On the morning of March 8, two people Maria Espinoza had never seen before drove up to her elote stand at the corner of 25th and Kedzie. They were from the Health Department, and they told her this was a surprise inspection.
They dumped bleach over all the mangoes, pineapples, and cucumbers Espinoza was planning to sell that day. They poured bleach on her elotes, too, and in the condiments for those ears of corn. They unloaded still more bleach into several vats of fruit juice. Then they handed her a ticket. It said they “found Maria Espinoza on the street corner selling cut fruit, cooked corn, juice. The product, 50 ears corn, 25 gallons of juice, 50 pounds cut fruit, was denatured with bleach, and disposed of. All unwrapped and cooked.”
The Health Department didn’t have to look very hard to find Espinoza. She’s been a food vendor in Chicago for 15 years, and for the last 8 she’s been at 25th and Kedzie. It’s su esquina, her corner. Every day in the spring and summer, with almost no exceptions, she’s out there selling corn, sometimes joined by her daughter, sometimes by her granddaughters. Espinoza’s part of the neighborhood.
She’d been visited before by the Health Department–or la salubridad, as it’s called in Spanish–though she hadn’t been bothered by them. Still, she wasn’t particularly surprised by the raid. She’d been hearing complaints from other vendors. All over Little Village and Pilsen, la salubridad had been shutting stands down. The vendors knew they were in trouble.
“Where else can I work?” Espinoza says. “We have to work. We won’t quit. We have to continue working. Even if they take our carts. We’re going to have to fight.”
Street vending has been intermittently under attack in Chicago for decades, but the latest crackdown began in 1991, when aldermen started to pass peddling “moratoriums” in various wards. Bernard Stone was the first, banning street vendors in the 50th Ward. His idea quickly caught on, and soon the streets were being cleared on the northwest and southwest sides. Then the moratoriums started popping up on the south side, as well as in more gentrified north-side areas like Lakeview and Lincoln Park. Alderman Burton Natarus, whose 42nd Ward now includes most of downtown, sponsored a law that forbids street vending anywhere in the Loop (with the exception of city-commissioned fruit stands on State Street). The Park District added its own citywide ban last summer. In the few remaining wards that still allowed food peddling, vendors were pretty much left alone. Last month the boom came down.
On April 14, an ordinance crept out of the City Council’s transportation committee authorizing four departments–Health, Police, Revenue, and Streets and Sanitation–to impound any food-vending “vehicle” in violation of the city’s health code. These included “any cart, handcart, pushcart, wagon, automobile, truck or any other wheeled vehicle, platform, or container, whether powered by motor, human means or otherwise.” The owner of the vehicle would have to pay a $300 fine to get it back, in addition to “moving and storage” fees, which would be set by Streets and Sanitation.
According to the city’s municipal code, it’s already illegal for vendors to sell “unprepared” food, meaning anything that they cook or cut themselves, but the law has rarely been enforced. This new ordinance was meant to be the final blow. The aldermen who drafted it said street vending represented a serious public health risk, claiming that vendors don’t wash their hands or their fruit and if they weren’t stopped people were going to die.
Margaret Laurino led the pack. The 39th Ward alderman recalled one 90-degree day last summer when she saw an open jar of mayonnaise on an elote cart. She was horrified. “The City Council is elected to protect people, not poison them,” she said. “At your home, don’t you get concerned if you leave potato salad out on the table for more than an hour?”
Other aldermen said vendors cause a number of problems, from littering to blocking traffic. The 30th Ward’s Michael Wojcik was concerned that vendors might force children off sidewalks and into the streets. Wojcik warned that these children could then be struck by the cars of the very parents who were picking them up from school. He also blamed elote vendors for preventing senior citizens in his ward from walking down the street to get a cup of coffee. He didn’t say why the seniors couldn’t walk around the carts.
