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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ready to Dine Out? Think Again!

By: Luz Garcia

With the busy lifestyle that America has adopted, eating in restaurants has become more common. The National Restaurant Association, stated that this year the industry projection sales amounted to $580 billion dollars, compared to only $42 billion back in 1970.  Although it is convenient when in a rush, it’s not always the best choice for your health. Unfortunately when you eat food prepared elsewhere other than in your own home, you lose the certainty that the meal has been prepared in a clean area, in adequate conditions. Although most of us hope that that is the case, it isn’t always so.

Fortunately, there are ways to check if your favorite restaurant complies with the requirements posed by the departments of health and the food and drug administration. Under the Freedom of Information Act, one can easily request copies of their health inspections and other useful public records. Such documents were requested for a very popular restaurant located in the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood. The findings were surprising.

Emeterio Gurierrez established Nuevo Leon Restaurant on March 15, 1962. The establishment has since been visited by hundreds of families, fanatics of their Mexican style breakfast and dinner dishes, like the “Machado con Huevo,” a breakfast dish that incorporates seasoned shredded steak scrambled with egg. Although the restaurant has positive reviews, “Every time I go to Pilsen, Nuevo Leon is always a must restaurant to go to. The place has a really authentic feel…” wrote Suran Y. from Champaign Illinois on Yelp, a web-site especially made for reviews. There are also reviews like the one posted by Chicago local, Christine F.  “Cockroaches. That sums up my experience at Nuevo Leon.” And according to what was acquired from the documents, those pests are one of Nuevo Leon’s biggest issues. 

According to the most recent health inspection on September 22, 2010, provided by the Chicago Department of Public Health, Nuevo Leon has had a number of compliance, food maintenance, and food protection violations. However, the insect and rodent control violations seem to be the most serious. This is a reoccurring issue for Nuevo Leon. Citations due to the same problems can be found in inspection reports that date back to October of 2008. Pest control concerns have caused the restaurant to fail many inspections and to only pass some conditionally.  

The most recent complaint from the last inspection in September states the following; “Infested with roaches, at this time I observed twelve live roaches on premises in food prep area. Also observed twenty fruit flies in rear storage area.  Instructed to work with pest control companies to control problem. Citations issued at this time. Findings discussed with area supervisor.” Needless to say, Nuevo Leon failed that inspection as well.

“Why hasn’t the place been shut down?” Asked Anabel Ruiz, 20, a customer who visits Nuevo Leon a few times a year. Although, the restaurant has failed many inspections due to this problem, it would be unfair to say that it is because of negligence. One week later after the September inspection, the place was re-inspected and showed to comply with all the requirements.  Nuevo Leon was also instructed to seal opening in the walls and the ceiling that posed threats of pest harborage, “we took care of that…they [inspectors] came in four days after and they approved” said Daniel Gutierrez, who took over ownership from his father, and as far as the pest control issues Gutierrez declared, “We have pest control. They come every two weeks”.  It’s worth mentioning that in 2008, when pest control problems showed up during the inspections, the reports stated that “Daniel enrolled in a food service sanitation class and food service educational seminars…” 

It is clear that Gutierrez is working to maintain his establishment in compliance with the Health Department. So why do these issues continue to exist? “You also have to look at the Streets and Sanitation Department. They have to keep our alleys clean,” said Gutierrez. But according to Gutierrez, the alleys are not his only problem. Unhappy customers also have an effect, “The problem with businesses, any minor complaint that a customer has, there’s a number and they call the Health Department. If they call, they [inspectors] have to come and check, even if it is not true. I have a lot of that, just to make things difficult for me,” he said. Not only that but he also says that it is very difficult to pass inspections of this sort with a 100 percent. As claimed by Gutierrez any small thing, as small as a drip of water from a faucet results in a violation.

