The strawberry vendors stand on street corners throughout Palo Alto, at busy intersections, outside shopping centers and banks.
Cars slowed along Stanford Avenue on a recent afternoon, their drivers peering at one vendor's succulent strawberries, mangoes and cherries. A woman stopped her vehicle at the Wellesley Street intersection as drivers behind her swerved to go past.
"How much?" she asked the vendor.
"Ten dollars," the man said as he passed a box of fruit through the car window.
But behind the sweet fruit there is a bitterness, a story of indentured servitude playing out on Bay Area streets.
According to a number of vendors, they were recruited off the streets in Mexico and smuggled into the United States by "coyotes," persons who bring people across the border for a fee of about $2,500.
Once here, the men are brought to houses in East Palo Alto and San Jose, where they live together. To pay off their debt, the men hand over all of their earnings to the coyotes until they are debt-free, they said.
Each morning, fruit from Watsonville arrives at the houses. The men board vans and are dropped off with the fruit at various locations in cities throughout the Bay Area: Redwood City, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Jose and Palo Alto, among others.
The vendors stand for up to 12 hours a day in the elements. They have no water, food or bathroom facilities, relieving themselves in nearby shops where they can, they said.
Bay Area police officers say they haven't heard of the indentured servitude. The men tell the police many different stories -- that operations are controlled by individual entrepreneurs or that small-business operators work with loose groups of people, police said.
But immigrant-rights proponents say the vendors are one small part of a complex web of exploitation, in which desperate people are mainly recruited from Asia and Central America.
In some of the worst cases, the immigrants are held against their will; others labor but don't receive payment, advocates said.
Proponents want cities to protect the vendors by addressing working conditions such as long hours and lack of toilet facilities.
Police and health-department officials said their concerns have been of a more immediate nature, such as traffic-safety and public-health issues, however. Most vendors do not have sales or health department permits, they said.
In Napa, street vending became so out of control last year that police were deluged with complaints about vendors who aggressively sold on private properties, such as apartment complexes and churches.
Vendors sold everything from strawberries to pork rinds, hawking their wares from shopping carts, according to Napa Police Lt. Debbie Peecook. In home kitchens where the food was prepared, Peecook found "absolutely horrendous" conditions: insects in the frying oil, mice, filth and outdoor kitchens, she said.
Anti-illegal immigration advocates, meanwhile, say undocumented laborers should not be enabled to continue illegal practices.
"Certainly, our group does not endorse it. We support enforcing the laws as written ... no matter how sorry we feel for people," said Carol Joyal, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Republican Women. She said she has purchased the berries on occasion from vendors who came door to door but doesn't want to buy from laborers who are here illegally.
"I don't know if they have a license to sell or not. They are competing with our grocery stores," she said.
But immigrant-rights advocates said there's a larger issue at play.
"It falls under human trafficking. There are countless reports of bringing people across the border with debt. The traffickers hold them under their thumbs. ... I have heard accounts of people kept in detention in homes until the debt is paid," said Evelyn Sanchez, a representative of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition in Oakland. She added that she hasn't heard anything specific about the strawberry vendors, however.
Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier acknowledges the issue is tricky, since most of the vendors don't have permits and are violating the health and safety laws.
Recent marijuana-growing operations in Palo Alto's foothills had immigrant laborers guarding the pot plantations, he said. His concern is that immigrants desperate for work are being led into dangerous situations.
"I share concern about exploitation. (These people) have lived in poverty, and this is their last chance," he said.
On a Thursday afternoon, Adrian Paz stood on a corner on West Meadow Drive near El Camino Real in south Palo Alto with his fruit display.
Paz, 42, has been selling the strawberries for four months, recruited off the streets of Veracruz, Mexico. He crossed the border on foot with eight other men, eluding the border patrol with a coyote who guided them through the desert, he said. He left a wife and two young daughters, ages 8 and 2, behind in Mexico, arriving with the equivalent of $40 in his pocket, he said.
Small and thin, his high cheekbones jut out of a burnished, brown face. His jagged profile gives him the look of a man who has known hunger for a large part of his life.
During the first two months on the street, every dollar he made -- $300 a week -- went to pay the coyote, he said.
Now free of his $2,400debt, Paz said he hasn't been able to find other work. So he buys double-boxes of strawberries for $10 each, selling them for $20. On average, he said he makes $30 to $50 a day -- $250 to $300 a week.
But every week he pays $90 for his transportation in a van or car with the other men, and $40 to $80 a week for rent. Food consists of two meals a day: beans and rice for breakfast and chicken soup for dinner, he said.
The left over money he sends to his wife, he said.
Paz said he is angry but not with the coyotes. Police fines are $100 to $120 apiece, and police have confiscated his fruit.
He doesn't understand why he is being ticketed, seeing as the tickets are in English and he can't read them. He didn't show up in court because he didn't have the money to pay the tickets, and he can't afford an American lawyer to plead his case, he said.
"I want to speak with a judge," he said through a translator. "I want to ask for the Mexican government to give me help with the court and with my defense. I don't have money for a lawyer here," he said.
In most cities, vending without a permit is a misdemeanor and punishable by fines of between $150 and $400. Repeat violators can be arrested, charged under several health and safety codes and jailed.