Laurino’s statements generated the most attention, and she kept hitting on the same charges. These vendors are filthy. They are unsanitary. They are a public health nightmare. But, in fact, they’re not. Of the 105 cases of food poisoning reported last year to the Health Department, only one complaint was related to a pushcart vendor, and that accusation was never substantiated. “The carts are not an imminent health hazard,” says Tim Hadac, spokesperson for the Health Department. “Chances are we’re not going to have hundreds of thousands of people dropping ill because of them. But yet we certainly do have some concerns about them and they are legitimate concerns. We’re not really taking a stand on this ordinance. We have no idea if yanking their carts and impounding them is going to take them off the street or not. That’s really a criminal-justice issue and not a health issue. We’re just being pretty low-key about the whole thing.”
On April 16, the vending ordinance was set to go before the full City Council. But aldermen Joe Moore and Helen Shiller, both north-siders who allow street vending in their wards, used a parliamentary procedure to delay the vote until the next council meeting–this Wednesday, May 14. Moore says he thinks Laurino’s health concerns mask much darker political motives. If she’s truly worried that vendors don’t wash their hands, Moore says, then the city should pass an ordinance requiring them to wash their hands rather than one that yanks away their livelihoods.
“I don’t want to use the concern for public health as a subterfuge for putting these guys out of business because there are certain people who don’t like seeing them on the street,” he says. “The people who are operating the pushcarts are earning an honest living. You go around my neighborhood, a lot of these pushcart vendors are mothers with children. And their kids hang out with them during the day. They’re nice people, they’re good people, they’re decent, hardworking people. I hate to see them punished just because there’s a sense that we must make our streets totally sterile and devoid of any street life. I have nothing against Naperville, but if you want that kind of existence where the streets are kept clear of vendors and people, then move to Naperville. This is the city, and part of the city is a certain street life that adds color and character to our neighborhoods.”
Moore and Shiller knew they couldn’t stop the ordinance on their own. The only votes they could count on getting would come from the tiny bloc of aldermen opposing the mayor’s forces. Something else needed to happen. Fortunately, in a shabby storefront office on 26th Street a group of elote vendors was already cooking something up. And it wasn’t corn.
On Thursday, April 18, 100 elote vendors, all of them Mexican-American, appeared in front of City Hall. They gathered in a circle and began marching and shouting slogans. They held sheets of paper that read “Irish Daley: No Mexicans Need Apply” and “Streets and Sanitation is Gestapo SS.” The vendors demanded that the Daley Administration meet with them and come up with a better ordinance, one that addressed sanitation questions but still allowed the vendors to work. They showed up three days after Laurino’s ordinance was introduced, and no one knew where they’d come from.
Yet this group was nearly four years old. Back in 1993, Health Department agents were making the rounds in Little Village, particularly up and down 26th Street and Cermak Road, denaturing as they went. The vendors banded together to ask Ricardo Munoz, their newly appointed alderman, for advice. Munoz refused to help, so they went to Ed Campos instead.
At the time, Campos was vice president of the Little Village Community Council, a low-rent neighborhood organization on 26th Street. Campos had a reputation as an effective street lawyer and a dedicated, if somewhat brusque, populist. He says that once the vendors showed up at his door, he couldn’t turn them away. He ordered a bus and took them back to see Munoz immediately. “It was kind of a movement that starts at the spur of the moment, without any planning,” he says. Munoz still refused to help the eloteros, so Campos knew they were in for a fight.
The eloteros needed vending licenses to get la salubridad off their backs. But the Department of Revenue had already denied their applications. Campos rented another bus and brought the eloteros down to City Hall at 4 PM on a Friday, one hour before the end of the work week. The revenue officials panicked. A department head begged Campos not to make him process all 100 applications at once. He told Campos to bring the vendors in ten at a time for the next couple of weeks, and he’d license them. The eloteros had a hard time getting their state tax ID numbers, so Campos used the same tactic at the State of Illinois Building. The vendors picketed in front of Munoz’s 22nd Ward office, and within a few weeks he agreed to meet with them and Health Department officials. The denaturing stopped.
