Controversey a la Cart | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Controversey a la Cart

The city won't leave elote vendors alone.

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The city's crackdown on eloteros--or corn vendors--could easily have been ended through common sense. After all, the issue seemed fairly straightforward this spring: the vendors needed to conform to the sanitation code, while the city needed to acknowledge the vendors' right to make a living. In the months following the initial controversy, city spokespeople even said a compromise was imminent. Yet as negotiations have dragged on, the situation has grown more complicated, and street vendors continue to be prosecuted.

Under the city's health code, it was already illegal for vendors to sell anything they prepared themselves. The law was rarely enforced, but in April Alderman Margaret Laurino proposed an ordinance that authorized the city to seize and impound any food-vending vehicle. Many saw the new proposal as a not-so-subtle attempt to put the street vendors out of business.

But the vendors quickly rallied against the ordinance. They were led by Ed Campos, an eccentric 68-year-old lawyer and labor activist who called himself "King Corn." They showed up angry at the offices of Latino aldermen who sided with Laurino, attacking them as "anti-Mexican." They also dared to take on Mayor Daley at City Hall. With Laurino's ordinance scheduled for a vote on May 14, public support swung in favor of the vendors, and Daley's people finally called Campos's lawyer, Nick Valadez, and asked him to call off the hounds. According to Valadez, the city said the ordinance would not come up for a vote if Campos would stop embarrassing the administration.

Meanwhile, the police in Little Village's 10th District were certain the ordinance had already passed. During the second week in May, police seized more than a dozen elote carts and handed out even more tickets. Valadez told the city's corporation counsel that he would sue unless police agreed to release the carts because they had no legal justification to hold them. The city returned all but six carts, and the corporation counsel postponed the cases of the vendors who had been fined.

Valadez says he entered into negotiations with two assistants to the mayor, John McDonough and Lisa Bolden. The vendors' position was unequivocal--they wanted permission to sell their food, period. McDonough and Bolden laid out the city's view--what about the noise, litter, and sanitation problems the vendors posed in the neighborhoods?

"We objectively acknowledged that there were real problems," Valadez says, "that there were some legitimate health concerns. We also understood that if we responded to these concerns, they would respond with an objective viewpoint."

Valadez met with city representatives once a month, starting in May and continuing through the summer. Before every council meeting, McDonough called Valadez to assure him that the confiscation ordinance would not coming up for a vote. The city was still seeking a compromise.

Because it seemed the city was negotiating in good faith, Valadez says, he conceded a lot of ground. Initially he had taken the position that the eloteros should be able to sell a variety of food, though he soon agreed to give up cooked meat products, like tacos and tamales. He thought the city should in turn allow vendors to sell horchata (rice milk), aguas (fruit drinks), and chicharrones (fried pork rinds). But the city refused.

Finally, Valadez asked only that the eloteros be able to sell their staples--corn and cut fruit such as mangoes and watermelon. Valadez says McDonough and Bolden seemed to find this acceptable, under certain conditions. The city, they said, would be allowed to regulate the size of the elote carts, their numbers, their hours of operation, and their legal locations. Vendors would have to wear hairnets and sanitary gloves, and they would have to take food preparation classes at city colleges. Other ways of doing business would also have to change: the mayonnaise eloteros smeared on their corn would have to come from packets, not from unrefrigerated jars on top of their carts. The vendors agreed to all the conditions because they were desperate. As Valadez puts it, "We trimmed it down to the bare essentials."

Overall, the negotiations took two months. Even if the city wasn't flexible, Valadez says, it seemed like the eloteros would be able to stay in business. They were "within days" of a deal that he describes as "90-10" in favor of the city.

Police in Little Village had continued to ticket the eloteros off and on. Two weeks would pass without incident, then a complaint would come in and the police would write up a few more citations. Ed Campos was growing restless. The city was still holding several confiscated carts. He was also angry because the corporation counsel kept delaying court dates to dismiss the tickets handed out in May.

Then Campos made a tactical error. On July 23, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo spoke in front of the assembled National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino organization, which was meeting at Navy Pier. Mayor Daley was scheduled to appear with Zedillo, and Campos thought this would be an ideal opportunity to force the mayor's hand on negotiations with the eloteros. He loaded up several buses and brought 300 vendors for a loud protest in front of Navy Pier.

Four days later, on Sunday, July 27, police swooped down on the eloteros, arresting three vendors and issuing more than 30 tickets. When he found out what had happened, Valadez was shocked--he had just received a call from McDonough saying that the city had come to a decision on the fate of the street vendors. He assumed this meant the compromise had been accepted. Valadez asked Campos if he knew why the police had moved against the eloteros, and Campos looked sheepish. He said he suspected it might have had something to do with the protest at Navy Pier.

"Oh really?" Valadez said. It was the first he had heard of the incident. McDonough called soon afterward to say they needed to talk about the negotiations. Valadez should have known they were in trouble.

The police in Little Village say they aren't to blame for the crackdown--it's only the latest manifestation of a long-term conflict between recent immigrants and the neighborhood's business class. On one side, the vendors resent the law interfering with their livelihoods. On the other, business owners don't like to see these makeshift carts cutting into their profits--if they have to pay taxes and follow the city's sanitation code, why shouldn't the eloteros?

