Why Large Events like the Super Bowl Puts LA’s Most Vulnerable Communities at Risk

Under the blistering Inglewood sun, dozens of street vendors made their way to SoFi Stadium on February 13th with hopes of earning a few extra dollars during the highly anticipated Super Bowl of the decade. It’s been 15 years since Los Angeles hosted the huge event and there was an even greater buzz in our city as the LA Rams made it to the final showdown for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Behind all the celebration and excitement, a darker and worrisome story unfolded. 

On February 3rd, days prior to the major event, local advocacy groups and law enforcement warned about the dangers of human trafficking that could incite as a result of the big game. According to local organizations, the greater influx of visitors and revenue during Super Bowl festivities has historically created an alarming spike in sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children. With this pretext, federal authorities deemed it necessary to increase law enforcement presence around SoFi Stadium. This presence included Homeland Security (HSI), in the form of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The panorama quickly shifted, and street vendors became the primary targets of the pursuit. 

HSI Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas explained that ICE agents would be present during the Superbowl, to “make sure that people enjoy [the event], but [that] they also ensure the integrity of the marketplace; we [must] combat the trafficking in stolen and counterfeit merchandise. It is a multi-million dollar under-the-table industry that we’re very focused on cracking down on.” Mayorkas’ statement begs the question: Why is this suddenly such a critical issue when “under-the-table” merchandise sales take place regularly at concerts and events?

As my colleagues and I roamed the neighborhoods surrounding SoFi Stadium, we came across numerous vendors who, upon receiving our “Know Your Rights” fliers, were grateful to see us supporting their work and advocating for their safety. After hours of walking the perimeter and distributing information about how to confront encounters with ICE, it was comforting to learn that very few incidents took place around the criminalization of street vending, with the exception of some merchandise confiscation and vendor relocation due to safety concerns. 

In reflecting on the day’s event, however, I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of Los Angeles. We’ll be experiencing increases in the cost of living, displacement, and law enforcement presence, as the city prepares for two other major international events: the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics. How will this affect our communities and the overall safety of our immigrant and most vulnerable populations? 

The Super Bowl was, in many ways, an experiment for what to expect in the next ten years as city officials prepare for these major international attractions. What was especially disconcerting about law enforcement during the Super Bowl was the fact that HSI worked hand-in-hand with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. My colleagues and I were stunned to see ICE agents riding with Sheriff officers, patrolling the area together, and causing distress to the few vendors that took a chance that day because they need to make a living. 

With the rising cost of housing and other basic resources, it only makes sense to see an increase in street vending throughout the region. In fact, many local families that live around the stadium sold parking spots near their homes (for hundreds of dollars]), food, and other goodies, in an effort to make an extra buck in a city afflicted by gentrification and the rising cost of living. A 2018 mapping by the Urban Displacement Project found that Los Angeles County exhibited the highest rates of gentrification in the state, with 10% of tracts classified as at-risk of gentrification, early/ ongoing gentrification, or advanced gentrification. 

Furthermore, according to the Consumer Price Index Report, the cost of core goods has risen 7.5 percent. In Los Angeles, food prices are 7.3 percent higher. Energy prices are up 33 percent. The index for all items, excluding food and energy, is 5.5 percent higher. It is unsettling to see how a city historically perceived as a place of hopes, dreams, and opportunity continues to experience a widening gap between rich and poor. 

Even more disheartening is watching local officials sell our city to the highest bidders in the name of redevelopment and big money, which is quickly displacing low-income families, including street vendors. Street vendors represent some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, nonetheless, they are continually criminalized for their work, despite the fact that in 2018, the State of California and the City of Los Angeles passed legislation to legalize street vending. Yet, three years later, “most sidewalk food vendors remain exposed to the daily threat of ticketing, harassment, and fines, which perpetuates a never-ending cycle of criminalization and poverty.” 

Days ago, two street vendors were run over in their place of work; one died and the other is in critical condition. How is it that, instead of creating safer conditions for these individuals, the city/ county continues to embrace unjust and discriminatory practices that puts them in even greater harm’s way? How is this homeland security? Security for whom and for what purposes? What is the point of having multi-million dollar events when we are marginalizing those that work tirelessly to make this city a worldwide marvel? Hardly feels like homeland security.

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Karla Cativo

Karla Cativo

Karla serves her community as an organizer with the County Street Vendor Pilot Program at the Community Power Collective. As an organizer and educator her vision is to support underrepresented communities via advocacy projects, mentoring, and other activities that support growth, health and wellness. Previously, Karla rejoiced in her role as the Outreach and Organizing Manager with the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund(SALEF) where she supported underrepresented communities via mentoring, educational opportunities, and resource referrals for leadership development and empowerment. In 2019, Karla served as an Instructor at Cal State Northridge in the Central American Studies Department where she taught courses on the history of political organizing and social movements in the region. In 2020, Karla joined the faculty at her alma mater Cal State LA where she taught a course on the Cultural Impact of Development in Latin America. Her dedication to academia stems from a desire to break with traditional forms of teaching/learning to motivate a revolutionary and radicalpedagogy based on collective principles and love. Karla received an MA in Latin American Studies from Cal State LA, and a double BA in Latin American Studies and Urban Studies and Planning from UC San Diego. Karla grew up in North Hollywood. She was born in El Salvador just as a 12-year civil war unraveled. As a result of multiple threats on behalf of the Salvadoran death squad, her parents made the tough decision to flee their homeland in the midst of growing political unrest and tension. Karla was four months upon arrival in the United States. She and her parents crossed the Tijuana-San Ysidro border by foot and undocumented, since like many Central Americans during the eighties, they were not granted political asylum by U.S. authorities, despitewidespread violence and repression in the region. In 1987, Karla and her mother traveled to El Salvador tocomplete their green card process, a trip she often remembers as having enamored her of the tiny country – the vibrant colors, the lively cumbias, the late nights playing with other children in her beloved Jayaque. Visits to El Salvador thereafter further fomented her love for her roots and exploration of it. In addition, Karla is heavily involved in a variety of projects within her community. In 2019, she participated in the Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE) Leadership Institute. In 2020, she joined the LAS Girls in Action Board, to support women’s empowerment through education in El Salvador and throughout Latin America. Additionally, alongside other organizers, artists, and scholars she co-founded La Cherada, a cultural project that promotes a critical intergenerational dialogue about historic memory in order to cultivate a true and inclusive historyof the Central American region to inspire healing and reconciliation. Her drive to promote healing and concientizacion via cultural memory activities has also led her to participate in a local radio project calledResistencia Comunitaria alongside fellow Central American activists. Moreover, her passion for advocacy and projects geared towards impulsing social justice globally prompted her to become a volunteer with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). In 2015, Karla and her mother, alongside other relatives and friends founded AJayacLA, a hometown association focused on aiding and empowering seniors and local youth in Jayaque, La Libertad, El Salvador. In her free time Karla enjoys Karaoke, yoga, jogging, soccer, dancing, eating, and spending time with loved ones. She is motivated by a fervent determination to combat fear, and is inspired by revolutionary love.

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