HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Every day, Merlin Alvarado parks her cart on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and starts chopping.

One of L.A.’s 50,000 street vendors, Alvarado has been selling fruit cups topped with a chile-lime seasoning for the last 16 years. Her favorite part of the job is chit-chatting with her customers.  

“It’s the interactions I have with my clients,” she said, “and knowing that I’m offering them something healthy and fresh.”

An immigrant from Honduras, she came to the U.S. looking for a better life. She works 13 hours a day, selling hotdogs at night. She was thriving, she said, until the pandemic hit. Foot traffic on Hollywood Boulevard slowed to a trickle almost overnight. Her income, she said, is now down 70%. The little money she has left goes to feed her family back home.

“In my country the situation is very hard,” she said. “No matter how much you work, you can’t get ahead."

But on the Saturday before the 2020 Presidential Election, she was free from worries for the first time in months. In fact, she was giving out all her fruit cups to strangers free of charge.

Alvarado is one of a handful of street vendors hired by a non-profit called The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA. In an effort to get out the vote, the organization bought all of Alvarado's fruit cups in advance so she could hand them out for free, along with voter information guides.

The idea, said CHIRLA’s executive director Angelica Salas, was to connect with Latino voters using some of the community’s “best messengers.”

“We have to be really creative during the pandemic because we’re not able to knock on doors and we just have e to be safe,” she said. “Vendors sell all sorts of wonderful yummy food throughout Los Angeles and we know that they have a lot of clientele that they have conversations constantly with.”

Latinos are the fastest growing segment in the U.S., accounting for 39% of California’s population. But turnout among Latino voters is still lagging compared to other groups.

“Many of them have been laid off, many of them have had their hours cut, some of them don’t have access to healthcare in the middle of the pandemic,” Salas said. “They need to be able to be paid attention to and they need to be able to voice their opinion in the voting booth.”

For Alvarado, the initiative was a chance to participate in the democratic process while making some much-needed extra cash.

“I can’t vote yet,” she said.” But I live in this country and the laws that are passed affect me the same as anyone else.”