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Adriana Gallardo On The True Cost Of El Milagro Tortillas

Written by on August 22, 2022

Luis Olivo, an El Milagro employee, speaks at a September protest outside the company’s location at 3050 W. 26th St.
Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Ayana Contreras: Can we just rewind for a hot second and talk about how El Milagro got so ingrained in Mexican Chicagoland culture in the first place?

Adriana Gallardo: The lore is really close to sort of the story that I think we all see ourselves in, right? As a young man that comes to the city, many decades ago, Mr. Lopez — who… is the founder of the company, Mexican from Mexico City — had learned the process of nixtamal, which is how you prepare the masa to make the tortillas. He comes here to work in the railroad systems and sort of starts slinging tortillas on the side and… this is how the company tells it. And the tortillas sort of grow to be very popular, and then that’s the beginning of the tortilleria. He has a family, his children then become the people running the company, and so forth. 

And so it’s been Mexican-owned, which I think is its own point of pride for many Chicagoans. It’s operated locally. It’s in the Latino neighborhoods. It’s a very, it’s part of the fabric of many of these communities, like… Maria Gutierrez, who was in the piece. She lived around the corner from one of the factories in the ’80s. So it was easy for her to walk there, make a fair living… doing the best she could for her family then, and sort of those were the folks that have always been working at these factories. Are our neighbors and people we know. And, it turns out, family, which I learned through this piece, too.

Ayana Contreras: Talk a little bit about that… in addition to that, what were some of the things that you uncovered that you didn’t know before?

Adriana Gallardo: I was completely ignorant that, in the ’80s, there had been efforts to organize tortilla workers, beginning with Del Rey, which is another local brand that… we all sort of see every day at the supermarket. That… tortilla organizing has been a thing. And that, Rudy Lozano had been involved in organizing Del Rey in the early ’80s, before his death…

Ayana Contreras: Who was famous. 

Adriana Gallardo: Who was very famous. 

Ayana Contreras: Very famous, actually has a library branch named after him at 18th and Blue Island, in Pilsen.

Adriana Gallardo: Yes, he was… very well-known, his family’s still very much part of the city and in different ways. And I had no idea until I spoke to Maria Gutierrez, who’s the mother of one of my very good friends here in the city, who tells me that she was involved in that, left Del Rey to work for El Milagro, because she could make a little bit more money. But really, I had no idea how long conditions that tortilla factories had been an issue.

Ayana Contreras: Let’s talk about that. When did you first become aware of some of the roots of this 2021 shortage?

Adriana Gallardo: It was in headlines, which is much how I tell the story in this piece, is that I also thought it was so Chicago that a tortilla shortage would be headline news, for… multiple nights. In the beginning, it was a way for us to sort of see how far-reaching this thing was gonna be, right? The workers started dying in May of 2020. So, again, there was still more of a general why everyone should care [tone], people are dying, this is bad. You know, ripple effects. It was before I think we even had words for it, and we weren’t talking about the supply chain issues. We weren’t really talking about it in that way.

In 2021, people started actually speaking against the company in public ways, backed by Arise [Chicago] that was… helping them organize. 

Ayana Contreras: Talk about who Arise is? 

Adriana Gallardo: Arise is a workers rights organization in the city that, while they’re not unionizing, they were organizing them to voice their concerns, to become public and lead a bunch of demonstrations throughout the city, when we start learning that… workers were lacking things like appropriate air conditioning on very hot days. The speeds on the line had increased, almost to a point of causing harm. Folks started looking through the records and said that… we learned that they had been investigated for potential amputations on the line. Really serious concerns for for worker safety, sexual harassment accusations that workers say had gone by unaddressed. Really the slew of… on top of the seven day workweek, which ended due to these efforts… and over eight hours a shift… Altogether, it was a pretty dark picture of how the tortillas had been getting made.

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