But Campos and the eloteros knew their problems could return. They formed an organization called La Union de Pequenos Negociantes en Elotes, which loosely translates as “The Elote Vendors Union.” For his efforts in getting la salubridad off their case, the eloteros dubbed Campos “El Rey de los Elotes.” They honored him by putting up a banner in his office. It reads, “Ed Campos. King Corn.”
“It’s better than being called King Kong,” Campos says. “They don’t care if I’m King Kong or King Corn. I represent them. The King of the Corn. I like it. It gives me some higher status, I guess.”
Campos is an unlikely leader for a nascent labor movement. He wears a shabby gray pinstriped suit, his voice is gravelly, and he gets nervous when speaking in public, particularly when speaking in English. Nevertheless, he’s pugnacious, and when angry he’s even a little bit frightening. A former Golden Gloves boxer, Campos grew up in the Back of the Yards. In 1947 he was working as a meat packer, making 75 cents an hour. His union, the United Packing House Workers of America, went on strike, one of the most violent and contentious in Chicago labor history. The union’s leader, Charles Hayes, later became a U.S. Congressman. Campos says he learned all his organizing tactics from Hayes and his right-hand man, a tough Mexican named Refugio Martinez who, he says, was deported in 1956.
Soon after the strike ended, Campos went back to Englewood High School, then to college at Roosevelt University. In 1960 he became a probation officer for the juvenile court. He graduated from Kent College of Law in 1972 but stayed on the job. When he retired in 1989, Campos’s union days were four decades behind him.
Now Campos finds himself in the thick of a labor struggle. He says he’s had virtually no support in this fight, other than from his eloteros. “The law that they’re trying to pass is completely geared toward a minority that has no representation, that is at the bottom of the pole,” he says. “Our political representatives are next to nothing. We are defenseless. We are at their mercy. I hate to feel like I’m defenseless, but they put us into that category. We have to come out and fight. We know that we’re fighting Goliath, but we feel that David might be able to win. People told me, including my wife, ‘Why are you going to defend these people? Don’t go because they’re going to retaliate against you.’ Well, look, somebody’s gotta do something. Somebody has to take the lead, grab the flag and run with it. I’m of Mexican-American extraction. I don’t like what’s happened to my people.”
The eloteros stayed together after they won their battle with Munoz in 1993. They set aside Wednesdays for meetings, though sometimes as few as five people showed up. Campos became president of the Little Village Community Council. The vendors began donating $10 a month each to the union to pay for Campos’s office phone, as well as electricity and gas. Without vendor money, Campos says, the union couldn’t have stayed together. Some months, donations totaled as little as $50. “I’m too old for this shit,” says Campos. “I’m almost 70 years old. But I want to do something for the people. I’ll tell you, I’m very lucky to live this long. I’m fighting for the sake of these people. That’s all. They’re being abused. The city wants to destroy them.”
In 1995 Alderman Ed Burke claimed a dog belonging to one of his aides had died after eating a popsicle purchased from a street vendor. He used the dog’s death as an excuse to pass a peddling moratorium in his ward, the 14th. Soon after, the eloteros joined some paleteros, or popsicle vendors, for a protest at the Daley Center. Burke didn’t rescind his ordinance, though he did end up looking petty. Alderman Richard Mell then pushed through antipeddling ordinances in the 33rd and 47th wards. Campos rented a bus, and the eloteros traveled north several times to turn up the flame. At the time, Mell was trying to get his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich elected to Congress, and he didn’t need the hassle of being picketed by corn vendors. The 47th Ward moratorium was removed.
In 1995 Campos ran against Munoz for alderman. He ran on a pro-elote platform. It was his only issue. He got squashed. Campos and the eloteros waited for the city to make its move. They knew it was coming. They just didn’t know when.
