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Can you write about street food in East LA if you're not Latino?




Writer Lucas Peterson (L) stands with street corn vendor Timoteo in Lincoln Heights. After Peterson posted a story about him, he was accused by some of
Writer Lucas Peterson (L) stands with street corn vendor Timoteo in Lincoln Heights. After Peterson posted a story about him, he was accused by some of "Columbusing."
Matthew Kang/Eater LA

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What started out as a simple story about corn unexpectedly became a debate about racism, gentrification and "columbusing."

Food writer Lucas Peterson wrote a piece last week for Eater LA about a street vendor in Lincoln Heights who sells elote: "Meet the Man Who's Peddled LA's Best Street Corn for 27 Years."

For those who've yet to try some, it's a Mexican street food. A cob of corn is slathered with butter, mayo, chili powder and cheese.

But by reporting about this man, who's been selling elote for decades, Peterson ended up with a bit of a controversy: Can you write about a neighborhood if you're not from there?

Several people took to social media to comment and complain. 

Tweet from @robertcuadra

This tweet wasn't so nice; it took a stab at "Asian hipsters." (Warning: explicit content.)

Peterson posted a follow-up to address the claims he was "columbusing" — the practice of reckless appropriation, usually by white people, of something that's been around for a long time belonging to another culture.
 
Peterson joined Take Two to explain. 
 

"To say, 'You're not from this neighborhood, you can't go into East L.A. and write about Mexican businesses,' I just think it ultimately deprives people — the public – of good writing. I think anybody can write about anything," he says. 

Mexican-American writers Gustavo Arellano and Bill Esparza also came to his defense, arguing food is food and that claims of gentrification or race should step aside when it comes to eating.

Peterson was also called out for drawing too much attention to this man.

"Another writer had said, 'Did I ever think about the ethics of covering an unlicensed vendor?'" he said. "By doing so, I could be putting this man in jeopardy. Exposing him to unwarranted or unwanted attention."

Peterson counters that the real problem isn't writing about street vendors.

"Frankly, it's about the bigger issue about legalizing street vending so that the people who work as street vendors out in the open without fear of reprisal," he says.

Peterson adds that Timoteo the corn man isn't naive about how publicity works.

"He's been doing it for 27 years. Tell me this isn't a man who doesn't know the drill. I think it's vaguely patronizing to assume this guy doesn't know how to handle attention."

For what it's worth, Timoteo still operates in Lincoln Heights but isn't out on the sidewalk for as long as he used to be.

Peterson paid him a visit after his initial story blew up.

"I said to him, 'I wrote that article a couple days ago,'" he recounted. "His attitude was, 'Yeah, great, I get to go home earlier. We sold out.'"

To hear our full interview with Lucas Peterson, click on the audio above.