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Taco truck's last stand

As the election approaches, a reporter and a photographer set out for Washington, D.C., via America. We tell stories from seven towns, touching on seven issues from politics and real life.

KENNER, LA. — David Montes drove his taco truck into town two and a half years ago, a cross around his neck and $200 in his pocket, repeating a prayer.

Help me. Help me, God.

The suburbs were still asunder seven months after Hurricane Katrina, so he searched construction sites for the workers who had chased paychecks to New Orleans and its outlying parishes.

When he found them, he put the truck in park, raised the canopy, and filled the bellies of the brown-skinned masses with carne asada, Mexican po' boys and ceviche.

"For $5, you could be full," he said.

On a good day, he pocketed $2,000 and fell asleep happy in the truck, beneath the good-luck pesos taped to the window.

But the luck did not last.

By last summer, the Jefferson Parish Council had tired of seeing taquerias creeping down their clean suburban boulevards. Officials said the taco trucks were moving reminders of a storm they wished to forget, of the blight and impermanence that followed.

An ordinance was signed. Code enforcement officers were dispatched. Citations were issued.

And one by one, the Jefferson Parish taco trucks disappeared. Some rolled east to the greener pastures of New Orleans. Some folded.

All but one.

• • •

The first thing he learned to cook was brown beans and white rice, with his grandmother, over a stove in Mexico City. He has wanted to cook ever since.

"To own a restaurant, that is my dream," said Montes, 28.

"When you have a dream, when you want to do something with your life, you get a fire."

He came to America at 17, on a student visa, and settled in Houston. He moved into an apartment with nine others and made his bed in, of course, the kitchen.

He bought a bicycle and washed dishes at restaurants: the Cheesecake Factory, Marie Callender's, Capital Grille. Every chance he had, he looked over the chefs' shoulders.

Four years ago, he and his wife paid $29,000 for a used Chevy lunch truck. It had wheels, but it was a restaurant nonetheless.

Taqueria Chilangos, he named it.

After Katrina, word spread that thousands of Hispanic workers had migrated to Louisiana for construction jobs.

They'll be hungry, Montes thought.

• • •

Some called the new ordinance racist.

Before, mobile food vendors needed only a tax identification number, an occupational license and a vendor permit.

The new code banned them from major streets and called for running water and a rest room. It also forced the owners to apply for a new permit if they wanted to stay in the same spot for more than 30 minutes.

Pretty soon the media noticed, and taco trucks, also contentious in Los Angeles County, became a small part of the national story of immigration. Uncertain times make people anxious, and the thing we attack isn't always the thing we really fear. That's especially true in election seasons.

"You have people coming in who are hardworking, family-oriented and Christian, for the most part," said John Creevy, 41, a New Orleans lawyer who frequented the taco trucks. "Really, the only argument against them is that they're brown."

"It was completely offensive," said his wife, Jennifer, 41. "They just didn't want to see people who were brown and speak Spanish."

Montes made a deal with a sympathetic landlord, Ray Peacock, and parked at an abandoned gas station. The last of the Jefferson Parish taco trucks staged a protest in a suburb where white Border Patrol SUVs are a common sight.

Days passed. Men came asking for papers. The government would not budge.

By October, the code court was set to issue fines of $500 a day. Montes didn't know what to do.

He was afraid of the officials and their fines. And it felt like they were a little afraid of him, too.

He didn't want to be pushed out. He started looking for real estate.

• • •

On Friday, there were no police cruisers lurking outside David Montes' taco truck, no code inspectors snapping photographs through the windows.

Those days have passed. The government succeeded in running off the taco trucks. Montes' truck is empty, parked at the end of a strip mall across the street from a Home Depot. But there is a new restaurant in that strip mall, called Taqueria Chilangos.

Inside, it smells like cilantro and beans. At a little table near the door, owner David Montes ejected some lead from his mechanical pencil and inched a little closer to understanding his new world. He had a vocabulary assignment for an English class at Delgado Community College.

Write the opposites, the workbook instructed.

mother — father

a little — a lot

can —

What's the opposite of can?

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Follow along online

Follow our winding route to Washington, D.C., with stories, slideshows and an interactive map at magazine.tampabay.com.

Coming next: Leesville, La.

Taco truck's last stand 09/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 20, 2008 10:58pm]

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