At nine o’clock every morning, Lucia Morales is at the grocery store buying the corn and fruit she needs for her day’s work. Her husband has a job in a canvas factory, but Morales says her elote income is steadier. She counts on it to feed and clothe herself, her husband, and their four children. Every spring and summer day for the last seven years, from noon until nine or ten at night, Morales has been at the corner of 26th and Homan. Beside her elote cart is a portable barbecue she uses to grill the corn. Other vendors roam up and down the streets looking for the best corner. But Morales is at the top of the field–she’s found her esquina, something the other eloteros respect.
Morales will prepare an elote any way her customers want. For traditionalists, she smears the steamed corncob with mayonnaise and rolls it in a dish of dry cheese. Then comes a squirt of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and salt. No one ever said elotes were good for your heart. If you don’t want cheese, Morales says, you don’t have to have cheese. No pepper? No problem. If all you want is the fully gringoized version–just butter and salt–she’ll reluctantly fork it over. Each elote costs only a dollar, no matter how it’s prepared.
Morales also serves fruit cups for $1.50. Anyone who calls the eloteros careless has obviously never seen one practice the craft. Morales will take a whole mango, put it on a stick, butterfly it with a tiny kitchen knife, and smother it with chili, salt, and lemon juice. Eloteros also do amazing things with pineapples, cucumbers, watermelons, and jicama.
Street vending is a long-standing tradition in Mexico, where there is no welfare. Mexicans don’t know what it’s like to be on the dole. Since good jobs are hard to find, they make their own, becoming low-level, low-overhead entrepreneurs. “Selling elotes is the pride of the Mexicans,” Morales says. “It is the tradition of Mexico! All the people like it and agree. So why can’t I stay here and do it? Restaurants can cook and stay here. They can cook frijoles and other foods. This is daily food as well. Fruit. Mangoes. All this food is fresh. Daily. Freshly prepared. Do you want an elote? I’ll prepare it immediately. Do you want a pineapple? Right now. Also a mango. Look at it! Very fresh. In summertime, everyone eats everything I sell. It’s our tradition. Mexican food. Mexican people come from other places because they like it. They come here specifically to eat elotes. Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, from all places. Aurora, Elgin, Bensenville, the airport. They all come here to 26th Street. This is the tradition of La Veintiseis, of 26th Street. The elote vendors always sell!
“I think this ordinance is racism against the Mexicans. Such racism! Mexicans don’t ask for handouts. Mexicans try to work so they can live a little better. I’m just trying to support myself. I try to support myself without the government, so I sell here on this corner day and night. This ordinance is an injustice for us. But since the city’s doing it, what can we do?
“I think that this work is very clean,” Morales says. “We try to keep it very clean, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to sell to our customers. If it was dirty, nobody would want to eat our food. Everyone can see that it’s fresh and very clean, always. An elote spoils two hours after I prepare it, but, really, they don’t stay around for two hours. I sell more and more and more and more.”
Ed Campos puts it simply: “We Mexicans have our culture. We would like to guide our own destiny. We don’t need anyone to tell us where to go. We Mexicans like to eat the corn.”
At noon on April 23, members of the eloteros union gathered at the Little Village Community Council. Their ranks had swelled since the ordinance was first introduced. Now the union included 200 people, double the original number, and this didn’t count the many children who get dragged along by their parents to every march and meeting.
The vendors met in a back room with cracked linoleum floors. The wood-paneled walls were bare, except for a poster of Che Guevara. They sat at school desks and in folding chairs. Men in blue jeans and cowboy hats leaned against the walls. The crowd spilled into the front room, where two women were serving barbecued lamb, cilantro, and onions, scooping the food into warm tortillas and topping it off with hot sauce and jalapenos. They served aguas–flavored water–out of big vats. Vendors lining up on 26th Street bought popsicles and waited for the protests to begin.
Benjamin Velasquez sat at a long table. He’s barely 30, one of the youngest vendors. But he’s dynamic, and the eloteros have elected him as their union president. He asked them all to register and contribute $10 each to pay for bus service. Velasquez also encouraged the eloteros to buy individual servings of his flan, which were in a cardboard case in front of him. The flan cost a dollar apiece.
