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Corn Again

New Life for the Eloteros' Cause

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Jose Barrera was an elotero for six years. Now he can no longer afford to push his cart on the southwest side. The city says peddling boiled corn and cut fruit on the street is against the law, and the police have stopped him so many times he owes $1,500 in fines. "I cannot pay it," he says. "Too much money."

On Monday, Barrera stood in front of City Hall with 50 other eloteros--all members of the Illinois Street Vendors Association--rallying in favor of an ordinance that would finally make their trade legal. "This ordinance will help us," Barrera said. "We'll be licensed. We want to continue to work with the City Council with regard to the licenses."

City Hall has tried several times to regulate the vendors, who are tolerated in certain wards. The municipal code allows licensed vendors to sell whole fruits and vegetables, such as apples, but has never addressed the issue of prepared food. In 1997 a proposal to regulate the eloteros was thwarted by resistance from Hispanic aldermen and the vendors, who feared it was a ploy to put them out of business. This time, though, Mayor Daley has the City Council's Hispanic bloc in his corner, as well as the Illinois Street Vendors Association, who say legalization would end police harassment and cutthroat competition for the best corners.

But the draft presented to the City Council on September 20 would put a tight rein on eloteros. The proposal prohibits them from peddling within 200 feet of a school, a church, or a restaurant, forcing them to work in "designated service areas" within each ward. It requires them to buy a cart with hot and cold running water and a wastewater retention tank. The cart, essentially a rolling restaurant, costs $3,000, a huge expense for people who earn $15,000 in a good year.

At a hearing that afternoon, several aldermen proposed amendments to make the regulations less burdensome to these tiny businesses. Many agreed with 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore that the 200-foot limit was excessive. "Clark Street, where a large number of vendors in my neighborhood ply their trade, also has a large number of restaurants," Moore said. "I'm concerned if this ordinance is passed, it would have the effect of driving vendors off Clark Street."

The proposal allows vendors to work only between 8 AM and 9 PM, and it would keep them out of alleys after 5 PM. Twenty-second Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz wanted pushcart hours expanded to 5 AM to 10 PM, so his constituents wouldn't miss their breakfast of tamales and champurrado. And 12th Ward alderman Ray Frias proposed that the city set up a "micro loan" program to help eloteros buy the expensive carts. The Hispanic aldermen provide political cover for Daley's attempt to regulate vendors, so the ordinance will most likely be altered to suit them.

Though they saw the draft ordinance as too harsh, Hispanic aldermen say some form of regulation is the only way to get the cops off the eloteros' backs. "Right now they're getting tickets for operating illegally," says 31st Ward alderman Ray Suarez. "Somehow we have to legalize and license this venture, so the police will allow them to operate."

Some of the harshest opposition to the measure has come from the 100-member Ambulant Vendors Association, which helped kill the mayor's 1997 proposal. The group's leader, Eriberto "Ed" Campos, held a press conference to denounce this year's proposal as "completely racist."

But members of the Illinois Street Vendors Association charge that Campos, who goes by the nickname "King Corn," is a union boss who's gotten rich preying on eloteros. The vendors association was founded a year ago by members who say they got sick of paying tribute to Campos.

Barrera claims he paid $400 for his corner, 47th and Paulina. If he hadn't paid, he says, Campos "would have sent another vendor to work the corner. People were getting into knife fights [over corners]....That's why we liberated ourselves." (Campos didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Barrera says Campos has charged eloteros for help in obtaining $75 peddler licenses from the city. If vendors become legal, says the group outside City Hall, then they won't have to answer to bosses like Campos. "We formed our own organization because this guy would never come through with what he said he would," says Maria Espinoza, president of the Illinois Street Vendors Association. "[Eloteros] never knew if they were legal. He never got insurance for them, he never had sanitation classes."

Nick Valadez, attorney for the Ambulant Vendors Association, says the vendors who rallied outside City Hall are brownnosers who want to protect their corners once regulation comes. The draft ordinance has a provision calling for lotteries if too many eloteros want to work a certain ward. The eloteros who play ball are going to get the prime spots, Valadez predicts.

"It is my concern that they have embraced the aldermen in order to get special treatment," Valadez says. "This happens all the time in union-management negotiations. There's always going to be an organization that's going to be more timid in hopes that they're going to be protected."

Valadez also defends Campos against charges of bossism. "They've been making those allegations for three or four years," he says. "The only morsel of truth I could ever identify is that he has a law degree and sometimes he charges money for helping people through the licensing process....The reason that the Illinois Street Vendors continue to attack Campos is that they are looking out for their own membership and not for Campos's membership."

Campos's union is not opposed to regulation, says Valadez--"we've always been in favor of an ordinance"--but the ordinance presented to the City Council on September 20 would put 95 percent of the vendors out of business. The 200-foot rule would eliminate most of the good spots, he says, and the sanitary carts are too expensive. The carts may be necessary for vendors who want to sell cooked food, such as tamales, but there should be a looser category for eloteros.

"We don't agree with the city that in order to boil corn and cut fruit you have to have the same requirements as a restaurant," he says.

Valadez was involved in the negotiations over the ordinance that failed three years ago. He hopes something gets resolved this time, because he's tired of seeing the eloteros become a political issue every year. Typically aldermen hear complaints about the eloteros all summer, act on them in early fall, then forget about them over the winter. "That seems to be the cycle of this debate," he says.

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

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