Phil Smith, director of consumer protection in the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health, said various risks exist -- from spoilage and mold to dust, insects and debris -- when the fresh fruit isn't stored properly in a garage or warehouse. There are rarely proper restrooms and hand-washing facilities for persons handling food, he said.
Police in several cities said they are applying various aspects of the law.
In Redwood City, two sections of the municipal code are usually cited: vending without a business license and vending for more than 30 minutes in the same location, according to Det. Ken Cochran.
Santa Clara police are concerned about traffic congestion and accidents, Sgt. Ray Carrera said. They often first issue a warning and attempt to educate the vendors about the law regarding sales permit.
Undocumented immigrants are afraid to apply for permits, however. Santa Clara fingerprints permit applicants and does background checks to make sure vendors have no criminal history, he said. They have to be a U.S. citizen or have a work visa, he added.
In Palo Alto, peddler law is a bit loose, according to Agent Max Nielepko. The law is intended for vendors without a permanent location, but there is an exception for the sale of produce and farm products if the vendor is also the grower, he said. A license for a pushcart vendor costs $244 per quarter year with U.S. Department of Justice fingerprinting costing extra, according to the city's Municipal Fee Schedule.
Palo Alto police issue a verbal warning, but fine vendors $300 for each violation if the behavior continues, he said.
In the past six months, the department received 12 complaints about the strawberry sellers. None of them resulted in citations, Nielepko said, but the department is starting to issue tickets.
When Napa began its crackdown, the city sent translators out and used brochures in Spanish to help the vendors understand, Peecook said.
"We wanted to do enforcement and education. A lot of these people who are selling don't understand what they are doing is illegal. They are trained by people who drop them off not to tell the truth. Many got arrested," she said.
But once off the street corners, vendors switched to door-to-door sales, sometimes aggressively. After a time, the police pressure had an effect. People inundated the department seeking permits to set up legal operations, she said.
Getting at the coyotes is difficult, police say. Vendors are taught to lie about their names, ages and addresses. Their bosses tell the men that no one will find them if they lie, and the authorities won't care if they don't pay the fines. But many don't realize those actions make them criminals who might end up serving jail time, police said.
If the vendors are caught up in something of a cat-and-mouse game with the law, they are not without advocates.
Law student Leeron Morad, a Palo Alto resident, became curious about the fruit vendors he saw in his Barron Park neighborhood. After approaching a few men, he became concerned about their plight, he said.
One young vendor was just 15 years old; another said he was frightened to seek better work through Mountain View's Day Worker Center because the coyotes would find his family in Mexico to exact the payment, he said.
"I feel so bad for these people and that they are so scared," said Morad, who has volunteered at the Day Worker Center in Mountain View since April, teaching English to immigrant laborers.
The fruit-vending operations "prey on them. There are no opportunities to speak English or to advance and reach the American dream, which is why they came here in the first place," he added.
Despite claims by sellers such as Paz to be making $50 a day, Morad said the figures don't add up. Ask any vendor the same questions several times during a conversation, and one gets several answers. The true figure, he estimated, is closer to $20 a day.
"Twenty dollars for working 10 hours with no food, no water and no access to a bathroom -- if that's not exploitation, I don't know what is," he said.
He argued that outlawing fruit vending is not going to make them stop.
"It's just going to make them miserable," he said.
Morad approached a group of wary men outside a faded blue house in East Palo Alto last month. He handed them business cards for the Day Worker Center, hoping to convince them a better life with more opportunities is available, he said.
Several men spoke about their experiences as vendors.
"I was arrested yesterday with handcuffs in Santa Clara," Jose said, translating through Morad. "The police think we are selling drugs, but we just sell fruit and nothing more."
Adrian Paz recalled one run-in with the police: "I was told I was already given a ticket in the past, and they took 10 boxes of fruit from me. I lost $180 when they took the boxes. They said they were just going to throw it away."
Samuel said he wants to stay in the U.S. a little longer, despite having been assaulted by one man who kicked the strawberry box into Samuel's face, shouted epithets and racial remarks and spat on him.
"I can't go back with the same amount of money I came here with," Samuel said.
Other vendors have met with greater violence. In San Jose, two door-to-door strawberry sellers were kidnapped, blindfolded and held for ransom, according to Officer Jose Garcia, San Jose Police Department spokesman.
Police posed as the victims' family members, and eventually the men were freed without a ransom being paid. The perpetrators, however, were never found, Garcia said.
"One speculation is these individuals that abducted these men were looking to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, many are non-English speakers. Many don't have legal status here and can be victimized," he said.
Back on San Antonio Road, Morad handed a card to the only woman encountered during two months of interviewing the strawberry vendors.
Laura had only been selling strawberries on the street for one week; already, she felt dispirited, she said.
She has lived in the U.S. for 24 years, working in factories to support her two children. She lost her job because of the economy and hasn't been able to find another, she said. She is one of a growing number of people who had jobs here and have approached vendors to learn how to sell fruit.
Standing outside of a Wells Fargo Bank, she bemoaned the lack of sales. She claimed to make $8 an hour but then characterized her income as unstable.
"I have to stay here the whole day to sell four to five boxes," she said.
Morad isn't buying her minimum-wage claim. The vendors speak as if from a script, he said, but the numbers just don't add up.
When she sold a box of strawberries, Laura clapped her hands together, shaking them toward the heavens. A smile spread on her lips. For a moment, the creases in her face relaxed.