Food Fight 

Elote vendors are still under fire over health issues, but a peaceful solution may be on the horizon.

A Mexican tamale vendor named Candelaria Gonzalez appeared in court on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 30, to face charges of illegal peddling. Her case had been dismissed in April because the ticketing officer hadn't shown up. But at the request of neighborhood activists on the northwest side, the city had reinstated the charges against her.

An organization called the Economic Development Commission of Greater Logan Square, formed in 1994 "to revitalize the business interests" of that area, had been urging its members to come to the courtroom. Ridding the street of "peddlers and vagrants" had become an important goal, according to the group's May newsletter. Police officers from the Grand Central district were being paid overtime, the newsletter said, "in order to process all the unlicensed vendors at the same time."

But Gonzalez was the only vendor who came before a judge on June 30. She was not alone, however. Ed Campos, head of the street vendors' union based in Little Village, drove up at 1 PM, followed by carloads of eloteros, or corn vendors. Campos claimed Richard Mell, the powerful 33rd Ward alderman, was behind this day of action against street vendors. They began a protest march under the watchful eye of a Univision TV camera, carrying flimsy handmade signs that read "Mell, Stop Your Dogs," "I Like Corn," "Arresting Officer Wishes to Proceed, or Is It Plain Harassment?" One vendor played nortena ballads on his accordion.

"I am a working woman," Candelaria Gonzalez told the TV reporter in Spanish. "I am not a criminal. I take pride in what I do. But the government doesn't care about that."

The city had already tried to put the eloteros out of business, in 1997, but a last-minute protest won public sympathy and prevented legislation from passing in the City Council. Since then, however, vendors have been ticketed and occasionally tried for illegal peddling, according to Campos. Now Alderman Mell was pushing a new ordinance, cosponsored by Edward Burke and three Hispanic aldermen. That law would ban sellers of corn, ice cream, and other food from conducting business within 200 feet of a residence, church, or school. All vendors would be required to park their carts in front of businesses on commercial streets--and they would need permission from the businesses to set up shop.

The eloteros were resuming their protests, Campos said, "but we've never had a mob before coming to support police officers backed by Mell."

The mob Campos was referring to consisted of Larry Ligas, who heads a small community organization called Logan Square Concerned Citizens. Ligas stood in the middle of the protest, scowling, hovering over the crowd of eloteros. He was a foot taller than most of them.

"Look at all those little taco stands along Armitage Avenue," he said. "I'm here to speak for them. You think they want a corn vendor in front of their business? There's one woman who sells corn on a corner. She has muffler exhaust blowing on her food. She's picking stuff up off the ground. It's just disgusting."

Then why haven't there been any health complaints against the vendors? I asked.

"A lot of the people who are getting sick are part of their own background, and they don't want to tell on them."

But, the Sun-Times's Sue Ontiveros pointed out, the mom-and-pop establishments that you say you're representing haven't complained.

"That's because they're too busy trying to make money," said Ligas. "Look, this is not a race thing. We have a large problem with rats in our community. Cleanliness. Health. Child development. How do you start with child development when they don't know how to clean up after themselves?"

The vendors gathered around Ligas and began to chant, "Racist pig! Racist pig! Racist pig!" This didn't change Ligas's mind.

Meanwhile, inside the courthouse, Candelaria Gonzalez's case was continued until August. Her ex-husband, Jose Valdes, was there for moral support. "Something's got to be done, because this is ridiculous," he said. "They won't let her work. Yesterday she went out there, they stopped her within half an hour. The other day they dumped all her work in the garbage and stomped all over it."

Outside Ligas continued to shout over the crowd. "This is not politics," he said. "This is health. Campos is able to stand here and call me a racist, and no one says anything about it. He's running a circus here. This needs to be handled by the courts, the police, the City Council, not out here by these...people. He's shoving me. He's calling me a racist. And nothing's being done."

Sally Hyle, a member of Logan Square Concerned Citizens, joined Ligas on the sidewalk and started to shout at the vendors.

"Shut up!" a vendor yelled back.

"Why she telling me to shut up?" Hyle asked. "This is America. This is my country, not hers. I don't go to Mexico and tell you to shut up. See? This is the way they talk to you when they go to your neighborhood!"

Campos approached Hyle. "You speak Spanish, no?" he said. "You're Mexican, right? Pinche verguenza! Pinche verguenza! Shame on you!" He screamed in her face, pointing.

The crowd started chanting, "Vuela, racista! Vuela, racista!"

Ligas and Hyle walked into the Grand Central police station, which adjoins the courthouse. Campos and the vendors crossed the street to climb into their cars.

