If you want to turn a Mexican adult into a Mexican kid again, ring a bell. Not just any bell—not the sonorous clang that announces noon Mass, not the three-second pulse of a rotary telephone, not even the twinkles of a xylophone—but the pleasing clinks of the paletero: the Mexican Popsicle guy. As summer begins its gradual burn, Latino neighborhoods across Orange County will fill with these men, who roam from block to block pushing a humble cart weighed down by dry ice, frozen treats and a row of bells that announces his arrival to the sweating masses.
Joaquín (not his real name) is one such paletero. Every weekend, the Anaheim resident takes a break from his plumbing job and loads up a bruised white cart with 50 or so paletas, frozen fruit bars made with such Mexican flavors as horchata, tamarind and various melons. He hoists the cart onto a Ford Ranger and crisscrosses Anaheim, stopping in neighborhoods he knows are predominantly Latino. From about 11 in the morning to sunset, Joaquín estimates he walks at least four miles per day and usually pulls in at least $100—$300 when the day is a scorcher.
When he's out of paletas,Joaquín returns home to his industrial-sized freezer and stocks up on more before returning to the field. Joaquín also remembers to include such mainstream flavors as Flintstones Push-Ups, Neapolitan ice-cream sandwiches and Popsicles shaped like various cartoon characters—not that he wants to.
"I really don't like those flavors," the 48-year-old Mexican national confesses. "The paletasare tastier, healthier and more refreshing. But the kids always ask for those."
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Joaquín parked on Anaheim's Mavis Street, a notorious row of decrepit apartment complexes universally known as "La Mavis." Kids played on brown lawns; men smoked and drank while sitting on the hoods of their cars. Joaquín unloaded his cart, put on a straw Stetson and began walking. Every 10 paces or so, he shook a string of bells that hung from the cart's handlebar.
Upon hearing the bells, Mavis residents turned their attention toward the diminutive Joaquín. The adults came first. "What flavors do you have?" one portly gentleman barked. "Do you have jamaica[hibiscus]?" Joaquín shook his head no. "And sandía[watermelon]?" "Un dolar," Joaquín replied. The man pulled out a wrinkled $1 bill. Joaquín lifted a rectangular iron cover; a waft of mist sprang from the hole as Joaquín reached for the sandíapaleta.
This same scene was replayed at least 40 times in the next half-hour. Kids tried to bargain Joaquín down or asked if they could stick their hands into the cart; he kindly refused. He picked up the wrappers that people absentmindedly threw onto the sidewalk. And he kept shaking the bells.
Finally, the paletaswere gone. "Ya notengo," he told a group of disappointed kids on the corner of Mavis and Wilhelmina Street. "I don't have any more." He turned around the cart, walked back to his truck and pushed his cart up a makeshift ramp. As he secured the cart, Joaquín suddenly reached into it and pulled out a horchata-flavored paleta.
"These are my favorite," he said with a smile as he sat and slurped.