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Comparative Policies and Understandings of Street Vending

December 12, 2016

Photo of Professor Lorena Muñoz.

Photo of Professor Lorena Muñoz.
Photo: Matthew Weber, CLAgency

After she was awarded the 2015–2016 Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship, Professor Lorena Muñoz took the opportunity to take her research abroad. Prof. Muñoz spent the previous academic year studying how neoliberal ideologies of space, adopted by local regimes, impact the economic lives of street vendors based on class, gender, sexuality, and race. Her work consisted of conducting, collecting, and comparing data from two cities: Bogotá, Colombia, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Street vending is a culture that Prof. Muñoz has been familiar with since childhood. Growing up in Mexico, Muñoz explains how street vending was simply a tapestry of everyday life. "On Sundays after church I bought my food, and every day my breakfast or my lunch was bought outside of school from street vendors." Muñoz moved to Los Angeles to obtain a PhD in geography at the University of Southern California. There, she found herself in a community and public landscape incredibly similar to the one where she grew up in Mexico. Street vendors would set up outside her apartment like clockwork, offering the predominately Latino community traditional food and goods.

Muñoz’s roots and familiarity with the culture led her to become deeply involved in the politics and study of street vending. She dedicated her time to investigating the people who make the policies and those who are affected by them.

Muñoz spent fall 2015 working with the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. She taught seminars about queer methods and methodologies and performed ethnographic fieldwork with the help of university students. They held conversations with locals and established relationships with vendors, gathering oral histories from many of them. In addition, they surveyed over 200 vendors and other Bogotá residents, which provided a wealth of information. In her aim to better understand the city as a whole, Muñoz studied a variety of factors, including the flow of material goods, the formal and informal economy of street vending, the health and labor of the vendors, as well as the sexuality, gender, race, and ethnic backgrounds of the individuals involved.

The following spring, Muñoz worked as a visiting researcher in the geography department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she collaborated with the African Center for Migration and Society. To understand how neoliberal ideologies about public space travel, she conducted similar ethnographic studies and began a comparative project between Bogotá and Johannesburg. Muñoz compared the data she had gathered on the two cities, along with each of their colonial legacies, value placed on public space, and popular opinions about street vendors. She found that both cities overwhelmingly associated street vending with crime, trash, and social pollution.

The cities passed almost identical anti-street vending campaigns in an effort to "recover" the city from "trash." Johannesburg’s campaign, called "Operation Clean Sweep," intended to violently remove street vendors and others, including the homeless and sex workers, from its public spaces. In 1991, the new Colombian constitution guaranteed access to public space to all citizens. Although Bogotá has been praised for being able to create green spaces and bike lanes for civic use, these policies tend to exclude and regulate how street vendors, the homeless, and sex workers use public spaces, refusing to consider them a part of society.

Although the anti-vending campaigns are often advertised as creating a democratic space and breaking class barriers through community formation, Muñoz has found that class, gender, sexuality, and race play a large role in both the creation of these spaces and individuals' ability to participate in them.

Muñoz has released a number of academic articles regarding her research. Her ultimate goal is to write a comparative book that highlights street vending across the Americas in three cities: Los Angeles; Cancun, Mexico; and Bogotá.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.