Selling on the streets: How Hispanic street vendors in Chicago adapt to COVID-19

The Hispanic street vendors of Chicago are an important part of the community and provide relevant economic contributions, but are often neglected and suffer from lack of support

Selling on the streets: How Hispanic street vendors in Chicago adapt to COVID-19
Carmen Camacho sells mexican style bread baked at home in Little Village. His cart shows a poster with information to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Foto: Impremedia

I.  Advocates work to protect Little Village street vendors from COVID-19

Social workers carry messages about measures to prevent contagion and preserve the health of street vendors and essential workers in coronavirus-impacted communities

While wearing masks and lining up to buy tamales, refreshments, or pudding rice, Little Village neighbors curiously read an informative flyer posted on the traveling cart ‘Lorraine’s Tamales’.

The poster —which displays messages such as “Support your local street vendor” and “Your health is connected to mine’s”— is there to educate the public about how to protect street vendors from COVID-19 in the Little Village and North Lawndale neighborhoods in Chicago’s southwest side.

Little Village resident Dolores Castañeda carries a backpack filled with English and Spanish posters, duct tape, and disinfectant gel bottles. She is a member of the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project’s research group, an initiative of the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago (UIC).

As she walks through the neighborhood, she delivers bottles of disinfectant liquid to vendors. She pastes signs in parks, laundromats, shops, bus stops, and street carts. This initiative has been carried out for three weeks in these neighborhoods.

“Stay at home if you’re sick; practice six-foot social distancing; wear masks; wash your hands; cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze; and disinfect surfaces you touch frequently” are some of the recommendations listed on the posters.

The initiative, called the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project, seeks to improve and protect workers’ health in the North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods. Among them, street vendors who work in those neighborhoods.

The project focuses on spreading health-safety messages and reaching out to street vendors and essential workers in those communities that have been heavily affected by the pandemic.

Castañeda has been worried about Little Village as this neighborhood has had high positive rates of COVID-19, primarily affecting Latinos. Many of its residents are undocumented and essential workers, she said. “I was concerned about the contagion situation, and the fact that our street vendors are on the street exposes them to COVID-19.”

From this concern came the idea of distributing informative posters, which is part of the project led by Jeni Hebert, director of the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project.

“We wanted to send a positive message through these posters because many public health messages create fear… if you don’t put on the mask, you can get sick, which is true. But we wanted to spread another message, a message of unity and community. That’s why we chose those lines that say, ‘Your health is connected to mine’s,” said Sylvia Gonzalez, manager of the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project.

This project has carried out several health-focused initiatives since it was launched five years ago. And one of those initiatives is raising awareness to protect street vendors from the virus.

“You and I are connected in health; when you protect yourself, you protect me, and when I protect myself, I protect you. There is a connection in health, and that way, you can get people to be aware of how important it is to take care of each other,” Castañeda said.

The pandemic should not be “normalized” because it is not over yet, Castañeda emphasized in reference to those who don’t wear masks or practice social distancing. “In the future, let’s hope that we pass this pandemic, as we have already historically passed others, but as long as we are in this, we have to protect ourselves,” she added.

The project has several goals but the main one, Gonzalez said, is “to transform unhealthy jobs into healthy jobs.”

Education and prevention

Now, “street vendors go out to sell their products with masks on and keep social distance, but many are afraid to get the virus. Many clients wear masks, but some don’t, and we must protect them,” Castañeda said in an interview with La Raza.

With her mask on and antibacterial gel in hand, Guadalupe Pérez sells fruit scrapes from its traveling cart called ‘El Lupillo’ outside the La Chiquita Supermarket in Little Village. He’s been selling there for 20 years.

He said there is still business despite the pandemic and works seven days a week in the same place. “COVID has decreased my sales a little bit, but not much… Almost most of the people who come wear their masks [because] they fear that I might give them the virus,” Pérez said.

Carmen Camacho sells homemade Mexican-style bread in Little Village and says the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project’s informational posters help her clients become aware. The posters educate about coronavirus prevention; therefore, following the right health-safety measure are a win-win for all.

