Around the time I was mailing tortillas across boroughs, the first El Milagro shortage came. As the pandemic raged, Chicagoans everywhere raced to secure El Milagro tortilla packs. It made sense. Workers became sick as companies raced to prepare work spaces for Covid. All while hospitals and morgues grew overwhelmed with a virus we knew little about. On the first of May that year, Roberto Escobar was one of the first El Milagro workers to die due to complications from Covid. He had been on the line for fourteen years. His death and the temporary closure of the tortilla plant on Thirty-First Street and Western Avenue made headline news in Chicago.
Today, news reports have counted at least eighty workers who tested positive for Covid and four others who died from Covid complications while working for El Milagro since the spring of 2020. Inside the factories, facing a shortage of workers, the company ramped up speeds on the line.
After seven months of working and eating alone, I gave up on surviving the pandemic in my beloved, practically kitchenless, fifth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. By October of 2020, I’d packed up my apartment of four years and paid for cross-country movers, and, like so many others, I found myself back at my childhood home while I looked to settle back in Chicago for good. If there was ever a time to go home, I told myself, it was now. If nothing else, I was making good on my promise to come back.
While at home, I got to see my mom hustle packs of El Milagro. No matter the meal, as she pulled open a fresh pack and carefully flipped tortilla by tortilla over the comal, she would report back which store had them that week and how many packs per customer were allowed. Each pickup was a small victory. It cemented that the tortillas were more than sustenance; El Milagro was a dependency in our home. Scarcity made them taste sweeter.
In the following months, as more concrete knowledge about how to protect ourselves from Covid circulated, and as vaccines became more widely available, the 2021 shortage of El Milagro tortillas made less sense. Their scarcity on the shelves once again made headline news in the Chicago region. This time, the shortage had voices, faces, and protests. Each headline chipped away at a fantasy of El Milagro. Testimony from workers detailed their experience in El Milagro.
My naivete spun on rotation: How long have these unsafe working conditions existed? Isn’t it a multimillion-dollar operation? The company is Mexican owned and operated; don’t the owners see themselves in their workers?
The harder question for me to answer: Why does this hurt feel different? There had to be more to the hurt.
Nine months after heading back to Chicago, I came back to Brooklyn. A monthlong trip to see friends turned into signing a lease for an apartment across the street from the one I left. Same street, opposite side, short of forty doors down, this time a garden apartment with a full kitchen where I traded stairs for a sunny backyard. I wanted to live there, and this time I didn’t have an ex or a job to blame. And yet the dissonance between what I knew home to be and what home felt like in New York City made me dizzy. A Chicagoan is loyal, and I was no longer that.
As I slowly moved back, wondering if I had made the right choice, if I too was a fraud and with betrayal on my mind, I couldn’t shake the complexity of El Milagro. Eating the packs in my new fridge felt fraught. Boycotting felt too simple of an answer and possibly another way to hurt the workers. I started with a few phone calls back home.
It couldn’t be just us. I knew the brand meant something outside of the kitchen table and my back-and-forth to and from home. We had seen a recent example of this during the national racial-justice rallies in the summer of 2020, when El Milagro’s logo wasreinterpreted as a sign of protest against police, deportations, and ICE.
For me, the image as cultural capital went even further back. Twelve years ago, one of my brother’s first professional tattoos was on a friend, Jonathan Bucio. The tattoo was a spin on El Milagro’s logo. Bucio and I were young colleagues at Radio Arte, a now-shuttered community radio station where I learned to make stories for people like our families and our neighbors.
Bucio was my first call. It had been many years since we’d caught up. In the years since we last saw each other, he remained a fixture in the neighborhood and became the father to two boys.
Most tattoos have a story. I asked what his was about, the three ears of corn on his bicep. “I always tell people, ‘Oh, this is how I got my muscle,’” Bucio told me. “You are what you eat. I haven’t been eating [the tortillas], but it’s still in my arm. I’m not going to get rid of it. I’m not going to be sad. If you know what it is, you know what it is.”
Despite the news headlines about El Milagro, Bucio said his tattoo has aged well. When people recognize it, it’s an immediate point of connection to the food and culture that made us.
The headlines and my calls continued.
When people recognize it, it’s an immediate point of connection to the food and culture that made us.
My next call was toRicardo Gonzalez, a friend who, in 2014, painted a large-scale reinterpretation of El Milagro’s logo. That year, I interviewed him for StoryCorps in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was completing an MFA in fine art. WhenGonzalez left Chicago for Michigan, the El Milagro delivery trucks that zipped past him reminded him that home was a Mexican supermarket.
“All of these food products and store brands were a huge focal point of my life,” he told me. “I feel the world made it obvious that I’m Mexican American . . . I didn’t fit in everywhere, but a supermercado has always felt special to me. I felt very at home.”