The eloteros’ first stop would be the Cermak Road office of Danny Solis, who was appointed 25th Ward alderman by Mayor Daley after Ambrosio Medrano went down in the Silver Shovel scandal (he’s since been elected). Solis isn’t part of the transportation committee that passed the cart-confiscation ordinance, but vendors in his ward have been seriously hassled by la salubridad this season. Solis has repeatedly talked about his desire to “clean up” the ward and its main business strip on 18th Street. He’s spearheaded a multimillion-dollar plan to unify the look of 18th Street storefronts, with common signage and a city logo. New sidewalks on 18th Street will contain a mosaic that lets all visitors know that they’re now in Little Mexico. The vendors think that Solis’s vision of Little Mexico doesn’t include them. For this article, Solis did not return numerous calls to his office.
Campos walked into the meeting hall. Velasquez tried to quiet the eloteros down, but they were excited. Campos delivered the day’s marching orders. There had been problems. An elotero who was not part of the union gave an interview to one of the Spanish-language television stations, saying that he washes his hands between customers but knew for a fact that other vendors don’t. Campos said these comments hurt the cause.
“I want to emphasize that you should all be careful of what you say to the media,” he said. “I can’t tell you what to do, but you all know hygiene is very important. We’ve been talking about that here for over a year now. We’ve talked about wearing gloves. We’ve talked about disinfecting. We’ve had in our possession, and you’ve all been given, those little towels that come in the little packages. You can rip them open and you can use them to wipe your hands when they get dirty. We’ll also be handing out aprons and caps. Channel 66 only interviewed that one person, and he gave his perspective for all of us. So we have to be very alert. If you don’t know what to say, then you shouldn’t say anything. By saying, ‘I wash my hands but others don’t,’ you’re not doing yourself or anyone any justice. It’s like saying, ‘I take a shower every day, but the rest of the Mexicans only take a shower once a week.’
“The city of Chicago is large enough to accommodate all of us. There’s plenty of room for these types of businesses to flourish. We’re asking for an independent observer to come and ensure that we’re complying with the sanitary code. Because it is our right to make a living, but we understand that there are certain regulations we have to meet. We are willing to comply with these. We can’t deny that there are some pretty miserable-looking carts out there. Instead of selling food, it looks like they’re picking up garbage. We have to talk to these people and get them to modernize their equipment. We have a lot of allies, but our worst enemy is ourselves. We have to learn from what that guy said. We have to learn how to be clean because people are constantly watching us. We have to be careful of how we project our image to the public. But we can do it because we are united. Estamos unidos!”
The vendors cheered and swarmed around Campos. As they headed out to the buses, Velasquez shouted, “Espera, espera! Wait, wait! Hold on, senores y senoras!”
The crowd stopped and looked at Velasquez.
“Don’t forget to buy my flan!”
The eloteros hit Danny Solis’s office. They spilled out of the buses and onto the sidewalk. They circled parked cars and stretched down half a city block. They carried signs reading “Daniel Solis Turncoat-Traitor”; “Daniel Solis–We are not ashamed of you?”; “Daniel Solis–You want to clean, clean yourself”; and “Daniel–Whose interests do you represent?” They chanted, in Spanish, “Who is the traitor? Solis! Who are we going to get rid of? Solis!”; “Eloteros united can never be defeated!”; “Corn yes, drugs no!”
The protest didn’t accomplish much. Solis was on vacation. But it lasted an hour, and the vendors didn’t lose their spirit. Things broke up around 2 PM. Campos told everyone to reconvene at headquarters by six. They had another gig that night on the northwest side, where Alderman Ray Suarez was hosting a community meeting.
