Mejia, 31, sells fresh fruit gazpacho at a Rogers Park intersection four or five months a year. The rest of the time he lives in Michoacan, Mexico, with his family.
I went to California in ’99. I used to work for a factory, and then in a Chinese restaurant, but I thought it was a lot of work. And then they shut down, so I had to find a way to start another thing. After that, I came to Chicago, and I start doing this business. I worked very little when the business started. We start with one pineapple, one watermelon, two cucumbers, something like that.
All my family work in the same business. My grandfather, grandmother, uncle, father. And then I do my own. I started the next corner down—Greenleaf. Sometimes the police, they give me a hard time. I keep moving, corner by corner. No more. They nice now. Because now they shop with me. They like the fruits. So they say, “You know, I don’t care, so long as you’re working honestly.”
I have every kind of people: black people, white people, American, Polish, Indian, Chinese. I really like my work. When I come back to Mexico, I have a business over there, so I keep going. I keep going every day.
A lot of people are jealous about my business, especially the restaurants. Sometimes in the summertime their businesses are empty. That is not my problem. They start complaining to the city. They send me an inspector, and he’ll come and even if I have my license, they find a way to give you a ticket. Four months ago I got ticketed, and it’s very expensive, like $500 or $600 for each ticket. Sometimes in one year, in one season, I have three tickets. They say, “I don’t care what you do, but if somebody calls and complains, I have to show up and give you a ticket.”
I have a lot of problems, but [the restaurant owners] don’t care. They say, “You’re blocking my corner. This is my area. Where you park, I pay taxes, I pay rent.” I say, “OK, but I pay my taxes too, you know? And if you want, I can give you some kind of money, we can fix this. Let me know. I have a family. I have to feed my babies.”
I used to sell just pineapple and regular fruits. But people request, you know, “I want my gazpacho with strawberry.” I say, “OK, I’m going to bring you strawberries.” I don’t care. “I want kiwis.” OK, you want kiwis. You know the little cactus pear? It’s kind of seedy, but it’s sweet. They want the gazpacho with the cactus pear. I say, “It’s not a common thing; it’s a lot of pits. It’s gonna be hard to eat it like that.” They say, “I don’t care, I want it like that.” I say, OK, OK.
It’s a lot of concentration. The coconuts, you have to do them with a machete, and if you’re distracted, you can cut a finger.
There’s a lot of people like me who work on the street, and this job is kind of hard. It’s not because we want to do it. It’s because we find no jobs. Even if you’re legal you find no jobs. So you have to find a way to do it honestly, to earn money. We’re not doing nothing wrong. And when you go to the city to try to get a special license for this business, they just give you a regular license for whole fruits, and you have to not cut it. You sell the whole thing. They see you cutting and preparing, they say, “You cannot do this.”
In Los Angeles they allow carts like this. But you have to spend like $5,000 on one cart, the way they want it. We can get the carts. But we need the license, you know what I’m saying?
We don’t do nothing wrong. We’re just trying to survive, without stealing or doing drugs. —As told to Mike Sula