Police are caught in the middle, says Fernando Garcia, who's in charge of foot patrol officers in the 10th District. He calls the Little Village area a "district out of control." The eloteros are not being picked on at random, he says. "When an issue becomes hot and you have so many complaints coming in, you have to act on it."

Garcia complains that ignoring the corn vendors led to the growth of taco vendors, which then led to a new phenomenon--portable jewelry carts. He also says shell games have started to pop up on corners where elote vendors are located. Street life in Little Village has grown livelier and harder to manage. "It was different when there was one or two vendors," Garcia says. "But now there's not one or two--there's 100. They're on every corner."

Vendors are much less likely to cooperate with the police than in the past, he says. Tensions are growing on both sides. "They are defiant," Garcia says. "They will not listen. And I'm the bad guy because I'm the one that's enforcing the ordinances. I do the dirty work. Look, I'm not personally involved. I feel for their needs. I'm Mexican, they're Mexican. I've told Campos it's not a personal issue. If they had the right to exist, I'd be the first one to protect their rights. But at the moment, what they're doing is wrong. He's totally refusing to comply."

Campos has always bragged that he's one of the most hated men in Little Village. That hasn't helped the cause of the eloteros. Ever since the debate began, rumors started to fly about Campos: He intimidates vendors and asks for money. He owns most of their carts. He's looking out for his own interests, not theirs. Valadez counters that most of the eloteros he's represented in court have owned their own carts. He says Campos may own a few, but hardly holds a monopoly.

"He makes himself out to be the archangel of their plight, which he probably is to some extent," Garcia says, "but he has other reasons."

On Tuesday, August 5, Valadez met with McDonough and, he says, was told, flat out, "no deal"--the city would not make corn vending a legitimate enterprise.

Valadez was furious. If the city was enforcing the sanitation code, why did they need to cast street vendors as outlaws? Negotiations had been stalled on purpose, he says, and once the situation cooled down, the eloteros were betrayed. Valadez says he asked McDonough to postpone announcing the city's decision until Friday, so they might "reconsider." He claims McDonough agreed but added that the decision was final.

Alderman Michael Wojcik, one of the original backers of the confiscation ordinance, says he knew about the city's decision, explaining it was in effect taking no action "in the spirit of trying to get along." Even so, he says, the eloteros are still in trouble. "If the conditions continue, we'll pass the law. The situation can't continue as it exists. They have to adhere to the rules."

Valadez called Ricardo Munoz, the 22nd Ward alderman representing Little Village. Munoz had come around to the side of the eloteros despite the fact that Campos was a political enemy and had run against him in 1995. Munoz said he'd heard nothing about the "compromise." He called Victor Reyes, Daley's chief of staff, and asked him what was going on. Munoz says Reyes told him that Valadez must have "misconstrued" what McDonough was saying. "There was nothing to misconstrue," Valadez says. "There was 'no.' There was 'deal.' There was 'no deal.'" Valadez told Munoz that Reyes was wrong.

For his part, Munoz says, if the city really meant "no deal" then he and Alderman Ray Frias were prepared to draft their own measure to counter the confiscation ordinance. "There's a way of doing it right," Munoz says. "Obviously, we will not be able to legalize everything they're doing now, and the vendors need to recognize that. But there are a number of activities that could be legalized and managed and regulated."

On Friday, August 8, Valadez got a call from McDonough. The city was going to reconsider its decision after all, he said. But Valadez was not invited back to the table and received no clue from McDonough about what the city was thinking.

In the meantime, Campos fumed. He wanted to storm City Hall on Monday and call for the resignation of Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez. Valadez begged Campos to hold off for another week.

Last weekend Valadez visited Navy Pier and was dismayed by all the city-sanctioned vending stands. Here were people squeezing lemons and cutting them with knives in open-air carts to make lemonade. As long as the city controlled the profits from the stands, Valadez concluded, vending was not a problem. The war on the eloteros was the ultimate in political hypocrisy.

"Is there a difference between a cut lemon or a cut mango? I don't think so. Is there a difference between a boiled piece of corn dunked in butter or a popped piece of corn? If they want to make a distinction, fine. But there's another motivation behind it. Common sense is going to tell you that there's no difference between what happens on Navy Pier and what my vendors do. It's an almost identical activity."

On Monday, August 11, Valadez went to court to represent the eloteros who had been ticketed in May. He won release of all but three carts, and those weren't freed because Campos had lost their inventory numbers. Valadez had most of the fines waived--the highest fee paid was $50. He says that after city negotiations are finished he will wash his hands of the eloteros. If the city allows them to vend, then he's won. If it doesn't, then he wants to avoid years of useless fighting. He says the vendors will get ticketed, they'll ditch their court date, they'll get ticketed again, and eventually they'll either have to leave town or go to jail.

"I'm at a loss to understand the vehement enforcement and the overwhelming use of the city's resources on people who are just trying to make a living," Valadez says. "I can't imagine that there's anyone outside of an alderman, or a restaurant owner bitching at an alderman, who could be so angry at a Mexican immigrant who's on a street corner selling a piece of corn. If you don't want a piece of boiled corn, you don't have to buy it. I just don't know where the hostility to these people comes from. Is it merely because they exist? I just don't know." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nick Valadez photo by Robert Drea.

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