To Gonzalez, the grocery store was an art school too. “I was painting in school to feel closer to home . . . I knew I was painting art for art school; not a whole lot of people would get that immediate connection,” he said, referring to his reinterpretation of El Milagro’s logo. Gonzalez’s version of a miracle: a replica of El Milagro’s logo flipped to that of a man on his knees making tortillas under the gaze of a woman with her arms crossed and largely unimpressed. “But I thought, ‘Hey, maybe some folks in the other communities would definitely see it and just be happy.’”
My last call was unplanned and far from any memory I’d stashed of El Milagro. While talking about this feeling I was trying to make sense of, my friend and former Chicago roommate Aaron Arreguin interrupted me to say that his mother, Maria Gutierrez, worked at El Milagro in Little Village in the 1980s. I had spent plenty of time around his parents, who owned one of the buildings where he and I lived. I had no idea his mother was a former employee.
Gutierrez picked up the phone as if I always called. We got right into it. She started by telling me how well her hands knew the weight of twelve tortillas. “El peso en la mano,” as she called it. Weight by hand. An accuracy forged by repetition on the line, one as precise as the machines around her, she recalled with pride.
El Milagro had also been on her mind. She told me the headlines gave her flashbacks of both working there and the fights for better conditions at other tortilla factories in Chicago in the eighties. She remembered how hot the building was, how surveilled by the bosses they felt, and how much she relied on chatter with her coworkers to stay awake during the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekday shifts and the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shifts on weekends.
“No se equivocaba uno,” we didn’t make mistakes, Gutierrez said nearly forty years later. She remembers making $4.50 an hour, which was the most money she had ever made at the time. She worked the night shift as a catcher, counter, and packer of the fresh tortillas. Her family lived around the corner from the factory, so she walked there. The night shift allowed her to care for her two young daughters during the day. While working at El Milagro, she became pregnant with Aaron. Her longest break from the line was to give birth. About a year after he was born, she finally decided she needed more sleep and quit the factory.
I asked her what she thinks makes El Milagro tortillas so good. Her guess was a liquid in the masa, which is an El Milagro family secret. To her, flavor aside, these tortillas simply don’t break when they’re warm. She too raised her family on El Milagro tortillas, even after working there.
Near the end of our call, she dropped one more key memory, one that told me how late I was to this conversation. Before coming to work for El Milagro in the late eighties, Maria had been part of an effort toorganize at Del Rey tortillas, another prominent brand in Chicago. That effort ended a year prior to their leader, Rudy Lozano’smurder in 1983. Lozano’s name is as familiar to Latinos in Chicago as El Milagro or the Bulls. I had no idea Lozano had a connection to labor struggles at local tortillerias and how long workers, like Gutierrez, have been demanding better working conditions.
“Money makes people good or bad. [Companies] care about the work and making money. I imagine that’s why they treat us this way,” she said. “I hope [the workers] win. It’s for their own good.”
After my call with his mother, I shared notes with Aaron, who told me he didn’t know much about this part of her life. He was grateful to learn about her experience. We agreed that our parents, and people like our parents, rarely talk about the misery they’ve experienced at work. A type of grind we don’t grasp and yet we were born from it. The kind we rarely interrogate because the goal was to get away from it, to live a little less tired than we saw them day in and day out.
If his mother’s hands still remember the weight of twelve tortillas, then surely I’ve had enough El Milagro to know by heart, rather than frozen packs, what my mother’s food and her kitchen will always feel like. I’m reminded that we have the answers in each other. That a good tortilla is unbranded and eternal.
After talking to Gutierrez, I also understood that interconnectedness cuts both ways with unequal force. Surely I overestimated the power of family and overidentified with El Milagro’s roots. El Milagro was started in 1950 by a Mexican immigrant,Don Raul Lopez, who hustled his tortillas while working on the Illinois railroad yards. As an orphan from Mexico City, Lopez learned from an uncle the holy process of cornnixtamalization, which was perfected in the Mesoamerican era and passed down across empires and generations and through hands like Lopez’s, across borders to families like mine. This authentic preparation of the maize, which is then turned into masa, or dough, is my guess as to why his tortillas caught on and remained champion, at least in the Midwest.
El Milagro’s ongoing labor negotioations and recent concessions include higher wages, anti-sexual harrasment training for managers, and air-conditioning in lunchrooms. El Milagro spokesperson Alejandra Moran, stated that the company insists that “they are confident of its ongoing commitment and dedication to employees, including fair wages, regular meal and rest breaks, and days off, will prevail.” The company did not return our request for comment about their role in Chicago’s labor history. As for tortillas across time and space, astronauts (and ancestors) still recommend them, at least per NASA’sFood for Spaceflight list.
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 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.