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Elotero in Rogers Park: ‘When you love the work, it’s beautiful’

Felipe Vallarta, 58, an elotero, serves corn from his stand at the intersection of Clark and Rogers in Rogers Park, Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Zenaida Castillo, 60, starts every work day at 8 a.m. and ends each day shortly after midnight, seven days a week.

She and her husband, Felipe Vallarta, are eloteros. They work on the street, selling corn, chicharrónes, mangos, shaved ice, potato chips and tamales, stationed at a stand outside Rogers Park Fruit Market, at the corner of Rogers Ave. and Clark St. on the North Side.

Vallarta, 58, makes and serves elote by quickly cutting the corn off the cob and throwing it in a styrofoam cup with butter, mayonnaise, cotija cheese and cayenne pepper — a process that in it’s entirety takes anywhere between 10 and 30 seconds. Blink, and you could miss a step.

Castillo, his wife of 23 years, serves the rest of the products and also does all of the preparatory work at home, in their third-floor apartment, within walking distance of the intersection. Vallarta also works a second job at a restaurant.

“The truth is, it’s difficult, but when you love the work, it’s beautiful,” he said.

The couple, who moved to the United States from Puebla, Mexico in 1995, have one daughter and four grandchildren. They can be seen posted on the corner from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day (they have an agreement with the owner of the fruit market).

Their stand, dubbed “Zenaida,” consists of two plastic folding tables; two large canvas umbrellas; three coolers for the boiled corn, tamales being kept warm and ice; six plastic tubs full of different flavors of syrup for the shaved ice; boxes of fresh mangos; plastic tubs full of homemade potato chips; bags of chicharrónes — fried pork rinds — which Vallarta hangs from the umbrellas; and a wagon full of the styrofoam cups, napkins and other dry goods.

“I really like serving all the people, I’m involved with the community,” he said. “Honestly, I love what I do. I do it with love, it’s as they say, my work, I work with respect for my people.”

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An elote sells for $2.50; mangos are between $2 and $5, depending on the size; chicharrónes are $1.50; tamales are $1.25; and shaved ice is $1. They make anywhere between $120 and $150 a day.

The couple buys nearly 50 corncobs and one to two pounds of cheese every day. The corn is boiled at home and prepared, while Castillo is also making about 30 chicken tamales, served with both green and red salsa. A few times a week, she also makes the chips, one bag of which takes 30 minutes.

Whatever corn they don’t sell on a given day must be thrown away.

“It’s hard work, but [the food] has to be fresh. We can’t recook the corn,” she said, adding that people come from all over the neighborhood and often Evanston to visit the stand.

During the winter, the couple only comes out if the temperature is above 40 degrees, selling tamales, champurrado — a Mexican version of hot chocolate — and a smaller amount of elote.

Castillo said, on those days, she wears four pairs of pants and three jackets in addition to all the normal weather gear like boots, a hat, a scarf and gloves.

“If you don’t [prepare], you won’t survive,” she said.

“Zenaida” is one of about half a dozen elotero carts along North Clark St., between Pratt Blvd. and Howard St.

Does the street food bring a little bit of Mexico to Chicago?

“In truth, yes,” said Vallarta. “I think we all have our ways of survival.”

This article is part of Working 360, a weekly newsletter of stories that matter to working Americans that is emailed each Tuesday. To sign up, go to suntimes.com/newslettersWorking 360 content also can be found at chicago.suntimes.com/section/working/.

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