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Back of the Yards

Street Vendors Left Behind By Pandemic Relief Efforts Need Your Help: ‘They Are Essential To Our History’

Street vendors who sell elote, tamales and more lost most of their income due to coronavirus. “Every time we apply for business relief we don’t qualify."

Arias Benitez and her mother, Maria Benitez, have sold baked goods for 10 years in Back of the Yards.
Increase The Peace/Instagram
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BACK OF THE YARDS —  Arias Benitez has seen firsthand the devastating financial impact coronavirus is having on the street vendor community.

The 20-year-old has helped her parents sell pan dulce and other treats along 47th Street in Back of the Yards for over a decade. Now, with less foot traffic because of closed schools, churches and businesses, street vendors like the Benitez family have seen their sales plummet and they have few — if any — options for emergency relief.

“It’s been very hard … to find help,” Benitez said. “Every time we apply for business relief we don’t qualify … . No one is helping out street vendors.”

Increase the Peace, a volunteer group working to combat gun violence and develop young leaders on the South and West sides, launched a GoFundMe campaign last week to raise money for street vendors struggling through the pandemic.

RELATED: With No Safety Net, Undocumented Chicagoans Struggle To Survive Pandemic: ‘We’ve Been Left Behind’

Berto Aguayo, founder and lead organizer of the group, said Increase the Peace decided to launch the fundraiser because its members didn’t see any city officials or groups stepping up to help. With no access to stimulus money and unable to qualify for business relief grants, street vendors, many of whom are undocumented, are being forgotten, Aguayo said.

Credit: Juan Jose Ayala Jr.
Increase the Peace members canvass the streets of Back of the Yards to talk to street vendors Tuesday afternoon.

“Whenever you think of childhood living in the barrio on the Southwest Side in a Mexican American community, … one of those memories might be eating an elote or a paleta on a hot summer day,” Aguayo said. “Street vendors are so often overlooked but they are such an essential part of our community.

“We need to help street vendors now so when this is all over … they are able to return to the streets and continue creating these memories that are essential to our culture, to our people and to our neighborhood.”

Related: Chicago’s Latino Neighborhoods Have Most Coronavirus Cases In The State. Is The City Doing Enough To Respond?

The group hopes to provide at least 30 street vendors with $500 and provide additional resources, including information on future rent assistance programs and COVID testing sites.

The group has raised more than $14,400 so far and received more than 50 applications for assistance, Aguayo said.

Aguayo and Benitez canvassed the streets of Back of the Yards Tuesday afternoon to spread awareness of the assistance programs among the street vendor community in the South Side neighborhood.

RELATED: Coronavirus Cases More Than Double In Chicago’s Latino Community

Benitez, who recently returned home from Georgetown University, has dug into her savings to help her family. She said growing up she would help her parents prepare dough nightly after school, wake up early to stock the cart and go up and down the streets of Back of the Yards to sell the family’s baked goods.

Amid the stay at home order, Benitez has delivered orders to loyal customers’ homes to keep her immunocompromised parents safe inside.

The spring and summer months normally would be a boon for the family. They would have special orders for wedding cakes or quinceaneras, she said, in addition to their regular business.

Now with canceled events, that income is gone, she said. 

Credit: Juan Jose Ayala Jr.
Increase the Peace members canvass the streets of Little Village to talk to street vendors Tuesday afternoon.

Elizeth Arguelles, 25, who helps her mother sell tamales on 26th Street in Little Village, said the movement to raise money for street vendors was critical for the vulnerable community.

Even as the Little Village community and other Latino communities across Chicago are among the hardest-hit neighborhoods, street vendors are still out selling their goods just to scrape by, Arguelles said.

“They are the unsung heroes,” Arguelles said. “Street vendors are more than street vendors. They are entrepreneurs. They are a staple in the city of Chicago. Many people from outside of the city come to buy products from them. They are essential to our history and our communities.”

Instead of overlooking them, she said, “It’s time that we come together and help those ones who really need it during a time of crisis.”

You can donate to the fundraiser for street vendors here.

Street vendors seeking financial help can apply here.

People seeking information in Spanish on testing and other resources can find them here.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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