Rocio Sanchez (front row) has been a fruit vendor for the last 10 years. She was one of six vendors whose carts and businesses were affected by the I-10 Freeway fire. (Photo courtesy of Rocio Sanchez)
Rocio Sanchez, a single mother of two, has been selling fresh watermelon, mango and pineapple from her street carts in Los Angeles for the last decade.
Sanchez said she is one of a group of six fruit cart vendors affected by the recent 10 Freeway fire in downtown L.A.
Officials said the massive Nov. 11 fire that led to a mile-long stretch of the 10 Freeway shutdown was caused by arson. Authorities released photos and a description of a man they say is connected with the fire that started in a downtown pallet yard.
After emergency federal funding was granted for round-the-clock repair work, the lanes were fully reopened last Monday, Nov. 20, in time for the Thanksgiving holiday rush.
Many local businesses affected by the fire and resulting repair work expressed concerns about the loss of income for employees, construction-related traffic, and an overall lack of customers not wanting to visit the congested, burned and damaged area.
The fruit cart vendors, all immigrant workers from Guatemala and Mexico, conducted business across from where the pallet yard first caught fire. Sanchez said their carts were stored in an airspace lease space on Lawrence Street and East Olympic Boulevard, underneath the blackened overpass in downtown L.A.
As immigrant workers from Guatemala and Mexico, Sanchez said she and the other vendors were “heartbroken” to see their carts “up in flames.” On that morning of the fire, they searched through the ash and rubble to find anything that could be salvaged.
“It really shocked me to see everything that had been burned. When they called me I didn’t believe it — I thought that it was a prank from my colleagues, but once I got there, I was shocked it was true,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “All of us were walking around the site, not knowing what to do. Some were trying to see if any of the carts had been spared or worked. We were all walking around trying to see what we could salvage. We didn’t talk to one another, we were in our own worlds trying to figure out what could be done or saved.”
At the site under the freeway, Sanchez recalled the smell of burnt rubber and smoke. She said her throat had been hurting ever since.
“One of my kids asked me, ‘Mom, what are we going to do?’ I didn’t know how to respond.”
Sanchez said that she is now getting her multiple fruit carts repaired, but there is a lot to the process.
“I’m going to have to invest about $2,800 to $3,000 to fix them,” Sanchez said. “It’s money that one doesn’t think about having to spend, especially with the upcoming holidays and rainy season coming soon, there is going to be less work for us as well. Work starts slowing down around this time, and then this — the fire — happens. It’s very unfortunate.”
A communal GoFundMe was started a few days after the fire with a goal of $15,000, which Sanchez said would be split among the six fruit vendors. As of Nov. 24, donations have reached just under $6,000.
“It already feels hard to ask for help, but we’re so grateful to the people that are donating,” Sanchez said. “We are not doing this in bad faith — quite the opposite. We’re extremely grateful for everyone who is even making a small donation to help us out; it’s a big help. I’m very grateful for everyone’s compassion.”
Sanchez expressed her thanks to the small business community during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. She was grateful that the place where her carts are getting fixed, and the worker repairing the carts’ lining banners, told her to pay them back when she has work again.
“With the I-10 opening again, it’ll be easier to get back to work as well.”
Sanchez said she felt the need to share her story because she has children “that I need to go back to work for.”
The street vendors are all looking for different places where they can legally and safely store their carts. Sanchez said that having to pay a deposit, and eventually rent, would be “difficult and too expensive” for even one of the vendors to do it on their own, so they plan to stick together to find a new place to store everything.
While there are some L.A. city grants and emergency aid available for businesses affected by the fire, Sanchez said it was “unclear” if street vendors would be able to take advantage.
Los Angeles Emergency Management Department spokesperson Joseph Riser said that vendors who suffered damages under $10,000, due to the fire or freeway closure, should complete a Caltrans Claims Form at dot.ca.gov.
Caltrans District 7 also has a representative on-site at the L.A. Business Assistance Resource Center, located at Young’s Market Company, Riser said. The city also has over 20 buisness assitance related resources, including legal aid, grant and loan application assistance.
For more information, visit dot.ca.gov or call Caltrans at (213) 897-0816.