The restaurant industry has been growing at a rapid rate throughout the years, meaning more and more people are eating out everyday. Allergies from cross contamination, food poisoning from poorly cleaned or expired food, vermin, salmonella, norovirus, and pesticides are just a few of the hazards that one exposes themselves to when deciding to eat in a public restaurant. Even though restaurants are required to go through Health Inspections about twice a year. It is never guaranteed that the place will be clean in the time between the next inspection. That is where consumer responsibility comes into play. As consumers, one should take initiative to carefully review a place before dining in it, and keeping the visits to a minimum.  The only way to be sure that what you’re eating is safe, is when you prepare it yourself. By opting for this approach, not only are you eating healthier meals in the comfort of your own home but the expense becomes much less and you won’t have to ask yourself, “to eat? or not to eat?”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Homeless in Chicago

By: Luz Garcia

A couple days ago as I was driving home, I stopped at a red light by the bridge on Cicero Avenue near Pershing; if you aren’t familiar with that area, let’s just say there are many people in need. So as expected, there was a homeless man going from car to car begging for money. He began to approach me. For a second I thought I’d open the little ashtray in my car, where instead of keeping ashes I keep change (usually for toll way purposes,) get a handful of cash and drop it in his cup. I retracted. When he got to my window I could see him talking but I couldn’t hear what he was saying because of the music blaring out of my speakers. Assuming I knew what he was asking for I guiltily shook my head from side to side. I turned from him and looked straight on hoping the light would turn green. I didn’t want to look him in the eye.  After realizing he wasn’t going anywhere I hesitantly turned back to see the man still standing by my window pleading; I looked him in the eye and said, “I have no cash.” A lie. Defeated I saw him mouth “ok” but I could tell he didn’t believe me… or could I? Was it just my guilt? I continued to observe him as he walked away through my side mirror, I was sure that the car behind me was also going to say no.

 Then, something happened.

The light turned green and a truck from the oncoming traffic lane dashed past me before anyone in my lane could move, sounded its horn and stopped right next to the man, then I saw the person in the truck reach out and hand the man a bag and cup from McDonald’s. Alas, my faith in humankind was restored; that same faith that I had just faulted on.

The whole drive home I tried to justify my action or lack thereof. Why did I not give him some of the change I had? Was it because of the judgment I had already subconsciously passed? Was it because I knew I was eventually going to need the change next time I was at a toll? Was it really because I was scared of opening my window to a stranger at 2 a.m.? Was it because I’m currently unemployed and can’t really spare any change? Is that true, can’t I spare any change?  Then a thought… could that have been an angel in disguise testing me, or even, God? 

Ok, I was way in over my head. I wondered why this particular situation was affecting me. This wasn’t the first time I said “no” to a beggar. But why was I thinking about this situation so much? What had just happened inspired me to analyze homelessness in Chicago and ultimately lead me to write this entry.  

According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless an analysis from July 2012 shows that there was an increase of 105,338 homeless Chicagoans just in the 2011-2012 school year, that’s as a whole including families with children and youths. Single adults make up 41% of that total with 43,161 men and women. The racial demographics based on a point-in-time count from 2007 look like this – 75% African American, 16% White, 6% Latino, and 3% is composed of other races.

While reading through statistics and seeing such high numbers during my research, I just couldn’t understand how someone in America, the land of opportunity, can be homeless. I soon discovered there are many reasons. Some of the contributing factors include home foreclosures, decline in public assistance, lack of affordable housing, addiction and mental illnesses, and of course the most obvious, poverty.

Organizations like the Chicago Coalition for the homeless as well as the National Coalition for the Homeless strive to help aid the homeless here at home, and at a national level. You can visit their sites to inform yourself on what these type of organizations are doing in their efforts to end homelessness by clicking here, and what you can do to help by clicking here.

In a world where financial stability is everyone’s main priority, where no one lives for free, in which the job market is dwindling, and healthcare is becoming less affordable, one can’t really afford to say “That can’t ever happen to me,” homelessness can be anyone’s reality.

Although at that moment my moral conflictions prevailed, I look back at that episode under the bridge on Cicero Avenue and although it may or may not have been the best choice, I don’t regret my decision. In retrospect, I’m glad that I made the choice not to give and that it caused me that much of an impact after the fact, for it compelled me to inform myself on the issue. Knowledge truly is power. Sometimes by trying to understand another person’s conviction you can learn a lot about yourself and the world too. I’m not sure how my next encounter with a homeless person will go but I believe I will set any judgment I have aside and even if it’s a small donation, I know that I will be making a conscious, well-informed decision.

