Adriana Gallardo On The True Cost Of El Milagro Tortillas
Written by Ayana Contreras on August 22, 2022
“Companies aren’t families.
I think I really attached myself to this product because it was Mexican-made in the city that I love. And it’s what my mom always chose for us growing up, that it was unquestionable. We really have to question everything, not just the things that are foreign, or distant or expensive. It really is everything.”– Adriana Gallardo on El Milagro Tortillas
Ayana Contreras talks with reporter Adriana Gallardo about the employee outcry against El Milagro Tortillas, and the cultural significance its name carries throughout Chicago’s Latinx community.
Founded in 1950 by Raul Lopez, a Mexican immigrant, El Milagro Tortillas has been a beacon of pride for Chicago’s Latinx community for more than 70 years, both connecting consumers to their ancestral home, and eventually coming to represent their new-found home, as well. So, when the tumult of 2020 brought with it a shortage of this beloved household staple, lines formed around blocks and boxes were bought en masse. For the thousands who grew up eating this staple food, it represents family as much as it represents Chicago.
That pride quickly turned into heartbreak as allegations started surfacing about the company’s abuse of its workers. In 2021, El Milagro’s factory workers began publicly speaking out about the mistreatment they faced; laborers took to the street in protest against harsh working conditions, unreasonable hours, unaddressed instances of sexual harassment and unsafe production line speeds. That fall, workers took to the streets with advocacy group Arise Chicago to demand better working conditions. In April of this year, the Illinois Department of Labor said the company committed “flagrant” workers’ rights violations, according to a report by WBEZ.
As disturbing accounts of workers’ rights violations surfaced, consumers in the city and beyond have had difficulties separating their love for the iconic tortilla with the company’s actions. One such consumer, writer and reporter Adriana Gallardo — who splits her time between New York and Chicago — has felt particularly affected by the El Milagro labor violations. This July she wrote about her mixed emotions and personal ties to the tortilla brand for Catapult magazine, titled “The Tortilla Type of Hurt, How One Broke My Heart.” Gallardo sat down with Ayana Contreras, host of Reclaimed Soul on Vocalo, to discuss the article and her inner conflict surrounding the company.
“I was understanding that I might need to part ways with it, and that was something really difficult for me to think about,” she explained. “The one thing I rely on for true sustenance.”
Gallardo spoke about how she and many members of Chicago’s Latinx community continue to process the changing identity of El Milagro Tortillas, and the continuing fight for fair treatment.
Stream their full conversation now on Spotify.
Adriana Gallardo: My name is Adriana Gallardo. And I’m a reporter and writer who splits her time between New York and Chicago
Ayana Contreras: And a Vocalo…
Adriana Gallardo: Vocalo alum! Yeah, 10 years ago, we launched the Vocalo Storytelling Workshops.
Ayana Contreras: That’s right.
Adriana Gallardo: And I used to, we taught that together, and I’m a product of Radio Arte, which, you know, in many ways, preceded the wonderful work that you continue to do here. But yeah, community media, very much part of my DNA.
Ayana Contreras: And I am Ayana Contreras and you are tuned to Vocalo, and we have a very special conversation about how tortillas broke your heart.
Adriana Gallardo: The piece is called “The Tortilla Type of Hurt, How One Broke My Heart.” Maybe I can read the last two graphs of it. Because this piece is also personal in the way that I weave in the headlines, the information we’re learning about the company, with my own indecision of where to live. And so, a lot of the piece is also personal in that way. But I think here… includes a few of the takeaways, so I’ll read this piece.
"In many ways, 2020 has never left us. We now know deeply the true cost of our comforts. For me, that list included tortillas and the home they carried for me when I wasn’t able to make one. As for my hurt, it is now a hole in my fridge. The hole looks like an empty tortilla-pack wrapper, still in a sandwich baggie. The last pack that came from the freezer. The one I never got around to throwing away. The empty monument next to the rest of my food reminds me that what’s lost is only gone when we stray from who we fight for, not from where. That sometimes the home you need is the one that finds you. My inconvenience and nostalgia is nothing compared to the workers who won’t make headlines but who still believe we can do better. I am also reminded that a company isn’t a family. Family are the people who, no matter how many years have passed, pick up the phone for you to talk about tortillas or anything else. Whether I’m in New York or Chicago, family is the ones who pick up. Family is Aaron’s mom [Maria Gutierrez] working the third shift while pregnant. Family are the people who I got to share the perfect tortilla with over hundreds of meals growing up. It’s those who know that a tortilla should only be turned over the flame by hand. It’s knowing that a good tortilla travels across time and space and that it is crafted with dignity from root to hand."
Ayana Contreras: So, explain that to folks who have not read this article on Catapult – it’s on the Catapult website — what was the sort of hurt that you dig into with this article?
Adriana Gallardo: I really was trying to make sense of how something that I love so much, like El Milagro Tortillas… I was understanding that I might need to part ways with it. And that was something really difficult for me to think about. The one thing that I rely on for… true sustenance, like, it’s a thing I eat, I ate all of my life growing up, and then when I leave Chicago, almost 10 years ago, it’s like the one thing that I must have with me wherever I go. And then in the pandemic, to suddenly started to see fall apart in different ways.
First it was just a shortage, and the shortage alone was a little scary, like, ‘What? There aren’t enough of these for everyone? We’re gonna have to figure out a way for us to all have some and get by.’ And then the second shortage comes in 2021, and that one is the one that I talk about making lessons, like suddenly we knew how to do this better, suddenly, people had some level of protection, and the tortilla was still lagging behind. And then we start learning why it was lagging behind, and it was actually the worst case scenario, which was that the workers were being abused in the process of making the thing that, you know, I had attached so hard to. Not just I, you know, I talk about how it’s been a… El Milagro Tortillas are a thing that… you can search it on Twitter, and you’ll see how far people have gone to secure a box or a bunch of dozens to just sort of get why.
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