From Shop To Street, Ice-Cold Paletas Connect Generations In North Texas
There’s something about the familiar tune of an ice cream truck that sends people back to their childhood. For people in the Mexican culture, a different sound triggers similar nostalgia: Four copper bells clanging in the distance means paletas, or popsicles, are right around the corner.
Paletas are traditionally sold on foot by a male vendor called a paletero, like 54-year-old Andres Mejorada. His cart is decorated with colorful stickers showcasing popular ice cream flavors on the outside to attract customers.
Mejorada looks for crowds of potential customers in Uptown Dallas. During the hot North Texas summers, he visits construction sites, and now that school's back in session, he'll start selling sweet treats to kids after class.
He parks his cart in front of an area that used to be known as "Little Mexico." Now, there's a construction site that takes up most of the street. At 3 p.m., the construction workers go on break for lunch. They spot the paleta cart on their way out and approach Mejorada, waiting for him to reveal his options.
Mejorada pulls on the cart’s handles and dry ice vapor shoots up into the air. Underneath the ice lies the traditional Mexican flavors: strawberry, coconut, watermelon, mango, tamarindo and rice pudding.
The construction workers choose their flavors carefully, then hand Mejorada a couple of dollars before thanking him.
Selling paletas to provide for his family
Mejorada has pushed his cart around Dallas for more than a decade. He works every day from 2 in the afternoon to 9 in the evening — unless it rains. At the end of the day, he’s exhausted from walking in the sun and his feet ache. His first thoughts are to shower and go to bed, but after a long day, he’s hungry. Ideally, he says dinner would be ready for him on the stove, just like old times. But instead, he cooks himself a late dinner so he doesn’t waste money eating out.
“Back in Mexico, I come home from work and my family has everything ready for me," he says. "I have it all over there.”
"I had to come here by myself so I could do things for my family."
Mejorada is originally from Puebla in east-central Mexico. His wife, two daughters and son live in Tlaxcala. He sends money back home to his family and says it has been difficult not being able to see them for more than 10 years. Talking to them on the phone every day just doesn’t fill the void.
“I think about them a lot and would love to be with them. But if you don’t separate, then you won’t accomplish anything,” Mejorada said. “I had to come here by myself so I could do things for my family.”
He says he likes being a paletero because he’s his own boss, meaning he works when he wants to and doesn’t get in trouble if he decides to take a day off. Depending on the day, he can make anywhere from $50 to $100. He hopes to save up enough within the next year to return to Mexico and build a house for himself and his family.
Continuing family tradition
Across the Trinity River in Oak Cliff, a younger generation is putting a modern twist on the classic paleta business. Encanto Pops is a trendy paleteria that opened last summer. The bosses, Diana Diaz and her three siblings, were raised in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico before moving to Dallas.
“We grew up in a household where we were always surrounded by food," Diana says. "My parents were always cooking.”
Diana says their house was the place to go to if people wanted to eat. Their family would cook for an army. This desire to cook and make things for people stuck with the Diaz siblings forever.
They’ve always had a passion for working in the food industry but knew opening a restaurant would be too expensive. They decided, instead, to try something smaller. Their uncle was the inspiration for starting a paleteria. He runs a similar shop outside of Chicago with his wife.
After about four years, the Diaz siblings gave in and took him up on his offer of paleteria training so they could follow in his footsteps. All four siblings said they sacrificed to make Encanto Pops happen. For Diana, the hardest part was leaving her job and learning the technicalities behind running a business — getting permits and working with the health department.
“It’s a really long process. We started this a long time before it actually opened.” Diana says. “Sometimes you worry just because you have to make sure everything’s running smoothly, but it’s a lot of fun here.”
"We grew up in a household where we were always surrounded by food."
The Diaz kids range from ages 18 to 35. They come in every morning, seven days a week, to make paletas from scratch. Coconut, for example, takes up to three days to make. Some paletas on their menu are based off customer recommendations.
They make sure to stick close to their Mexican roots, so most of their flavors are ones they used to eat as kids.
Together, they bond, occasionally argue and get creative. All four of them say their favorite part is working with family.
Both longtime vendors like Mejorada and modern shops owners like the Diaz siblings cherish the ability to preserve the tradition of sharing their mouthwatering Mexican paletas with the community.