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Mr. Mercado

Squeezed between the orange juice and a display of warm pork rinds, Congressman Luis Gutierrez meets his public

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By Linda Lutton

It's Saturday morning, and Lori Baas, deputy chief of staff for Luis Gutierrez, is stationed outside the El Guero #10 supermarket on Archer Avenue and California, just south of Pershing Road. She's handing out bilingual flyers that say "Please stop by and meet Congressman Luis Gutierrez. He is eager to talk to you and assist you with problems."

I ask if the congressman is around. "He's in the meat section," she says.

The meat section at El Guero runs the entire length of the supermarket. "Setenta y cinco!" a butcher yells from behind the counter. Families are jockeying their grocery carts for position, and the whole scene has the feel of an auction. I walk by pork parts, pig's feet, meat for tamales, meat for tacos, meat for menudo, brains, tongue, rotisserie chicken, skirt steak, and three pale pigs laid out Superman style.

At the end of the counter in the back corner of the store, Gutierrez and his people have squeezed a card table between stacks of Sunny Delight juice drink and a warm display of pork rinds. Staff members surround Gutierrez, who's casually dressed for a congressman, though he's probably the only guy in the store with a tie. He appears to be having a good time. "We've gotta negotiate better," he jokes. "You know, not everyone makes it back here. When we go to Jewel they put us right in front."

Gutierrez has been on a tour of Fourth District supermarkets lately. He hit upon the idea while doing his own shopping, he says; week after week constituents who recognized the congressman sent him home with their concerns. "So we said why don't we go to the grocery store? People have time to debate there."

But El Guero shoppers are not showing much interest in debating the philosophical underpinnings of current legislative trends in Congress. They're more worried about the here and now. Gutierrez seems to be playing a role somewhere between legal-aid lawyer and Catholic priest. People mill around the end of the meat counter, hoping to talk to el congresista, as if they're waiting to go to confession; one by one they address him in low voices just beyond the cash register.

"I just became a citizen," one man says in a hushed voice.

An effervescent Gutierrez doesn't hold back. "Well congratulations! When? This last time? Just in March?"

The man whispers a response. "But it's my mother. She still lives in Michoacan. I want to know how I can bring her over."

El Guero supermarkets (named after the owner's nickname--something akin to "Whitey" in English) are without question Mexican joints. Their aisles are crammed with south-of-the-border imports or made-in-Chicago substitutes--Chihuahua cheese, El Guero-brand tortillas (six dozen for $1.09), incense (sold not by fragrance but by the saint pictured on the package), tall vigil candles of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and powdered laundry soap in plastic bags. Some Gueros (#6, for instance, at Blue Island and 19th) are even equipped with signs over the entrance that announce proudly (in Spanish, of course) "We're Mexican Just Like You Are." El Guero #10 is particularly impressive; it looks like it's caught up in a perpetual celebration of Mexican independence. A gigantic Mexican flag hangs near the back wall; two smaller flags are sewn together and hang over a display of grapefruits. Bright-colored pinatas are suspended from every possible square inch of the ceiling, their dangling crepe paper decorations dancing slightly in the air-conditioned breeze.

The radio's blasting ranchera hits on FM 105 WOJO--"Estereo Mex." Like most Saturdays at El Guero, the place is packed. Checkout girls with not-quite-matching red shirts and pastel sombreros frantically punch prices.

The chaos engulfs Gutierrez's ad hoc office. Request-for-service forms detailing constituents' problems are stacking up on the card table, nearly all of them having to do with immigration issues. "This is an immigration case," says congressional aide Rosa Roman, picking up a sheet off the top of the pile. "He applied for his family to come over. That was in California. He paid over $2,000 in application fees and he was denied." She pulls out another at random. "This one applied for his mother and father to come over. It's been four years, and he hasn't heard anything."

Gutierrez is juggling constituents and penciling in details on the forms, which his staff will deal with later. "Do they have kids?" he asks. "They don't have kids? OK. That's easier....Your wife?...Rosa, how long until they call the people who applied for citizenship in March?...You lost your voting card? OK....Hey, his wife's being harassed at work, and he doesn't know what he can do about it.

"I think I have a new one," the congressman announces suddenly, holding up a well-preserved black-and-white photo ID card from 1955. "He's got his father's old alien laborer's card. His father paid social security for years; he wants to see if he can get the money."

It would be hard to find the geographic heart of Gutierrez's earmuff-shaped district, which falls in two masses on the northwest and southwest sides, then shoots out to such suburbs as Hillside and Melrose Park. But El Guero #10 is pretty close to its spiritual epicenter. According to Gutierrez's office, 65 percent of his district is Latino, and between 30 and 35 percent of his constituents were born outside the U.S.

"Aqui estamos, para servirle," Gutierrez says to a passing shopper in the campaign-speak politicians never seem to lose. "We're here to serve you." A three-year-old dressed vaquero style with cowboy boots, leather fringe, and a sombrero rides by in a grocery cart. A number of people congratulate the congressman. "You are the voice for all of us," says one shopper in Spanish. "Hey! That's a lot of mangoes you've got there," Gutierrez says to a man who's greeted him carrying a full case. Populist Gutierrez jokingly rubs his stomach and nods toward the mangoes.

At one o'clock sharp congressional staffers collect the mountain of forms and slide the card table back into its slender cardboard box. "We said we'd be here from 11 to 1, and we were," says Gutierrez, just for the record.

A woman behind the counter hands Gutierrez a pork rind he's requested. She looks just slightly confused by the whole situation, perhaps wondering exactly who Gutierrez is and why he's chosen to spend the last two hours in the meat section. El congresista is enjoying his pork rind, oblivious. "Can you blame me?" he asks, taking a crisp bite. "I've been eyeing these chicharones for two hours."

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