Miguel Sanchez's cart was parked on the northwest corner of 26th and Sawyer, a few blocks from the pink stucco arch that spans the street proclaiming bienvenidos a little village. A green cafe umbrella was lashed to the white wooden cart, which Sanchez built himself a decade ago, and plastic bags filled with chicharrones dangled from its sides, fastened with clothespins.
A teenage boy with close-cropped hair slouched up to the cart and ordered an elote. Out came a knife and two grilled corncobs from a cooler. Sanchez's wife (who declined to give her name) sliced the kernels onto a plate, then dumped them in a Styrofoam cup, squirted them with butter and mayonnaise, and sprinkled on cheese and chili powder. The boy paid and sat in one of the plastic chairs the couple provides for customers, mixing the corn and condiments with his spoon like it was an ice cream sundae.
Sanchez, 61, began selling food from a cart ten years ago, when he moved his family to Chicago from Veracruz. He also serves juice and sliced mangoes.
"I like [my business] because this is my own," he said through a translator. "I don't like to go from company to company selling my work. They take my work and dismiss me when they want. This is my own."
Sanchez makes about $100 a day at the cart; working nearly every afternoon and evening, and picking up some painting and carpentry jobs on the side, he supports his family of six. But he lives under the near-constant threat of being fined by the city. What he's doing is illegal in Chicago, and as demand for his food grows in the spring, so does the likelihood that he'll be slapped with tickets for anywhere from $200 to $1,000.
In the interest of protecting public health and safety—and of generating revenue—the city licenses all sorts of businesses that sell food to the public, including restaurants, hot dog stands, ice cream trucks, and peddlers who œlicense pushcart vendors who sell foods that have been "prepared" in some way—even by as simple a process as being sliced with a knife. To qualify for a retail food license a pushcart vendor like Sanchez would need someplace to wash his hands and utensils and a way to keep food at a temperature that prevents spoiling.
That said, it's obvious the carts are unofficially tolerated. City officials say they ticket eloteros when they get complaints about them. This year they received two complaints each month from January through March, then 13 in April as the weather warmed and more vendors took to the streets. The vendors say there's no way to know how stringently the law will be enforced this summer, since how many complaints the city gets varies. Last year the city issued 155 citations, nearly a threefold increase from the 55 issued in 2007, according to Efrat Stein, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
The sporadic enforcement means vendors line the sidewalks along 26th Street, as much a part of the streetscape as La Raza honor boxes. Eloteros and their advocates say there's a old Mexican tradition of peddling food on the street, and even with the threat of fines it offers a chance to make a living during rough economic times.
Some of the city's vendors, mostly from Little Village, have banded together to try to get the city to legitimize them. About 60, including Sanchez, belong to a group called the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes that's pushing for a new type of license that would allow the vendors to operate legally. They say it would be an economic boon to both the vendors and the city government—the vendors would be able to operate without the fear or expense of tickets while the city would be able to keep track of who's selling where, enforce sanitation regulations, and levy taxes.
More than 80 percent of association vendors described selling as their "main economic activity" in a survey conducted last year by Sandra Morales-Mirque, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago. People turn to street vending for three primary reasons, she says: difficulty finding formal work, the need for a flexible schedule, and the need for extra income. Morales-Mirque emphasizes that the research was "preliminary" and plans to follow up this summer by surveying vendors outside the association.
Sanchez says he was too old to find other work when he came to the United States. "The thing is, the people who are selling in the street are honorable people, and they are not asking for any help," he says. "The city should respect people because they're working."
"A license from the city is going to be better for everyone," says Martin Unzueta, an organizer with the Chicago Workers' Collaborative who's been working with the vendors' association. He argues that the city might as well legitimize them because "the street vendors are going to be there anyway.... The economy is going down so the people are looking for how to bring some food to the table."
City officials say the health risks of licensing these vendors are too great. "There are so many questions associated with these vendors," says Tim Hadac, a spokesman for the city's health department. "Did they make [the food] at home? Did they make it in their garage?... There's so many question marks, and as a public health agency, we're not comfortable with that."