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Arías Benítez and her mother Arías María Benítez sell cookies and home-baked bread in Back of the Yards. (Courtesy SVAC)

II. Community supports Chicago street vendors affected by the COVID-19 crisis

“For the government, we do not exist,” a street vendor claimed. Young leaders launched a fundraising campaign to help street vendors, and so far, they have raised more than $46,000

María Benítez and her daughter, Arias Benítez, sell cookies and homemade bread at the Back of the Yards neighborhood as they carry these delicious Mexican-style goodies in a little shopping cart. For more than 10 years, street vending has been their sole source of income for the Benitez family.

But the COVID-19 epidemic has disrupted their way of making a living.

Maria’s husband is the one who makes the homemade Mexican bread. He was a pastry chef and worked for many years in a factory. After experiencing vision problems due to diabetes, he looked for another job. Still, he later decided to quit to dedicate himself entirely to his own business.

Regardless of the weather, María Benítez would go out to sell bread and cookies in schools and on the streets of Back of the Yards from 8 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon, seven days a week.

Before studying sociology and Spanish at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Arias Benítez helped her parents make and sell bread after school two years ago. Today, she is back in Chicago taking care of her younger siblings and helping her parents.

The Mexican bread business has allowed the family to pay rent and food for a decade. “I’m in college, and that’s how my parents have helped me a little bit. Fortunately, I have a full scholarship. However, I still have to pay for my books and flights. And I have been able to do all with the help of my parents,” said the 20-year-old, who is also a member of the community organization Increase the Peace.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the college student says sales have been affected. “Since there is no one on the streets and neither can one be on the streets for too long, my mother only sells on-demand, and so it is not the same thing. Now it’s very different because no one sees her walking so no one orders from her,” she said.

Arias Benitez said street vendors and undocumented workers are not eligible for any federal government relief due to this pandemic. “For the government, we don’t exist. This is not right; it’s not fair. Everybody comes here to Chicago for the vendors; everybody wants to buy stuff from the street vendors. Everyone wants to help people, but the government doesn’t think about us.”

Boosting aid funds

Due to the hardships these street vendors face, a group of young leaders from southwest Chicago held a fundraiser to help this community’s vulnerable section.

Many of the street vendors don’t qualify for federal government stimulus money. They also did not have access to business relief funds because many don’t have city permits.

In addition, the majority of street vendors depend on people outside churches, schools, and on the streets. Due to the state order for residents to stay home, these vendors were left without any clientele, explained Berto Aguayo, executive director of Increase the Peace.

Increase the Peace’s youth-led street vendor help committee has created a GoFundMe page to help Chicago’s street vendors. By mid-October, they’ve already raised more than $46,000.

Since last May, applications for street vendors to apply for financial aid have been available online in English and Spanish. The program granted each eligible applicant up to $500.

Aguayo said he’d seen a lot of community support for this cause. “This is a sign of community power and that a lot of people care and want to see street vendors get help.”

The only requirement to apply for financial aid is for street vendors to live in Chicago.

Most street vendors can’t read or write, speak English, and have limited internet and computer skills.

For those reasons, the youth group goes to the areas where street vendors are generally found to let them know about the program. If the vendors are interested, they ask if they need assistance accessing and submitting applications online.

In addition to giving cash, the group also educates street vendors about other resources and organizations that can further help them with different needs.

Founded in the Back of The Yards neighborhood, Increase the Peace is an organization created to find and train leaders to change their neighborhoods and advocate for peace in communities in southwest Chicago.

To help and get help

Visit the GoFundMe page at bit.ly/3cGUNHm 

To apply for support

Street vendors must complete the financial assistance application available at bit.ly/3cqloIN

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For two months, Hispanic street vendors prepared 50,000 tamales and 20,000 tacos to be distributed among poor Chicago communities affected by COVID-19. (Courtesy SVAC)

III. Chicago street-vendors cooperative seeks to purchase building where their commercial kitchen operates

The group’s goal is to turn the place into a center that generates employment for residents of Latino and African-American neighborhoods

Fearing arrest by police, Chicago street vendors prepare food in a shared kitchen that operates in rented premises that they now want to purchase.

