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As she entered the restaurant, a young man on the patio at Fiesta Cantina leaned over the railing and yelled, “Rosas.” Heads turned to watch the 63-year-old woman, carrying two-dozen roses, smile at the bouncer and walk slowly through the door. When she reached the young man’s table, he hugged her, and kissed her on the cheek, as did another woman at the table, and four or five others as she made her way around the bar.
She left the bar without making a sale several minutes later, again smiling at the bouncer as she walked by. “I don’t know any of their names,” she said of the people who had just hugged her so affectionately. “But I recognize them, and they know me.”
At five-feet-two-inches tall, with close-cropped hair and two bouquets of flowers in her hands, Maria La Rosa, affectionately known as “Rosas,” cuts something of a famous figure in West Hollywood. For the last 14 years, since she emigrated from Peru, Maria has sold roses in the bars along Santa Monica and Robertson Boulevards. By now, she is so ubiquitous that a rose-selling avatar has become a recurring character on the Logo TV show “Rick and Steve, the Happiest Couple in the World.”
At 8:00pm every night, Maria begins her day’s work at Fiesta Cantina, where, one-by-one, she walks over to each table and offers a bouquet of flowers, along with her trademark line: “Rosas?” The line has become her trademark in large part because she knows only a few words of English—“four dollars” (the price of a rose), or “eighty dollars” (the price for all two-dozen).
When she finishes at Fiesta, she makes her way west down Santa Monica Boulevard, and then south down Robertson Boulevard to the corner of Melrose Avenue, stopping to offer flowers to bar patrons. When she reaches Melrose, she turns around and walks the same route back the opposite direction. She retraces this route as many as three or four times a night, until as late as 2:30am on Friday and Saturday nights.
As with many famous figures around Los Angeles, myths swirl around Maria. The most popular of these myths is that she drives a Mercedes, which she parks a mile away so no one will see how lavishly she lives, while another related myth contends that she can afford a Mercedes because she sells drugs.
“Sometimes someone will ask me for a white rose, and wipe his nose,” Maria explained in Spanish. “And I’ll tell him, ‘No, I do not do that!’”
Once, picking up on the drug-dealer rumor, the police followed Maria around for the evening, scaring off any potential customers.
“Some of my friends at the Abbey asked me why the police were following me,” she said. “And I told them it’s because they all said that I sold drugs. They promised to tell people that I didn’t, but still people ask me for white roses.” She smiled again, amused by the idea of the police following around a 63-year-old woman on foot.
The reality of Maria’s life, not surprisingly, is not as glamorous or dangerous as the myths would suggest. Far from owning a Mercedes, Maria doesn’t drive at all, and in fact begins each night at Fiesta Cantina because it’s closest to where the 10 Metro bus drops her off. In Peru, she had a restaurant across the river from Ecuador, where Ecuadorians would come for Peruvian food. But when the restaurant folded in the mid-1990s, she and her sister made their way to Mexico, and eventually from there to Los Angeles.
Now, Maria shares a house near Melrose Avenue and Western Avenues with her brother, who works at a restaurant, and two of her daughters, who clean houses. A third daughter is back in Peru, where she is studying to work in the tourism industry.
As with so many other people, the recession has hit Maria’s family hard. Before the recession, she said, she would make $300 to $350 selling roses each week. Now she makes $150, and her other family members have gone from working seven days a week at several jobs, to working just three or four days a week. She used to work seven days a week as well, until knee pain forced her to cut back. Now, she takes Monday nights off, and when she does go out, she wears a pair of orthotic shoes with gigantic black soles.
On Tuesday night, she sat at a table at the Abbey, giving her knee a rest.
“When business is bad for me, it’s bad for everyone,” she said. She gestured towards a waiter. “The bartenders, the waiters, the bussers, the owners. We’re all part of the same system, and when it’s slow like this, no one is making money.”
Still, the recession has done nothing to dampen her inextinguishable smile — every bit as much a personal trademark as her “rosas” line. In lieu of English conversation, her smile is her sales pitch, disarming, inviting, and placative for anyone annoyed at being bothered.
Later, at Mickey’s, an older man calls out, “Maria!” She reaches from over the railing from the sidewalk, kissing him on the cheek.
“I introduced myself when I first met her, about fifteen years ago,” said Clinton Bounds, who has lived in West Hollywood for 34 years. “I see her all the time, always out here with her roses, and she is just so sweet to everyone, she doesn’t judge anyone. I bought roses from her several times for my husband, but I always love seeing her out here. She’s a staple of West Hollywood.”
At the next bar, Rage, Maria sold her first rose to a young woman on the patio. As she kept moving down the street, crossed herself, holding the four dollars she’d just earned in her hand — a personal ritual after the first sale of each night, for good luck.
“My favorite is when someone buys a rose, and then he gives it to the person he is with, and they hug and kiss each other,” she said. “It makes me emotional, because I used to have a husband in Peru, and he was never that way with me.”
Still, Maria understands that people buy roses from her for a variety of reasons. Some buy roses to give to significant others, or for themselves, but others buy from her because they want to help her. People sometimes offer her rides home in fancy cars, instead of letting her take the bus, which she thinks might be the origin of the myth about her Mercedes.
“I love gay people,” she said. “I think when God makes life difficult for someone, he makes them very humanitarian. They are also very true to themselves, which I love. Sometimes people ask me if I am a lesbian, and when I say no they ask me why I am here. But I think everyone should be able to live however makes them happy.”
What Maria would like to do is open a restaurant here, like the one she had in Peru. She doesn’t have the capital to open a restaurant, but she hasn’t given up hope.
“I believe in miracles,” she said. “And I play the lottery every day. I buy two Megabucks tickets, and two SuperLotto. If I have a little extra money, sometimes I buy four of each.”
Valentine’s Day is usually one of her biggest nights of the years. If you see Maria, why not buy a rose?
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