Campos says he targeted the city’s Latino aldermen because they have not been on the eloteros’ side. Of the seven Latinos on the City Council, only three–Munoz, Ray Frias, and Billy Ocasio–have publicly said they’ll vote against the ordinance. The other four–Solis, Suarez, Vilma Colom, and Jesse Granato–have said they’ll vote for it. Colom even cosponsored the measure with Laurino.
The evening protest was at the Mozart Park field house. The vendors caught Suarez coming into the meeting. They waved signs in his face that said things like “City Hall’s Revenge: Starvation”; “City Hall vs. Work Ethic”; “Is Unemployment Healthy?”; and “We Create Our Own Jobs.” Suarez, a big, gruff ex-Marine, was not cowed. He got right up in the vendors’ faces and started shouting. The vendors blocked his entry into the field house. Three police officers appeared behind Suarez. The vendors dispersed.
In an earlier interview, Suarez said he has “nothing personally” against the vendors, but he had received numerous calls from his constituency about elote-related garbage. “They make a lot of noise with their horns and so forth,” he said. “They dirty the community. It’s a matter of cleanliness.”
On Wednesday, April 30, 150 vendors gathered on 26th Street. Campos wasn’t able to get a bus this time, so they climbed into pickup trucks, minivans, and all manner of cars. At 1 PM they marched in front of Jesse Granato’s office at Damen and Division. Ten minutes later they drove to Vilma Colom’s office in Logan Square and did it again. Ten minutes and out. Then they headed for Margaret Laurino’s office at Lawrence and Pulaski and marched yet again. This last protest took 20 minutes, maybe longer. No alderman came out to see the eloteros, but they didn’t care. They were sticking together.
The political determination of the vendors may seem surprising at first, but it makes perfect sense. In Mexico, street vendors are a genuine political constituency. Politicians, especially in big cities, know that in order to win they have to court the street-vendor vote. An ordinance like Chicago’s would be almost unthinkable in a Mexican city of comparable size. Mexican street vendors see strength in their numbers, and they understand politics very well.
Still, Campos realized these protests were not working. On Tuesday, April 29, he’d already started to move the elote campaign in a different direction. Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University and a Campos colleague from the fight to save the old Maxwell Street market, had arranged for an afternoon meeting with some microbiologists from the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The meeting, Balkin says, allowed scientists to say what the eloteros were saying all along: street vending posed no health risk to the public.
Balkin invited Alderman Helen Shiller to the meeting, but didn’t tell Campos about it. Shiller brought along Joe Moore and Ricardo Munoz. When the three aldermen walked through the door, Campos was surprised. Moore said his staff was researching vendor laws in other U.S. cities, and he would try to draft a different ordinance setting a fair sanitation standard for the eloteros. A few years ago New York City enacted a law requiring vendors to handle food with wax paper or tongs. “I suspect that Chicago’s code might be a little more strict than is necessary,” Moore says. “Whatever ordinance is good enough for New York, which is one of the most overregulated cities in the world, should be good enough for Chicago.”
The aldermen all advised Campos to cut out the aldermanic protests and start directing his attention downtown. This is a political issue, they said, not a sanitation one–it’s ludicrous to think that the ordinance rose from Margaret Laurino’s fear of mayonnaise. Mayor Daley should be the real target, they urged, because he’s the only one in City Hall who can make things happen.
In most of the world, May Day is set aside to celebrate the achievements of working people. In City Hall this year, May 1 was set aside for the Chicago Senior Citizens’ Hall of Fame awards ceremony.
Mayor Daley attended the festivities, which were held in the City Council’s second-floor chambers, and there were representatives from just about every news outlet in town.
The eloteros knew the mayor’s schedule. They showed up at 10:30 AM, all 200 of them. Ed Campos was stuck in traffic. He was late, he said, because he’d stopped to buy some rice milk from a street vendor. “It was very delicious,” he said.
The vendors didn’t know what to do without Campos, so they milled aimlessly around the second-floor foyer. Eventually, the police cordoned them off so they couldn’t go into the council chambers. Then Campos showed up, and they launched into their usual routine. They shouted, “Work, no welfare!”
