This article, originally published in Spanish by La Raza, is available in English thanks to the “Translating Chicago News” project led by the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).
By Belhú Sanabria
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. 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 can only grant 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
Street vendors must complete the financial assistance application available at bit.ly/3cqloIN
Translated by Marcela Cartagena