CHICAGO– This city's roughly 1,500 Latino street vendors have won the University of Chicago as an ally in their struggle with the municipal government to sell their products without being persecuted by police.
"We want to end this cat and mouse game with the cops," Virginia Lugo, vice-president of the Association of Street Vendors, said.
For them it's a daily struggle for subsistence that sometimes has its comic side "because we're the ones keeping watch on the police - so we can be ready for their patrols and avoid getting fined," she said in an interview with Efe.
Lugo said the street vendors begin selling at 5:00 a.m. in neighborhoods with a large Latino clientele looking for traditional products like tamales, chicharrones (pork cracklings), pupusas (thick Salvadoran tortillas), champurrados (thick hot drinks made with ground corn and chocolate), corn on the cob and sliced fruit.
Police and municipal inspectors assigned to control street vendors go on the beat between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., so that "we have to disappear until 10:00 a.m. at least," at which time the cops take a break and for the moment the streets are no longer dangerous.
Whoever gets caught selling fruit or vegetables without a license, or has food products that are not canned or bottled, can be hit with fines of up to $1,500.
"We need a new ordinance so we can work in peace, something better than the City Council is now considering," Lugo said.
An ordinance presented in June would alter the city code that regulates food sales in the street, and would include everything from small carts like the Latinos use to genuine kitchens on wheels able to offer such dishes as gazpacho, spicy or sweet-and-sour chicken, and desserts of all kinds.
The new ordinance would establish health and hygiene regulations for preparing fresh dishes on carts, though it bans the sale of tacos, hot dogs with sauces, or any other processed food that requires cooking, and also bars vendors from selling in the streets before 10:00 a.m.
It would also prohibit them from serving customers less than 30 meters (100 feet) from an established restaurant, and from making sales less than 60 meters (200 feet) from a store offering products similar to those sold from the cart.
Street vendors need further meetings with the City Council, where they have already won the support of 17 of the 50 aldermen, which prompted the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School to offer its assistance.
Under the slogan "My Streets! My Eats!", the clinic has law students providing legal aid to low-income vendors in their fight against the new statute.
According to Milnikel, director of the IJ Clinic, Chicago's food industry on wheels offers its entrepreneurs great possibilities of economic growth.