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

This article, originally published in Spanish by La Raza, is available in English thanks to the “Translating Chicago News” project, by the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).

By Belhú Sanabria

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.

Translated by Marcela Cartagena