The vendors' attorney, Nick Valadez, stayed behind. He told me the city was bent on shutting them down. "There are issues where the city implements stuff not because the laws have a rational basis but because they can," he said. "I've said to them repeatedly, 'You tell us what we have to do, and we will do it. Just allow us to sell the corn.' And the city's response was, 'No, there's nothing you can do to make this safe.' If you look at what's going on right now at Navy Pier and at the Taste of Chicago with the cutting of fruit and the cooking of corn, then there must be another reason that they're doing this to my vendors.

"I've been around the fence a couple of times with the city. I've continually asked them, 'What do you want me to do?' The eloteros were willing to give away 90 percent of what they have, just so they could stay in business. But it's the city's position to regulate us out of existence."

A vendor approached Valadez.

"Nick," she said, "they've arrested Campos."

Sure enough, across the street Campos was being put into a police car. Hyle had him charged with misdemeanor battery.

For the next hour, Valadez hung around the lockup until the police finished processing Campos. Across the street in a dirt lot, an ice cream truck had pulled up, having spotted a group of likely customers. More than 30 eloteros were leaning on their cars, patiently waiting for their leader.

When the number of eloteros on Chicago's streets swelled several years ago, the city wasn't sure how to deal with them. Estimates now have the total between 300 and 500 carts. In largely Hispanic wards, vendors were allowed to operate without much hassle. In other areas, peddling wasn't permitted. A few aldermen on the northwest side--in such neighborhoods as Logan Square and Albany Park--found themselves caught in the middle. The situation had become a political nightmare.

On one hand, many Latinos lived in these neighborhoods, and the eloteros catered to this constituency. But certain blocks were becoming gentrified, and eloteros didn't fit into the real estate industry's vision of upscale urban life. Simultaneously, the dwindling ranks of longtime white-ethnic residents viewed the vendors as an augur of declining property values. The controversy came to embody the tensions that divided the neighborhoods.

The municipal code contained no provisions to regulate the activities of corn vending, and so the city's initial response was a cruel ordinance, introduced by 39th Ward alderman Margaret Laurino in April 1997. It called for the complete "confiscation of illegal mobile food vendor vehicles." Laurino was speaking for her superiors. Even before the ordinance came up for a vote, the police and inspectors from the city's Department of the Environment descended on the eloteros, ticketing them, taking away their carts, and dumping bleach over their corn and fruit, which were inexplicably deemed "unsanitary." There had never been a health complaint related to their products.

The vendors fought back quickly, and with surprising effectiveness. They were led by Campos, a short, puglisitic former meatpacker and parole officer in his late 60s. As a tribute he was dubbed "King Corn" by his loyal followers. The issue quickly turned into hot-button politics, and Mayor Daley pulled the confiscation ordinance off the City Council's agenda.

The rest of that summer Nick Valadez negotiated with city attorneys. They finally reached an agreement that would allow the eloteros to sell their corn and cut fruit under certain conditions. The city had the right to regulate the size and number of carts as well as their hours of operation. Carts would also be restricted to designated locations. Vendors had to wear hair nets and sanitary gloves. They would have to take food-preparation classes. And the mayonnaise the eloteros smeared on their corn would now come from packets instead of the unrefrigerated jars that sat on top of their carts.

Valadez thought the new agreement would stick. After all, he said, it was "90-10" in favor of the city. The eloteros wanted only to remain in business.

Two years later tensions had increased. The corn issue was bound to boil over.

Much has changed since the eloteros first organized in the spring of 1997. Later that year, two brothers, Arnufo and Daniel Tovar, broke with Campos's union, claiming that it had taken hundreds of their dollars and given them nothing in return. They received no help after the city had confiscated their carts. With the street vendors now out of the papers, they said, Campos no longer cared about their cause.

The Tovar brothers formed their own union, along with six other defectors. They called it La Guadalupana Street Vendors Cooperative, named after the Virgin of Guadalupe. For legal help, they turned to the Concilio Hispano, or the Hispanic Council, a community-organizing operation in Bensenville that was famous for orchestrating protests against Mike Royko at Tribune Tower.

Luis Pelayo, president of the Hispanic Council, became their legal adviser. By this spring he had helped them establish a 60-vendor union, with a more democratic structure than Campos's operation; most notably, members are allowed to vote for their leader. "He was charging them $20 a week to attend a meeting, and $300 to get their licenses," Pelayo says. Campos claims these fees covered the costs of office space and securing state food-service licenses. Pelayo thinks these fees were exorbitant--a state license costs $75. "You are talking about basic exploitation," he says.

In April Mell introduced his new ordinance. Under the law, vendors had to get permission to operate in front of businesses in order to use their washrooms and garbage cans. Other provisions called for the banning of horns and bells on carts and for vendors to get hepatitis shots before being licensed by the city.