To get more information on homelessness in Chicago, you can also visit The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness website.

Friday, August 17, 2012

My Mother's Determination

This was one of my first creative stories I ever wrote during my Journalism program at Columbia. It was also published on Latina Voices. I'm glad I wrote it about my mother.

By: Luz Garcia

Cuando yo tenĂ­a tu edad..."
That's how my mom begins her lectures in the morning when I decide to skip morning chores and sleep in. She quickly reminds me of all the things she did when she was my age and how sleeping-in was, if anything, a luxury. Among many other luxuries she did not have, education was one of them.

According to a recent 
report by the National Women's Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 41 percent of Latinas do not graduate from high school in four years. 

However my mom defied the odds. She is the example that it is never too late to get an education.

My mom was born and raised in Durango, Mexico. Her family, like most families in Mexico was poor but happy. I always

enjoy the stories my mom tells me about her childhood. I am always amazed by how simple life was and how she and her sisters took pleasure in the littlest things, like when mi abuelita would buy an orange, cut it in four equal pieces and give a piece to each girl, "Nos encantaban!" my mother remembers with a smile on her face. 

My mother, Rosa, or as everyone calls her, Rosita, is the eldest of four daughters. Because she was the eldest she was responsible for helping my grandparents both at home and out in the farm.
Mi abuelita taught my mom  how to cook and clean at a very young age so that food would be ready when she and mi abuelito came back from the fields. However, as soon as mom was old enough, she had to go with mi abuelito to the fields while mi abuelita would take care of the house and her sisters. 

Mom sometimes sits on my bed and observes me while I am getting ready to go out to a party and it makes me feel like she sees a part of herself in me. She begins reminiscing about her teenage days and recalls that back in her day, while all of the girls were getting ready to go to
el baile, she was barely getting home from the farm with mi abuelito, dirty and tired. And if by a strike of luck mi abuelito would let her go to the dance too, he would make sure to wake her up earlier than usual the next morning. To mi abuelito, mom was like the son he didn't have and much more. The day she got married, mi abuelito said with tears in his eyes "Hoy, se me casa una hija y un hijo."

Because my mother grew up poor, mis abuelitos could not afford to enroll her in la secundaria, the equivalent of high school, which means that my mother only had a 6th grade education when she got married to my father at 17. Soon after, they moved to Chicago. When my siblings and I were old enough, my mother, determined to learn English began going  to a church where they offered English classes and there she met Enriquetta, a teacher who told her about the GED courses that the church was also offering and of course soon, con las ganas de superarse y aprender, my mom enrolled herself to take them. Eventually, she got her GED and even earned a scholarship to go to college. For the following three years, while I was in high school, my mother attended St. Agustine College in Chicago, and often showed me up because never did she once come home with a grade lower than a B.

I have always been very impressed. Here was a woman, who only had a sixth grade education, who didn't quite understand spoken English, going to college, taking classes in English and doing calculus. And then, here I am, born and raised in America with the ability to speak both languages and all the resources I may need available to me, coming coming home with grades as low as a C. I remember my mother getting home from school late at night, sitting in the dining room with what seemed to be a million books and notebooks scattered all over the table, periodically checking up on my brothers and I, making sure we had dinner and getting us to bed. Nowadays, you still see what seems to be a million books on the dining room table, but the person you would find sitting there is not my mother, it is me. Today my mother has a degree in liberal arts and I am currently in college. The struggles I saw her go through, being a mother, wife, and a model student, motivate me daily.

Strength, intelligence, optimism, beauty and grace are all characteristics that the most important woman in my life possesses, and the list could go on and on. Rosa Garcia, my mother, the person I look up to, is the epitome of what I aspire to be like one day. She has taught me everything I know, but most importantly she had taught me that with determination anything is achievable and when she sees me in low spirits, she lifts them up with a single question, 

"¿Quien dice que no se puede?"