HOUSTON — Emilio Vargas, known around Houston’s East End community as the “Elote Man,” earned his nickname step by step, year by year as he pushed his food cart through up and down winding neighborhood streets nearly every day for the past 30 years.
“Here a lot of people know me,” Vargas said in Spanish. “And when they don’t see me they miss me.”
The 81-year-old sells products such as elote, fruit and drinks year round to make a living. With no family, Vargas relies on his own income to cover rent, food and other expenses.
“I live alone, I don’t have anyone in Mexico or here, and with what I make, that’s how I survive,” said Vargas as he waited for customers in late June at a Chevron station near his apartment.
Bags of snacks, fruit and shaved ice dotted his cart. Tajín, a chili lime and sea salt condiment, sat at the ready. Despite that enticing display, only one customer showed up.
Countless vendors around the country like Emilio have accepted certain challenges of selling on the street as part of the job. News reports have shown vendors being attacked, robbed, harassed and unable to access financial assistance when they fall on hard times. Some have even been killed.
The coronavirus pandemic has made things even more difficult. Strict health guidelines — like stay-at home orders and bans on open-air markets — were enacted to protect communities across the country, making it difficult for vendors to sell their wares.
Even now, as mask ordinances have been lifted and cities have come back to life, Vargas said, business is not what it once was.
“I’m still struggling, I can’t sell enough because people aren’t walking around,” said Vargas. “I can’t sell what I’ve got, so I have to throw away the fruit that’s left over at the end of the day.”
Many street vendors aren’t eligible to get financial assistance like loans or stimulus checks during the pandemic because of their immigration status. This also prevents them from getting a legal permit to sell street food in some states that require proof of residency.
Vargas, who was born in Mexico in 1940, migrated to the United States about 30 years ago from the state of Coahuila. He was escaping high crime, he said, and the lack of work.
In Houston, Vargas befriended a street vendor who turned him onto the trade. He eventually got his own cart and food supplies from a local market. These small beginnings kicked off a nearly three decades-long career.
In November 2019, just months before the pandemic would slow business to a near standstill, Vargas was hit by an oncoming car while crossing the street against the light, pushing his cart ahead of him. The impact hurled his cart 200 feet and left the metal twisted, bent and broken. It was completely totaled. Vargas suffered a fractured shoulder, and with no insurance to cover the damages, he began to fear he would not be able to pay off his debts or purchase a new cart.
Then something happened: His story hit the internet. Community members who knew what happened to Vargas set up a GoFundMe to cover his medical and business losses. Within four days, the fundraiser amassed $16,000 in donations, surpassing its $10,000 goal.
Soon after, during a community event, Vargas received another surprise — a brand-new elote bike and a check for more than $22,000. One anonymous donor offered to pay his rent for five months.
Vargas was touched. For the first time in months, he felt a glimmer of hope. Then, just as his luck seemed to be improving, the covid-19 pandemic hit. That anonymous donor who offered to pay for his housing said they couldn’t afford it anymore.
Unsure what else to do, Vargas returned to the street.
Some days, he goes without eating. Others, he relies on coffee and bread to get him through. He’s not making the money he once did, he said, and he’s not sure when business might return to its pre-pandemic levels.
So, he does what he’s always done: push his cart through the neighborhood. One step at a time.
Marc Ray is a senior at the University of Houston, where he studies broadcast journalism. As an intern for Houston Public Media he covered a range of issues, including sports features and election stories. He covered the 2020 protests against racial injustice in Houston for El Gato Media network and is completing a video internship for AARP. Reach him at mray [at] theventureonline [dot] com and on Twitter @marcraysports.