At the corner of 30th Street and Polk Avenue, 200 yards from a café where graphic designers and graduate students sip coffee and pound away on their laptops, José Gonzáles sells tamales from a cart.
“¿Tamales?” he asks as people walk past, his voice quiet or raised, depending on the volume of street noise. City buses are the loudest of the noisemakers, but there’s also the thump-thump of the occasional car radio, the sound of skateboards scraping the sidewalk. Although 30th is a thoroughfare, midafternoon traffic varies on this stretch north of Lincoln, south of El Cajon. During a particularly quiet lull, Gonzáles might raise his voice to beckon passersby on the opposite side of the street. Sometimes they ignore him. Sometimes they wave.
“¿Tamales?” he asks a blonde woman in a pink sweater and wearing pink lipstick.
“No, gracias,” she says with a smile and a gringa accent. She keeps walking.
Gonzáles tells her to stop by on her return from wherever she’s going. The woman looks back over her shoulder. “Okay, maybe,” she says. Then she stops and walks back toward him.
Come to think of it, she’ll take one for her husband, too.
“¿Tiene de elote?” she asks.
Of course. Gonzáles makes small talk as he bags up the sweet-corn tamal. Despite her accent, the woman speaks as if she’s familiar with the language. They laugh together and joke as she leaves and takes off again.
Gonzáles turned 53 in June. He has a carefully groomed mustache and speaks with a lisp, and he wears a black apron whose bib doesn’t quite cover the white lettering on his black T-shirt: “GOT TAMALES?”
Though he doesn’t own this cart, he does man it Tuesday–Saturday, 6:30 a.m.–8:30 p.m. The owner, a man he refers to as mi patrón, works inside the storefront behind him, at 4118 30th Street, where the tamales are made.
Just after noon, another woman walks past, pushing a toddler in a stroller.
“¿Tamal?” Gonzáles asks.
The woman stops to look at his menu. As she’s about to turn away, Gonzáles says, “¿De cuál gusta?” She says she has no money.
No matter, he tells her. Which kind do you want to try? If you like it, come back another time.
She chooses chicken. He lifts the stainless-steel lid and reaches with metal tongs into the cart’s innards to grab a tamal. He drops it in a plastic bag, along with two small containers of salsa — one red, one green — then sends her on her way.
“Yo no pierdo. Gano cliente,” he says. I’m not losing. I’m gaining a customer.
He tells me that yesterday, the same thing happened with an americana who said no to the tamal when he called out to her. Go ahead, try one, he said. No, she said again. Gonzáles put a pineapple tamal in a bag and handed it to her, gratis. She gave in, took the tamal, then returned 20 minutes later with a big smile, cash, and an order for more.
I tell him he has the magic touch. My Spanish is poor. His English is limited. But somehow I get the idea across. He laughs.
“Sí. Sí. Tengo el toque mágico,” he says, smiling conspiratorially.
Gonzáles travels up to four hours daily to and from Tijuana for this $8.50-an-hour job. In Tijuana, he says, it’s hard for anyone over age 50 to find work. Ruth, his wife of 26 years, stays home with their 13-year-old son, a boy still in diapers who doesn’t speak.
Especial, Gonzáles says of the boy. Siempre de la mano.
He outstretches his arm and closes his hand to emphasize that his son needs constant care. To emphasize further, he informs me that, on Sundays, he and his wife have to take turns going to church. They both go, but one must wait outside with the boy, holding his hand and walking him up and down the street.
A woman in black leggings and pink flip-flops approaches the cart.
“Can I get two chicken and two beef?” she asks.
She has come out of the Women, Infants, and Children office across the street, in the company of a four- or five-year-old boy in a Yankees cap. Gonzáles says something the woman doesn’t catch. She looks to me. I didn’t catch it, either.
“Delicioso,” he repeats. He puts the chicken tamales in one bag, the beef in another.
Two elderly Asian ladies in velour tracksuits (one brown, one bright purple) saunter by, carrying plastic bags filled with vitamin bottles.
“¿Tamales?” Gonzáles gently asks.
One of the women hasn’t noticed he was talking to them. The other shakes her head. They take a few steps past the cart, stop for a second, and look around as if lost. Then they turn around and walk back the way they came. The one in purple adjusts a polka-dotted sun visor.
A guy in skinny jeans, a suit vest, and a full beard rides by on a skateboard.
Returning to the conversation about his son, Gonzáles tells me that diapers cost $20 per week and the boy’s medicines about $20 per month. He nods for emphasis, his eyebrows raised. After a second, his face relaxes and he smiles. He hugs himself, mimicking the constant “besos y abrazos” his son doles out.
“Padres especiales por tener un hijo especial,” he says.
Special parents to have a special child.
“Vale la pena todo por el,” he tells me. He is worth it. “Y por mi hija también.”
His 20-year-old daughter studies international relations in college and works as a support technician at Televisa in Tijuana. Last year, she paid all her family’s bills for the six months her father was out of work, before he landed this job.
