Every morning, Gabriel Martinez slides a black 9-millimeter pistol into a leather holster over his jeans and thinks about his son.
Five-year-old Gabrielito was struck by a stray bullet when a man opened fire on Martinez’s taco truck in East Oakland on New Year’s Eve as Gabrielito played nearby. After Gabrielito died in his arms, Martinez locked the blue and white truck behind a tall gray fence and gave himself over to grief.
Before Gabrielito’s death, the men and women who operate the food trucks along International Boulevard, which slices through the heart of East Oakland, accepted the frequent robberies as a cost of doing business. Most never called the police. But Gabrielito’s death has made many realize that the crime that endangers their businesses also endangers the dream of providing a better future for their families.
Since they were first allowed to operate in that area, taco trucks and pushcarts have provided a route to a fledgling middle class for a small group of entrepreneurs from Oakland’s growing population of Latino immigrants and citizens. Latinos now comprise close to 22 percent of Oakland’s population, with a majority living in the Fruitvale district, a bustling, colorful neighborhood that has become a culinary destination for locals and thrifty tourists.
As with most small businesses in Fruitvale, however, the taco trucks deal mostly in cash, and the cash attracts robbers. In 2011, Oakland officials said, Fruitvale had the most reported robberies in the city. Now, a group of mostly older Latino vendors plan to pool their money to hire armed security guards and install surveillance cameras.
Having something to protect is unusual for most of Oakland’s Latino immigrant population, who earn on average the lowest incomes in the city. But they have no faith that the Oakland police can protect them, so they are banding together for self-protection.
“It could happen to any of us,” Shelly Garza, a former city worker who runs a small-business incubator and who organized a vendors association, said about Gabrielito’s murder. “We must protect any future generations or any future owners from this happening.”
It has been a very bad year for the city of Oakland, but especially for Fruitvale, the vendors and the taco trucks. Ignacio De La Fuente, the district’s council member, said, “Merchants are suffering the direct impact of police not being able to do their jobs.”
Since 2010, when the city laid off 80 police officers, staffing levels have continued to drop. The department now employs about 630 officers, takes an average of 15 minutes to respond to calls of violence and rarely responds to “cold” burglaries.
A police spokeswoman said the department does not track crimes at taco trucks and received only two reports of such robberies in 2011, but many taco truck owners said they never report robberies because of a fear of retaliation, a language barrier and a belief that the crimes will not be solved.
“We get robbed and we don’t report it,” said Edgar Galindo, whose father started Mi Grullense, one of the original Oakland taco trucks. After two employees were robbed three weeks ago, he said, they quickly shut down the truck and went home.
“You’re too worried about your life and freaked out to remember the guy looks like this or that,” he said. “What are the odds of them getting caught?”
Edward Anaya, who runs one of his father’s taco trucks, El Ojo De Agua, at 104th and International, said the police took 10 hours to arrive after he reported a robbery at the truck several years ago.