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Frieze Los Angeles 2023

Ruben Ochoa Puts Hidden Labour Under The Spotlight

For his Frieze Projects installation, the artist gives Los Angeles’ historically undervalued street vendors the focus they deserve

BY Patricia Escárcega in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine , Opinion | 15 FEB 23

In 2001, Ruben Ochoa, then a graduate art student at University of California, Irvine, found himself in possession of a barely-functioning 1985 Chevy van. In its former life, the hand-me-down vehicle, part of a small fleet of delivery vehicles owned by his parents, was used to transport bulk orders of tortillas, chicharrón, nopales and other Mexican food products, to homes and far-flung ranchos across north San Diego County.

‘My mother pioneered an extensive door-to-door tortilla route in the 1970s. This was before there were Mexican markets on every other corner,’ says Ochoa, a native of Oceanside, California. ‘It was essentially a mobile mercado on wheels.’

Ruben Ochoa, CLASS: C mobile gallery, 2001–5, 1985 family's tortilla delivery Chevy Van. Courtesy: the artist 

Ochoa, who moved to LA in the 1990s to attend art school, repurposed the van into a mobile art space and curatorial project called CLASS: C. From 2001 to 2005, the van – retrofitted with a small office, gallery space, track lighting and storage area – showcased works by more than 75 artists across Southern California, many of them emerging artists of color. The art van made visits to lowrider shows, the Rose Bowl Flea Market and local dive bars, as well as more traditional venues, including an exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2004 California Biennial. ‘Every stop was like an opening,’ he recalls, fondly.

As part of the Frieze Projects programme at Frieze Los Angeles, Ochoa is resurrecting the CLASS: C van, exhibiting ‘Las Tortillas’, a series of bronze tortilla sculptures that pay homage to both the food and his family’s history as tortilla purveyors. In parallel, working in partnership with the fair, Revolution Carts – maker of the first hot food vending cart approved by the LA County Department of Health – and local street vendor advocacy groups, Ochoa will design the graphics for a custom ‘street legal’ food vending cart, which will be unveiled and donated to a local vendor at the fair. As well as directly benefitting this community, the gesture is intended to raise awareness of the history, contributions and ongoing ‘hustle’ of Los Angeles’ street vendors, whose economic and cultural impact on the city is, Ochoa says, unrecognized and undervalued.

Ruben Ochoa, Zona de Paleteros, 1995, acrylic over found street signs, 213 × 91 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Street vending has been a central feature of LA food culture and commerce since the late 19th-century, when Mexican and Chinese immigrant vendors selling tamales, vegetables and fruit traversed the city on wagons and bicycles. Many beloved and emblematic LA dishes – tacos, burritos, hamburgers and bacon-wrapped hot dogs, among others – are rooted in the city’s street food culture. Yet the history of street vending in LA has been one of political disenfranchisement and intense criminalization. There are an estimated 10,000 street vendors in the city – many undocumented workers, women or elderly – and they risk harassment, robbery and assault every time they go to work. (According to the nonprofit newsroom Crosstown, the number of reported crimes against LA street vendors rose nearly 337 percent between 2010 and 2019.) The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (2018) decriminalized vending in the city, but failed to create a pathway for people to obtain vending licenses. The COVID-19 pandemic, which summarily shut down all street vending operations in the city for months, further derailed the progress toward legalization. However, street vendors and advocacy groups are optimistic about the newly passed California State Bill 972, which takes effect in January 2023, and aims to reduce many of the financial and bureaucratic restrictions that have kept thousands of vendors at the margins of the city’s street economy.

Some of these issues were foregrounded in Ochoa’s most recent work, part of a project by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and Snapchat, which invited artists to reimagine monuments through augmented reality technology. For Ochoa’s ¡Vendedores, Presente! (2021) the artist designed a Snapchat geolocated to MacArthur Park, a site with a long and contentious history of street vending. (It is also a nod to the former location of the Otis College of Art and Design, where Ochoa went to school.) The work forayed into a distinctly LA-style magical realism: a swarm of flying fruit vendor carts, festooned with their instantly recognizable rainbow umbrellas, hover over MacArthur Park Lake; a boulder-sized orange bounces and ricochets across the park; while on the horizon, a heroic, rocket-propelled elotero showers the city with steam-tendered corn kernels.

Ruben Ochoa, ¡Vendedores, Presente!, 2021, photo composite. Courtesy: the artist 

It was not the first time that Ochoa’s work interrogated and reimagined the cultural, economic and racial divisions that characterize ‘public space’ across the built and natural environments of LA. In Fwy Wall Extraction (2006), for example, Ochoa camouflaged the 60-foot-tall retaining wall of a freeway using a massive trompe-l'œil photomural depicting rugged green space. The portion of ‘extracted’ freeway runs along the infamously knotty East Los Angeles interchange, a site where multiple high-speed roadways converge. Ochoa’s intervention gestured to the history of the site: the junction – among the busiest in the world – had ripped apart the working class neighborhood of Boyle Heights in the 1950s and ’60s, displacing thousands, and resulting in long-term environmental and health issues for residents. This fundamental concern with space, access and movement, and the way these can shape, control and marginalize people and natural environments, underpins Ochoa’s work. Industrial materials frequently function as signifiers of 'the hidden and invisible labor' of Southern California’s built environments, as well as references to his own working class roots and family history. (Several members, including Ochoa’s father, are skilled in construction, and Ochoa has collaborated with them in the past on his sculptures; the artist also credits his partner, Cam La, as his ‘mano derecha’, or right hand, in the production of many of his works.)

Ochoa’s interventions at Frieze could be understood as efforts to make one form of these hidden labors – the street vendors’ hustle – more visible: creating a lens to a vision of a bubblier, brighter LA, where street vendors are not perceived as a public nuisance, but as a source of energy, community and joy. 

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, February 2023 under the headline 'The Value of Vendors'

Main image: Bravo’s Tacos in Los Angeles, 1970. Photograph: George Rodriguez 

Patricia Escárcega is a journalist. She lives in Los Angeles, USA.