Monday, September 29, 2014

The Tamale Underground

From In These Times:  http://inthesetimes.com/article/17146/the_tamale_underground

Street vendors must skirt the law to make a living.

BY Rebecca Burns September 8, 2014

Each afternoon in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, 70-year-old Cuala resumes her quiet game of cat-and-mouse with police. After spending a few hours openly hawking cool drinks or hot chocolates from a cart, the street vendor (who declined to give her last name because of legal concerns) stocks an unmarked cooler with tamales, making furtive lunch sales to customers in the know. The stealth tactic reduces her profits, but lessens the chance that she will be arrested and ticketed: While the sale of drinks and packaged desserts is legal, street vendors like Cuala are prohibited from selling prepared foods in Chicago.

Though carts offering tamales, elotes, cut fruit and other treats are a common sight on Chicago streets, the Windy City is one of the few major metropolises that won’t grant such vendors business licenses, citing the difficulty of regulation and potential health concerns. As a result, street vendors, many of whom are poor immigrants, are subject to harassment from police, arrest and punishing fines of up to $1,000.

Some, like Cuala, resort to subterfuge; others vend only in the early morning, when police officers known for targeting vendors aren’t on the beat; others dash off the street whenever a police car approaches.

Whatever the strategy, the result is the same: Vendors, many of whom have already been shut out of the formal economy because of their age, childcare responsibilities, language barriers or immigration status, are forced to remain in the shadows. Street vendors and their advocates say that the ongoing threat of arrest represents a major barrier to growing vending businesses enough to make a decent living. It also takes a psychological toll on vendors.

Cuala once worked temporary jobs, but can no longer get hired: “They don’t want anybody old,” she says. She began selling tamales seven years ago. But one day last year, as she was handing tamales to a customer, a police officer grabbed them, threw them back at her and threatened to arrest her if she continued to sell on 26th street, the bustling thoroughfare that runs through Little Village.

Since then, Cuala has been in “constant fear” when police pass by and sells her tamales more surreptitiously. But her new strategy can yield as little as $80 each day, she says, whereas when she sold in the open, she made up to $200. The result, she says, is that it’s now impossible to save money, and she and two adult nephews whom she lives with must get by “day by day.”

All this could change soon. Arguing that street vending is an inextricable part of the fabric of city life, a coalition of vendors, labor activists and community groups are advocating a City Council ordinance that would legalize vending.

Continue reading at:  http://inthesetimes.com/article/17146/the_tamale_underground

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