Among the biggest critics of the street vendors are nearby restaurant owners. Fernando Muñoz, owner of El Chisme, at 26th and Christiana, says he's concerned that the vendors have no place to wash their hands, placing their customers at risk of illness. He also notes that they can afford to sell the same products for less money because they don't pay property taxes, rent, or utilities. "I know they have to live," he says, "but it's not the right way."
"How [are customers] going to come in here if they already ate out there?" asks Natalia Pulido, owner of El Fandango, a restaurant across the street. "Your own friends comment, 'I ate over here because I don't have to tip the waitress,'" says Mariano Pulido, her son and business partner. "Street food is good for hard times. I understand. But it affects us too. It's just not right."
Both Muñoz and Natalia Pulido say they've called the city in the past to complain about the vendors but eventually gave up because nothing seemed to change. They do, however, try to keep their own corners cart-free. Pulido says that when anyone tries to set up shop in front of El Fandango, she asks them to move along.
"I don't think they would get away with this in any other neighborhood," Mariano Pulido says, adding that the dense cluster of food carts along 26th "wouldn't fly in Greektown."
The fight has been going on for years. In 1997 the Reader wrote about how inspectors from the Chicago Department of Public Health combed the streets of Little Village, dumping bleach on corn and produce, issuing tickets, and threatening to put the vendors out of business. The vendors fought back, organized by Ed Campos, a lawyer, neighborhood leader, and owner of several carts himself. They picketed outside the offices of aldermen and at City Hall, pressuring the mayor and City Council to drop punishing ordinances proposed in 1997 and 2000.
The first would have allowed the city to impound carts, and the second would have created a license for vendors but severely restricted their territory, barring them from selling near churches, schools, restaurants, parks, or residential areas—basically anywhere with people. Attorney Nick Valadez, another advocate for the vendors, told the Chicago Tribune in September 2000 that the city was trying "under the guise of food safety and sanitation... not to regulate, but eliminate."
Ticketing continued off and on, but the aggressive crackdowns seemed to end, and the vendors didn't stay organized. While some remained in business for years, others only sold for a short time before finding other work. Still others joined the association for help with a single ticket and then drifted away.
The association suffered another blow in November 2003, when Campos died and the Little Village Community Council, the neighborhood organization he led, stopped letting the vendors use its office for meetings.
In 2008 the city stepped up enforcement again. Unzueta says he knows vendors who've received five tickets in a year and some who've gotten away without any, but the fines have never been less than $360 per citation—a significant chunk of change to someone making $100 a day.
The vendors' goal is for the city to make available a license similar to one currently issued by the Chicago Park District. Last year 14 vendors paid $150 each to work in the parks during the summer, selling ice cream, snow cones, hot dogs, and, in at least one case, elotes. The Park District requires them to either have a hand-washing station on the cart or to park near a bathroom or some other place they can wash up. The license specifies the temperatures at which the food has to be stored and prohibits vendors from preparing it directly after handling money.
"If they have the licenses for the parks, why can't we get it for the city?" said Augusto Aquino, president of the vendors' association, who's sold fruits and vegetables from his truck at 31st and Central Park for 18 years.
Right now the vendors are studying the issue and starting to get organized again. Organizers are talking with vendors and waiting for the results of Morales-Mirque's expanded study. Then, with help from the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, they'll present their case to a handful of aldermen, hoping to find a champion.
Across the street from where Miguel Sanchez parks his cart, Lisa Sanches sells tacos, toasting the tortillas on a metal plate, then filling them with meat, cilantro, and onion. She isn't a member of the association, nor is she eligible to be—in an attempt to mollify restaurant owners, the association admits only vendors who sell elotes and tamales, which aren't on most Little Village restaurant menus. But she's hoping the outcome of its fight will mean legal protection for all street-food vendors—which would be a good thing for her, since last summer she got four tickets.
If the point of them was to deter further lawbreaking, they failed. Sanches laughed as she explained that to pay the fines, she needed to sell more tacos. Soon after getting her tickets, she was back on her corner, announcing, "estoy aqui"—here I am.v