Both unions held press conferences in opposition to the proposed law. The Tribune and the Sun-Times ran editorials in favor of the vendors; the Spanish-speaking media were universally behind them. Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University, designed a Web page in support of the eloteros. A young Logan Square activist named Michael Stanek circulated petitions in his neighborhood and sent E-mails to progressive political types to drum up support.

The new proposal was not acceptable, the vendors said. They thought the aldermen would have to listen because public opinion was with the eloteros.

On July 2 representatives from La Guadalupana met with Mell and his assistants. The sanitation requirements were acceptable, the union said, except for the hepatitis shot provision, which it deemed irrelevant. In addition, vendors needed to be able to use their bells and horns. They also needed to have permission to sell tamales, because many Mexican people buy them in the morning to eat at lunch. And the proposed hours for street vending--10 AM to 10 PM--needed to be changed. The vendors wanted to start at 5 AM.

Later Campos accused La Guadalupana of selling out to the city, even though their demands suited the needs of his members. "That's the way the government works," he told me. "Divide and conquer."

Pelayo says Campos's confrontational tactics have become outdated and irrelevant. "Our moral authority to speak on the issue is a lot more important than his. He has no prestige. He was necessary at the beginning, but he became a dictator."

When Campos held a press conference several weeks ago, his vendors turned on him in front of TV cameras from channels 44 and 66. They accused him of stealing their money. He continued to deny everything.

"I want them to prove to me that I did that," Campos said. "I do everything for them, and all they do is pay their dues. Every organization's got dues. I have to pay for the light, the telephone, and the gas. So I don't know what the hell they're talking about."

The aldermen who were once the sworn enemies of the eloteros have lately been talking compromise and tolerance.

"We don't want to throw anybody out of work," says Richard Mell. "We're trying to give the corn vendors an opportunity to have a license, a stake in the community. I think vendors right now are afraid of some people who control them all. I'd love to open it up, give them a chance to become entrepreneurs."

Anabel Urbina's operation in South Chicago may offer a glimpse of the future of corn vending in this city. Out of two wooden carts on Houston Avenue, one at the corner of 90th, the other at 91st, Urbina practices the complete array of street-vending arts. She prepares corn, cuts fruit, filets mangoes on a stick, sells bags of chicharrones, pours licuados, and shaves flavored ice. The dry cleaners behind her and the library across the street let her use their washrooms. She has set up a plastic garbage can next to her cart to take care of litter. These are small compromises, she says, to be allowed to stay in business.

"My family has been vending for three years," she says. "I am from El Salvador. In our country we also sell. This class of businesspeople exists. People are on the street more, and in the city no one says anything to you. Business is much more free, and I want my freedom here as well."

Urbina is the newly elected president of La Guadalupana Street Vendors Cooperative. She says she had signed up with Campos's union in 1996, he took $300, promised her a state vending license, and never delivered. When she found out she could get the license for $75, she stopped going to meetings.

This month alone, Urbina says, La Guadalupana has gained 15 defectors from Campos's union. There have been reports of fistfights breaking out in his union hall and of Campos asking for up to $3,000 to secure vendors a permanent spot on the street when the city passes a new law. The organization is crumbling around him. Still, Campos's members aren't La Guadalupana's enemies. Any ordinance that passes will cover them as well. At the street level, the vendors are a united front.

This Friday, July 30, the elected leaders of La Guadalupana will meet at City Hall with Mell and aldermen Ricardo Muñoz and Danny Solis. When they emerge from the meeting, the street vendors and the aldermen will hold a joint press conference announcing what everyone expects to be an acceptable compromise. The major sticking point seems to be whether vendors will be required to remain in one location. Most would rather work a territory. Even so, it appears that after two years of struggle and misunderstanding, the eloteros have finally been accepted.

"We want a union," Urbina says. "We want a force. We are always going to fight to be able to stay in business."

Ed Campos will likely be absent from Friday's press conference. He's currently in Mexico. No one at his union hall could say when he'd return.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Neal Pollack

  • Everybody Shut Up!

    No one cares what you pundits think about the war. Not your antiwar pundits, not you prowar pundits. And that goes double for poets. Poets, shut the hell up.
    • Feb 27, 2003
  • Year in Review 2000

    • Dec 21, 2000
  • The Amazing Mr. Ash

    From bar gigs to bar mitzvahs, an old-school prestidigitator keeps the magic alive.
    • Oct 12, 2000
  • More »

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
The Tall Girls Theater Wit
January 12
Performing Arts
Rhinofest Prop Thtr
January 16

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers