Black Markets

Thank God Nobody Died From This Texas Woman's Illegal Tamales

Massive fines over a very common home-based business.


Shellystuart /

Homemade tamales sold on street corners or directly from people's houses are about as common as lemonade stands in communities across the Southwest United States and probably elsewhere. (Actually, I believe I've encountered more tamales than lemonade stands in Southern California.)

It's an avenue for people without a lot of resources to make some scratch on the side. And they're very popular around the holidays in the Latino community. Of course, this is all totally illegal. They don't have business permits. They don't have professional kitchens. There's all sorts of rules and regulations to follow, but attempting to do so would be so costly that it would likely turn it into a money-losing venture.

So because of government fears about food safety, there's a black market for tamales. In Carrollton, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas, Dennise Cruz found out the hard way not to do anything that could draw attention from government meddlers. Cruz decided to sell tamales from her home, advertised as such on a community social-media site called Nextdoor, and then the city cracked down hard on her, sending her a $700 fine for selling food without a permit. They didn't send her a warning or come and shut her down. They went straight to threatening her with arrest unless she forked over a ton of money. The local CBS affiliate in Dallas covered the horrific crime:

A director said a fine was issued and not a warning because tamales are considered "potentially hazardous food" due to the cooked corn and meat being used.

"What if somebody got sick from them? What if somebody could have died from them? And I completely understand those concerns," said Cruz.

But she feels the city's actions are a little extreme.

"I've seen so many people doing it. And unfortunately it's me who's having to deal with it," said Cruz. "I'd just rather stay away from that at the moment, making tamales."

Apparently somebody who saw her ad on Nextdoor squealed on her to the city. She wondered why this person didn't come talk to her. My suspicion, looking at Nextdoor, which is a specialized neighborhood-oriented social app, is that city employees have probably joined and keep track of what's going on in the community.

The absurd irony here is that this kind of tactic means that people who are open and likely more careful (and safe) about what they're doing are the ones to be punished, but people are still going to be out there selling tamales without a permit, quietly and secretly outside the city's control. And those folks might not be as careful and as safe as Cruz. As with any black market, government intervention doesn't stop it from happening at all, it just makes it all the more dangerous for those who participate in it.

The good news for Cruz is that she started a GoFundMe page to raise money to fight Carrolton and has already earned more than enough to cover the fine. Sadly, not every citizen who attempts to engage in street vending or home-based businesses gets such media attention and assistance when regulators come after them.