Mario Castillo was leaning against his pushcart under a shady tree at Echo Park Lake when he was approached by three young boys in Lakers' T-shirts who wanted watermelon-flavored paletas, Mexican frozen fruit bars that are something akin to Popsicles.
"Well, sorry," Castillo, 26, apologized in Spanish. "I'm out of that. Got a lot of coconut, though."
The boys huddled and decided that they would settle for lime.
"Well, sorry," Castillo replied. "Got a lot of coconut, though."
The boys eventually settled for coconut bars--six of them--and left. Minutes later, a young mother approached Castillo and asked for a coconut bar. Replied Castillo:
"Well, sorry. Got a lot of strawberry, though . . . ."
The scene is repeated countless times every day, perhaps with not as much craftiness, in Latino neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles. Pushcart vendors like Castillo are busier than ever this summer, selling traditional summertime treats like paletas and snow cones, commonly referred to in Spanish as raspadas.
From the Pico-Union district near downtown to barrios in the suburbs, pushcart vendors of paletas and raspadas have become as much a part of Latino neighborhoods as the corner markets that sell fresh tortillas. The vendors' chimes, announcing their presence, are commonly heard at busy street corners in business districts and in parks.
"On a hot day, a raspada is really nice," said Izzy Hernandez of Boyle Heights. "They're fresh and much better than anything sold in the stores."
The popularity of the treats are such that some paleteros, as the vendors of paletas are called, and their bosses squabble with competitors over choice spots to sell their wares. "Some people are just trying to get an edge," one paleta manufacturer said. "I sometimes can't get over how popular these things actually are."
Anglos Buy Products
The vendors of paletas and raspadas are even having some success among Anglos. One East Los Angeles paleta manufacturer, Frut-A-Mex, for example, reports modest sales among Anglo families who visit Griffith Park.
But while the vendors are ubiquitous in local barrios, they point out that the life of a pushcart vendor is a hard one; vendors include old men who work all year and teen-agers who work only during the summers. What's more, the vendors are not universally popular and have even been banned in some communities because of complaints by residents and merchants.
The popularity of paletas and raspadas has resulted in a proliferation of pushcart vendors throughout Southern California. Los Angeles city and county officials estimate that in recent years, the number of paleteros has grown from a mere handful to about 3,000 today.
And since 1980, about 50 paleta factories--some of them operating illegally--have sprung up in Southern California, creating an industry that probably grosses millions of dollars each year, said Dick Reed, regional head of the state Health Department's Bureau of Milk and Dairy Foods Control.
Most of the vendors catering to the booming Latino population in Southern California are Mexican, but their products also appeal to new immigrants from Central America.
'It Reminds Them of Home'
"Latinos, not just Mexicanos , buy them because it reminds them of home," said Marcella Mora, whose family operates Delicias de Michoacan, an Ontario-based paleteria.
On a hot Sunday during the summer, workers at Delicias de Michoacan figure that they sell 60,000 of the fruit bars--coconut, incidentally, being the most popular flavor--in barrios stretching from Oxnard to the Mexican border.
Two sets of brothers who sell their wares at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles, Juan and Tony Ordorica and Jesse and Juan Cruz, say their daily supply of about 130 paletas-- sold for 50 cents each--is usually gone by 3 p.m.
"We wait at the entrance of the (park's) pool at 1:30," said Juan Cruz, 10. "We sell a lot of 'em there. Hey, even the gringos like paletas. "
Paletas, according to those who fancy themselves as experts, are far different from the other ice cream-like bars sold in markets.
"I could go anytime to get an orange Popsicle," said Elmo Martinez of Pico Rivera as he and his family gathered recently for a picnic at nearby Legg Lake. "But where can you get a pecan paleta? Or a coconut? Or a watermelon one? Only from these paleteros. My favorite is watermelon."
Business is Brisk
Although vastly outnumbered by the paleteros, those who sell raspadas also find that business is brisk.
Jesus Oropeza and others who sell the snow cones in the neighborhoods near Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights say that they sometimes go through two and three blocks of ice a day. "I start selling at 11 in the morning and I usually need a new block by 1," Oropeza said.