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Once the city began enforcing the 30-minute-maximum, Guzmán got upset. “It affected us tremendously,” he says. “People couldn’t find us, then we had to move around.” By this point, the Guzmán clan owned three loncheras. “We couldn’t pay our bills, and they wanted us to close at 8 in the evening. It was going to kill our business.”
Guzmán and other younger loncheros held a meeting and decided to work with the city. “Look, I’m from a new generation of loncheros,” he says. “Before, they were known as roach coaches, and let’s face it, there was some truth to that. They were synonymous with trashed neighborhoods, old trucks and owners who just didn’t care. But we new guys, we wanted to keep them clean. We put in tens of thousands of dollars for upgrades, to give better service to the people, but also be friendly with the city.
“So we went to the old vanguard and said, ‘Look, the city is ready to crack down on us again,’” Guzmán continus. “We need to have our loncheras clean. We need to paint them. The minute we leave our spots, clean the outside. And, most important, we had to help one another out. And no more rivalries. We wanted another image. We didn’t want to be seen as vandals [by] the city. They always associated us with drug sales, with alcohol sales.
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“When we explained it like that to the older loncheros, it motivated them to get their acts together. They realized the fight [against the city] wasn’t going to be easy. We had to show them we were up to the fight with good arguments and show we were as legitimate as a restaurant.”
It worked for the most part. But the City Council responded by proposing to create 150 permanent parking spaces for loncheras on city streets, force them to close by 8 p.m., and place a 90-minute-parking rule for each spot. Under that first proposal, a lottery system would be created to hand out the parking spots for taco trucks; then the council members wanted to do it based on seniority.
“Please,” Guzmán scoffs. “It would’ve been favoritism all the way. I felt as if they were going to take away the sustenance of so many families. It was going to be a huge economic loss. And it was too much a worry that, at any moment, [the city] could take away the parking spots from us. That woke up anyone who already wasn’t with us new guys.”
Though Guzmán had previously advocated working alongside the city, he and two others filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court seeking to overturn the city’s restrictions. “We had to react to defend our interests,” he says. “The arguments they had, we gave them justification with our responses.”
In 2006, after a four-day trial, Judge W. Michael Hayes found for Guzmán and his fellow loncheros. In a ruling, Hayes said he wasn’t convinced by the city’s argument that loncheros were a public-safety threat and added that the taco trucks would “suffer irreparable losses” with limited hours and times to park.
As a result, taco trucks in Santa Ana can now park in one spot for any amount of time. Winning, for Guzmán, was a “relief,” he says. “Now, I have a future. I can do something.”
But the taco-truck battle in Santa Ana isn’t over. Santa Ana officials have created the Renaissance Specific Plan (RSP), an ambitious redevelopment project for the city’s downtown that critics claim will gentrify the area’s heavily Latino businesses and residents out of the area. Among the new rules proposed is the elimination of taco trucks altogether. The RSP states, “All business activities [within the RSP boundaries] shall be conducted and located within an enclosed building” and, “No sales shall be made directly from a building to persons on a public sidewalk.”
Santa Ana officials didn’t return calls for comment.
Guzmán is unfazed, “Loncheros will deal with that when the time comes,” he says.
Now, Guzmán and his siblings own four loncheras that operate in Santa Ana, with an extra one available for catering or to replace a broken-down truck; each manages one. The original Alebrije’s still parks on Pomona Street, between Sycamore and Main streets. About a year and a half ago, the Guzmáns branched out for the first time outside their hometown, nabbing a spot at the Cypress Swap Meet. Sales have tripled within that short time.
One of Guzmán’s trucks is operated by Albert Hernandez. He was working at a car dealership in Westminster but longed to start a business. “I knew Roberto, and about three years ago, he said there was an opportunity for me to buy one of his trucks,” he says, taking a break from preparing food to sweep the sidewalk in front of his truck on Cubbon Street between Main and Sycamore streets in Santa Ana. “The investment wasn’t much, and it’s paid off well.”