayuda (it was a great help), now we can go anywhere,” said Arlanzón with a smile. 

Francisco Azcona, an elotero who lost his hand last month to what is said to be a firework left outside his home, is one of the vendors who Armenta invited and offered a free-of-charge place to sell. Armenta, who is also a veteran, said people like Azcona are the type of vendors he wants to help. When they first opened their market, which now has also become a non-profit, they received around 500 vendor inquiries. Both he and his wife recall being on the phone for hours assisting vendors, walking them through the process for each permit depending on what they were selling. 

Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Owners of La Reyna Tapatia Events posing next to their stand at Tianguis Market.
Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO. Owners of La Reyna Tapatia Events posing next to their stand at Tianguis Market.
Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Photo: Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

Alexandra Alvarado from La Reyna Tapatia Events, a one-stop shop for tacos, pupusas, hot dogs, and more, is another vendor who resides at the market. Alvarado’s parents are the ones who 15 years ago created their food stand in Santa Ana. She said she was just five years old when she started going with her parents to sell. In the years selling, she said they’ve had encounters with customers getting mad, but as she said, thankfully, nothing beyond that. However, she admits that as street vendors, they often had to keep an eye out for the health department, and now that they are at a market, they don't have to look over their shoulders.

“It’s nice. There are other markets and swapmeets where not only are spots expensive, but they don't help you with permits or really provide that feeling that they care,” said Alvarado. “There should be more markets like this, where we can do what we love in peace.”

Tianguis Market has been doing so well that the couple decided to expand to other cities. One of the biggest cities in mind since the beginning was Los Angeles, mainly because they noticed a lot of attacks happening there. In the past, they had hosted a market in Compton to support a vendor who was hit in the head with a gun and had a gun pointed at his abdomen. But more recently, they announced that they will be opening a new Tianguis Market in La Playa Larga, Long Beach. The grand opening for the market will be held on August 14 and will be the biggest of its kind, with space big enough for 500 vendors. 

“I think everyone will agree that it's needed; now that we know this blueprint for this market works, we want to use it and grow,” he said. “It's all about opening doors for everyone and trying to create change now.”

Follow @Tianguis_market on Instagram for upcoming events. 

To make a donation to the market foundation, click here. 

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