At this point in his story, a lonely Spanish-language ballad rises from the phone in his pocket. He answers. The caller is looking for the boss’s wife. Gonzáles leans in the storefront door and hands the phone over to her.
A man with a little girl in tow stops to ask in English if Gonzáles takes credit cards. When it’s clear that Gonzáles doesn’t understand, the man switches to Spanish.
“No,” Gonzáles says, “but tell me what you want, I’ll give it to you to try.” The man accepts, asks for chicken, lots of green salsa, and a business card.
Gonzáles glances in my direction. Gano cliente.
While he alternates between promoting and selling tamales and telling me about his family, I sit on a folding chair at a small table next to the cart. Every time he lifts the stainless-steel lid to retrieve a tamal, condensation drips onto the napkin dispenser, hand sanitizer, and squeeze bottle of green salsa on the table.
A loud bus rumbles past. Across the street, a man walks out of the barbershop and lights a cigar.
In 2003, after Gonzáles left his job of 23 years at a television factory in Tijuana, he and his family moved to National City/San Diego, where he found work at a carpet-recycling company. After two years, his boss, who he says was a muy buena persona, was murdered by someone Gonzáles thinks had the wrong guy. Gonzáles then moved on to a carpet warehouse, where he cut carpet for three years.
During this time, his daughter attended school at San Diego High. He can’t recall the name of the school his son attended, but he does remember that he received one-on-one support in the classroom, for which Gonzáles remains grateful. In Tijuana, he tells me, there’s no help, unless you can pay as much as $50 an hour.
As an example of his son’s mental state, Gonzáles takes the napkin dispenser off the table and places it on top of the cart. “Este aqui,” he says. Then he starts over and does the same thing. And again. “Este aqui. Este aqui. Este aqui.”
He worries constantly, he says, about what will happen to his son when he and his wife die.
Gonzáles’s boss steps from the door behind the cart and hands him a paper cup filled with steaming champurrado (a warm, thick, chocolatey drink) for one of the customers at Cecilia’s Hair Fashion, the salon next door. Gonzáles excuses himself and runs the drink inside. He comes back out with a dollar, which he places in the shaved coconut shell — labeled “Tips” — attached to the front of his cart.
Back at his perch behind the cart, he tells me that Cecilia, the owner of the salon, “es muy linda persona.”
When he first started this job four or five months ago, before he’d become adept at picking up the spoken-too-fast English phrases of the neighborhood’s non–Spanish speakers, Cecilia often came out and translated for him.
Indeed, at one point in our conversation, when we can’t get through our own language barrier, he goes into the salon and returns with Cecilia who happily helps out.
Limited work and high rent eventually sent the Gonzáles family back to Tijuana, where Gonzáles spent time as a fruit-and-vegetable vendor. Then came those few months of unemployment, during which time his daughter paid the bills.
Today, although the lengthy commute and long work hours keep him from his family six days a week, Gonzáles says he’s happy and content with his job. He thanks God for it every day.
“Mientras tenga buena salud, gracias a Dios,” he says. As long as I have my health.
“Siempre hay que ser humilde y acomedido.”
Humildes, I understand. Humble. To explain acomedido, he lifts the mini-cooler in which he keeps the small containers of salsas added to people’s orders. He mimes that it’s heavy and is causing him great strain. Then he lightens up and acts out another person arriving on the scene to help out.
At this end of North Park, the hip restaurants and yoga studios haven’t quite taken over old-time mom-and-pop shops. Not yet. On the south side of Polk, Filter Coffee House and Ritual Tavern face each other from either side of 30th Street, a gateway to the hipper, more current North Park; but here, it’s pretty much locksmiths, tax preparers, and nail salons.
Judging by the white clouds of hair and slow, careful gaits of Cecilia’s clientele, I’d say her salon would likely be the best place in the neighborhood for stories of what things used to be like. But for a darker look at what’s going on now, one need look no further than the ladyboy prostitutes who pass by now and again in their short shorts and half shirts.
Of the neighborhood, Gonzáles shrugs and says only “Bonito. Tranquilo.”
And the people?
“Muy buenas personas,” he says, adding again that Cecilia is one of the best.
A woman with blond bangs and dark-brown hair rolls up in a motorized wheelchair, in the company of a bespectacled man in a Padres T-shirt. Both greet Gonzáles familiarly.
“What do you want, baby?” the man asks the woman. She answers promptly that she’ll have one chicken, one pineapple.
The man stares narrow-eyed at the varieties listed on the front of the cart. Gonzáles waits patiently for him to decide on his order. After a minute, the woman looks at me, smiles, and rolls her eyes. “He’s looking too much,” she says.
When they’ve gone, Gonzáles tells me that the first time they came to his cart, they had no money. He let them both try the tamales anyway. Now, they stop by regularly. They buy four or five tamales each week.
El toque mágico. ■
— Elizabeth Salaam