By that time, Daley had left the ceremony and was holding a press conference in an adjacent room. The reporters were all with Daley. Only a cameraman from Channel 66 was covering the protest.
But the eloteros persisted. They kept shouting. They wanted results. In the press conference, Daley told reporters that he had met with the eloteros and that his staff was working with them on a compromise.
Daley has never met with the eloteros. Later a spokesman explained that the mayor meant to say he planned on meeting with them. The vendors never had a chance to confront him at City Hall. But they wouldn’t give up. They kept chanting.
Finally, some reporters started to trickle into the foyer. They gathered around Campos, and he began reading from a prepared statement. His voice was hoarse, and he looked tired. The statement didn’t make much sense. It went, “Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, pounding the racial tolerance promoted by the Daley Administration, sounds good as far as sounds go, but the reality is something else. Matt Rodriguez, Richard M. Daley, and all other promotional agents’ sales pitch is just not salable even if it is adorned by sensitivity training because of the inappropriate attitude of some police officers in the city, and the somewhat flaky commitment from the high echelon in command.”
The reporters’ eyes began to glaze over. Fortunately for Campos, the eloteros had paid $20 each to retain the services of a well-spoken, good-looking, media-savvy young lawyer from Hegewisch named Nick Valadez. He stepped into the breach.
“I want to emphasize,” Valadez told reporters, “this ordinance is not being brought out by complaints of people. You go down to Little Village, you go down to the Tenth Ward on the southeast side, you will see these carts and stands all over the place. And people are buying food there daily without any problems. That’s what our concern is. The city didn’t give us a chance to address any health-related issues. Except they said salmonella, hepatitis, and there’s no way to stop that–there’s no way you can prevent that. We don’t agree. We think there are measures you can take. Every other city allows pushcart sales. It’s really not a health issue. Again, if you ask the city of Chicago what they have identified as the problem, actual incidents of food poisoning, they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s the potential for food poisoning. We haven’t really had any problems.’ We are concerned about health risks, but we’re saying that the city has the power to set rules that would allow these vendors that you see behind you the opportunity to go to a class regarding food preparation, to take precautions that would minimize as close as you can get to eliminating the health risk involved in selling hot food from a cart. It’s done all over the country. For that matter, it’s done all over the world.”
The reporters left, but the Tribune and Sun-Times never bothered to show up. The vendors stayed behind.
Campos turned to the eloteros. “I would like to introduce to you our attorney,” he said. “Mr. Nick. Mr. Nicholas Valadez. He is one of us. He’s a little bit of a gringo, but he’s a Mexican.”
“Valadez! Valadez!” the eloteros chanted.
Alderman Joe Moore stopped by. Campos introduced him as a friend of the eloteros. They cheered him loudly and stomped their feet. Moore looked stunned. He was not used to being cheered in City Hall.
An old, frail-looking man came out of the council chambers. He was Dr. Jorge Prieto, a 79-year-old inductee into the Chicago Senior Citizens’ Hall of Fame. He’s also the retired president of the Chicago Board of Health, a hero to the city’s Latinos, and a long-standing expert on Mexican-American health issues.
“Dr. Prieto has something to say to you,” said a young man.
The vendors were silent.
“I am with you in your struggle,” whispered Prieto. “You are just.”
The vendors cheered.
“Do not give up,” said the doctor. “You must follow the example of Cesar Chavez. You must follow the words of Cesar Chavez: ‘We can!’ Remember those words. You can fight. You can win.”
The vendors went nuts.
“Estamos unidos!” shouted Campos. “We are united!”
“We can fight!” shouted a vendor from the back of the crowd, a child hanging on each arm. “We will fight! We will!”
Their voices grew louder. This was not the end, they thought. They were going to beat City Hall.
“Now we can!” they shouted. “Now we can! Now we can!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lloyd DeGrane.