Last Saturday in the height of a scorching afternoon, Adela Ruiz and her husband, Paco, hopped out of the van and hurriedly set up a taco stand on Pico Boulevard in Arlington Heights. They were late.
She along with her two daughters lugged out trays and baskets filled with refried beans, rice, chiles rellenos and masa they had prepared back at their home in Garden Grove. Paco attached a flattop grill tank to a propane tank; Adela placed on a beautiful pink-purple apron replete with embroidered butterflies and roses.
The couple, Zapotecs from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, were prepared. Paco whipped his smart phone , logged on to Instagram Live, and began to spiel.
“Pass by — free food!” He cheerily declared in Spanish. “We will wait for you here!” He zoomed in on Adela, who worked a tortilla press just like a boss, since the youngest daughter also filmed on her smartphone. The earthy smell of slowly cooking masa filled the atmosphere. “Come ,” Paco additional,”these 100 chile rellenos can be completed!”
It was the third time in as many months that the Ruiz family had pushed up from Orange County to hand out free, home-cooked food from this particular stretch of Pico. They did so as part of Mid-City Cookouts, a biweekly event which has Oaxacan street vendors distribute free meals to promote their businesses and feed anyone who requires a warm meal.
But don’t call Mid-City Cookouts a charity — since organizers and participants do not find it that way at all.
What they’re doing is the art of guelaguetza, a Zapotec word and theory most famous in Los Angeles as the title of a legendary Oaxacan restaurant. It actually refers to mutual help, the idea that giving is as important as getting — and that communities will need to do both regularly to thrive.
In L.A., Mid-City Cookouts’ version of guelaguetza raises funds online to pay vendors. Those vendors, then, use that money to import goods from Oaxaca to not only create their conventional meals taste better, but to assist local economies in their homeland. And eaters here know about local vendors that they can patronize or employ for catering at a lifetime.