The Chicago Traveling Vendors Association (CTVA) seeks to purchase the building from where they currently operate and where the Cooperative Workers Shared Kitchen uses to prepare food. There they prepare the Mexican food and snacks that they sell in different parts of Chicago.

The vendors association opened the city-certified shared kitchen in 2016, which operates in North Lawndale, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.

To comply with the law and meet all the city’s health requirements by legalizing the street sale of food in 2015, these entrepreneurs rented the place to operate their commercial kitchen.

The ordinance regulating the sale of prepared food in traveling carts entered into force on Nov. 13, 2015.

This law states that the street vendor must not prepare the food in the cart or cut or season it there. They have to cook and package their products —before their carts are taken to the streets— in licensed commercial kitchens approved by the Chicago Department of Public Health, among other requirements.

Chicago has an estimated 1,500 street vendors, mostly Mexican immigrants, who sell elotes (corn on the cob Mexican style), fruit salad, tamales, and refreshments, among other foods and snacks.

Fernando Huerta, the group’s kitchen administrator and board member of the Chicago Traveling Vendors Association, believes that the number of street vendors could have increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people who have lost their jobs have now started selling food on the streets, he said.

Ana Galindo has been selling elotes, tamales, cut fruit, and chicharrones (pork rinds Mexican style) in the Back of The Yards neighborhood for 12 years. She uses the shared kitchen six days a week to prepare the products that she sells in her traveling cart in the neighborhood located in the southwest side of Chicago.

“Among the requirements that the city asks to be able to grant permits to street vendors is to have or rent a shared kitchen or own a restaurant. Unfortunately, I don’t count on that money,” Galindo told La Raza.

She said that when she was looking for a commercial kitchen in other neighborhoods, she was charged between $1,500 and $2,000 a month.

“Here in the cooperative’s shared kitchen, we don’t get to pay $1,000 a month. This kitchen is more affordable,” said Galindo, who is also a member of the CTVA.

The shared kitchen is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “The kitchen is rented not only to street vendors but also to anyone who wants to rent the space,” Huerta said.

“It hasn’t been easy for us to get the licenses out because there are many requirements that weren’t within the law when it happened; they’ve been modified, they’ve been changing. So it’s a constant struggle for us. The organization and some lawyers have been helping us,” Huerta said.

The Chicago Traveling Vendors Association has a membership of 150 street vendors, and 36 of them decided to form the kitchen, formally registered on March 13, 2020.

Seeking support for the purchase

To achieve their goal of buying the building where CTVA operates, these street vendors have launched a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe. So far, they have only raised $355. However, they hope to raise $40,000 for the building’s down payment, which has a total cost of $150,000.

The Chicago Traveling Vendors Association earned a $114,625 grant from the Chicago Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) in the past administration to repair and remodel the building. But Huerta says they still can’t access that money because they have to own the property.

Thanks to a $120,000 grant from the Chicago Region Food System Fund, these street vendors prepared and distributed for two months more than 50,000 tamales and 20,000 tacos throughout Chicago’s most impoverished communities affected by the pandemic. They said they’re still looking for resources to keep giving food to the city’s low-income communities.

These entrepreneurs ask the Chicago community for a hand to purchase the building where their shared kitchen operates, so they can also continue to provide food to under-resourced communities and bring an income to their families.

Generating jobs

These merchants aim to turn the place into an economic center that employs Chicago’s Latino and African-American neighborhoods.

“We will seek to generate jobs, improve the neighborhood, and get more business. We want to make tamales in production and sell them and have workers of all races. That’s what we need space for,” Huerta said.

How you can help

To support this cause, visit www.gofundme.com/f/street-vendors-association-of-chicago-coop-kitchen

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The production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. La Raza appreciates its support.