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Adriana Gallardo On The True Cost Of El Milagro Tortillas

Written by on August 22, 2022

Adriana Gallardo by Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Ayana Contreras: We’re talking about these issues that really came to light in 2021. What has come of these revelations?

Adriana Gallardo: Definitely a public outcry. I think I wasn’t the only one that sort of started piecing the headlines together and really seeing a fuller picture of how hard these folks were seeking basic rights… like fair temperatures and fair pay and things of that nature. I hope the same thing that I experienced, which was also a realization of how costly our comfort food, and almost the closer it is to home, the harder it is to swallow that these, too, are inhumane practices, and that we’ve been participating in the supply chain for a very long time. Often without really questioning. 

I really assumed that, because it was a Mexican-owned company, naively, that they would do better by the workers. And, of course, that’s not true. And, of course, that’s not always also true. But it really… for me, I felt so naive throughout the whole process, as I’m reporting it out, as I’m sort of making sense of… is it right for me to keep bringing the tortillas with me back and forth? When I come home and I see my mom really chasing… going to several stores to try to put together enough for the week, so that we could… go without missing our tortillas. 

Also how far we were willing to go for the tortilla was really interesting to me, to see the lines in the news reports around blocks… for people who, just like we were, scouting for packs and willing to pay higher prices for them. And they… became really popular on Amazon. All of these things that… Yeah, the thing that was so part of… I never thought about the tortilla in this way. And so, I think, for me, that was also… where I began wrestling with how implicated we are, in all of this.

Ayana Contreras: Have there been any change for the workers, at that level, that you know of?

Adriana Gallardo: I mean, we know from headlines that the complaint to the Labor Board did result in some changes. They did end the seven-day work week, there have been small improvements made, they are now, at least publicly acknowledging the issues, through statements or through select interviews that they’ve given as a company. And now there’s… I think a huge leap with that there’s public consciousness around the workers’ conditions at these factories.

Ayana Contreras: That’s good news. Do you feel like that’s a resolution? I know you’re not… a spokesperson for these people. But as a consumer… I know we talk a lot about the cost of things. But, to your point about supply chain, and about humane treatment, I don’t know that we talk about the real costs of a lot of these things. Like, a pack is like a buck something, right? It’s pretty cheap. But what does it really cost?

Adriana Gallardo: And growing up, I remember, they were even cheaper, like, they were under $1, for a long time. And so it was one of the things that we could just literally keep putting into the cart without thinking if we were gonna be able to afford it, it was also that thing… that’s also why they were so precious, right? The endless supply of these. I don’t know, I still think a lot about what it means to buy them. And there’s definitely not a point where we can look the other way and say, “Things are getting better, and the company’s working towards better conditions.” I hope all of that is true. And I really hope that the company is addressing all of the long list of complaints… in ways that are meaningful, and… the workers haven’t unionized, I think that was a choice, that I don’t know where they’re at with that. Definitely, you know, Arise, will probably know best where they’re at in that regard. 

But… we’re also experiencing a shortage now, they’re harder to find now, I think, than they were in 2021. And so it’s been interesting to see how, now, people are adapting and… the combination of public consciousness, other brands being more available and, I believe the reason that we’re experiencing another shortage is still lack of workers. They don’t have enough workers to produce the demand that they see. And so, I know my mom has sort of gone with a new company, I see new tortilla brands in the fridge.

Ayana Contreras: Me too. 

Adriana Gallardo: So it’s also… that’s been really interesting, to sort of find that compromise.

Ayana Contreras: I bought a tortilla press. 

Adriana Gallardo: You’re making your own? That’s a whole other way to go about this.

Ayana Contreras: I was just like, you know, I just got to try something else. Because I was feeling bad when those stories came out. It was just like, that is incredibly dark, that people had to go through that… just to give people — you know, bread is such a… food of sustenance, you know what I’m saying? It’s not a luxury, it’s like a necessity for so many people. 

And, to your point, the fact that it’s so affordable, it’s… very democratic, in a sense. Being in a place like Chicago that was so early to unionize people in the fight for, you know, workers rights and all these things, and to have these people who are making this tentpole product not be able to enjoy those rights was like… I was like, I just can’t.

Adriana Gallardo: And the fact that that was a win… One of the championed wins was that they ended the seven-day workweek. You know, Maria Gutierrez was in this piece. She was working seven-day workweeks in the ’80s. So this isn’t a new practice, it seems like this was the way they were operating. She was working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekends. So really… the cost of these comforts are things that I think, for me, I wasn’t examining enough, probably until the pandemic.

A group of El Milagro workers strike in front of the El Milagro Headquarters at 3050 W. 26th St. in the Little Village neighborhood, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2021. Workers walked off the job at both the Little Village and Pilsen production facilities over alleged poor working conditions.
Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Ayana Contreras: I hate to say it’s a silver lining, but, in a sense, it is, because it opened a lot of people’s eyes — not just yours and not just mine — to, sort of, to the point, the real cost of these tortillas.

Adriana Gallardo: And that 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. And so this wedge that was introduced in the last few years, really also is like, yeah, we really have to question everything, not just the things that are foreign, or distant or expensive. It really is everything. 

One fun thing that happened in the process of writing this was that I learned that tortillas are part of the NASA diet. And it was really… you know this as a writer, when you’re writing, things just sort of start appearing. And maybe because of SEO and Google, but I got a thing saying, on Instagram, a picture of the first Mexican astronaut that went to space in ’85. And he had brought tortillas with him. So that’s how the piece comes in, and at some point, the piece ended with that. Because after his introduction of tortillas into space, because they didn’t have crumbs like bread, they became part of the NASA diet. So now, if you look on the things that astronauts take to space, tortillas are on there because of how practical they are. I just thought that was super cool. And really, the thought of thinking of a Mexican eating tortillas in space just really made me excited. Not gonna read the passage, but it was really a thing that I really enjoyed learning in the process. And I believe a Mexican woman just went to space recently. I don’t know if she took tortillas or not.


To keep up with Adriana Gallardo’s work, follow her on Twitter.

Interview and audio production by Ayana Contreras

Introduction written by George Chiligiris

Editing, transcription and photos of Adriana Gallardo by Morgan Ciocca

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