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Vendors bring flavor to street cultura

It may be less well known than the Mission in San Francisco, but Oakland’s Fruitvale district is a vivid, energetic and developing Latino community. Here, immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Chicanos and descendants of Latino immigrants, run a multitude of small businesses that often spill into the street.

That street is International Boulevard, which runs like a vein through Fruitvale. Almost all the signs are in Spanish, as are the conversations and brassy songs that rise from the street. Thick too are the smells of steamed corn meal tamales, roasted jalapeños and carne asada.

Street vendors here offer a wide array of tasty, inexpensive foods sold out of mobile trucks or carritos-pushcarts.

Most trucks are vehicles of nearby restaurants, but many other vendors operate carts without any kind of storefront. Some of them work for themselves while others are employed by distributors, like those who sell paletas-popsicles.

The popsicle vendors jingle a row of bells attached to their carts as they patrol the boulevard. The sell everything from traditional favorites to tamarindo, chamoy (sweet and sour chile), and cucumber-chile flavored popsicles that are common in Mexico.

Carritos de frutas parade a rainbow of chopped fruits-watermelon, mango, coconut, pineapple, strawberries, and raw jicama and cucumber. They sprinkle the chunks with lime juice, chili powder and salt.

Taco trucks operate in vacant lots until 2 a.m. every night, when a city ordinance forces them to close. At taco trucks, you can taste various types of meat-grilled and chopped steak or chicken, shredded pork, cow or pig stomach, chorizo, or tongue topped with onion, salsa and cilantro.

On Sundays, police allow the other non-food vendors to display their wares on the sidewalks. These vendors sell CDs, DVDs, toys and clothing typical of urban sidewalk spreads. Also sold are traditional handicrafts from the vendors’ home countries.

Latinos and Chicanos make up half of the neighborhood’s residents. Fruitvale, the city’s most densely populated district, has the largest Latino population in Oakland and is a major cultural destination and marketplace for Latinos.

For the vendors, making a living in Oakland presents opportunities and disappointments. Overall, they come to work and to raise their family’s standard of living. Most plan to return to their home countries.