Mexican chilito candies, or dulces enchilados, have been making the mouths of Texans pucker for at least as long as we’ve been hitting piñatas. A colloquial catchall for a variety of sweets, chilito refers to the spice of chamoy, a traditional Mexican paste made from pickled fruits and spices. Chilito can come as a condiment, like on fruit bowls or elote; with the addition of powdered sugar, it can be thick and sticky, perfect for coating hard candy. Dulceros, or candymakers, also control the degree of spice—from a pleasant pop on the tastebuds to a fiery shock—by manipulating the amount and types of chiles in the chamoy. It’s as acidic as it is addictive, and a favorite amongst Tejano snackers. “Customers go crazy for it,” says Rick Samame, one of the owners of Alamo Candy Company in San Antonio, the largest purveyor of all things chilito in the state.
When I was growing up in the ’90s, any Mexican American neighborhood with a decent raspa man would hawk chilito-drizzled raspas. The ones served in Laredo are called Diablitos, or Little Devils—chile-flavored shaved ice, spiked with flavorful chamoy to help beat the Texas heat. I’d also buy traditional chilito hard candies shaped like watermelon slices and ears of corn. The raspa man hasn’t left his square of sidewalk, but today, a younger generation of Texans are pushing the limits of what a chilito snack can be. These entrepreneurs have combined the chile flavor with traditional American candies, and used social media to introduce the fiery snacks to a wide audience.
On TikTok alone, videos tagged with variations of the hashtags #chilitocandy and #dulcesenchilados have over 47 million views combined. A video of plain Gushers rolling around in chamoy and chili powder, which racked up over 70,000 likes and almost 4,000 comments, combines two of the most popular social media trends: ASMR, where quiet, everyday sounds bring comfort to the listener, and DIY food hacks assembled by mesmerizing, disembodied hands. Over on YouTube, influencers regularly react to trying Texas chilito candies, racking up hundreds of thousands of views in the process.
The proliferation of chilito videos has created a cyclical economy: creators learn how to make the candies online, then sell them back to other people online via e-commerce sites or direct-message order forms. The education is free and the ingredients are affordable, making for a low bar to entry for curious newbies. Add in the nostalgia factor for young Latinos and an accumulation of people bored at home, and you have the recipe for a chilito phenomenon.
Catherine Cortez, a 26-year-old legal assistant in Laredo, was home on maternity leave last May when viral videos on TikTok and Instagram inspired her to create her business, Picate Mucho. After a quick trip to the 7-Eleven to gather bottles of chamoy, chili powder, and bags of gummy bears, Sour Patch Kids, and watermelon gummies, she began tinkering with a recipe. “I ended up going into labor in the kitchen as I experimented with the candy!” she recalls. Almost one year later, she’s filled orders from South Texas students in New York City and Mexican American military in Japan and Germany. Her creative lineup includes tastebud-nuking recipes like a Fruit Roll-Up pickle (take one pickle, douse in chamoy, smother in chili powder, chop into thick chunks, then toss with chilito-covered Fruit Roll-Up bits and Hot Cheetos, then top with more chili powder) and a chilito pastelito, a “cake” made up of broken bits of spicy chips and molded together with chamoy paste. “My goal,” she says, “is to be making things no one else is doing.”
A self-described chilito fanatic, Cortez says chilito was her “entire childhood.” From snacking on sour belts at the mall to downing chupacabra raspas (strawberry-flavored ice with pickle chunks and chili powder) at Tropical Sno, she had a bottomless sweet-slash-spicy tooth. “My mom used to get mad at me and tell me to stop eating so much chile as a kid,” she says. Now, with Cortez back at her full-time job with Webb County, Mom is essential to Picate Mucho. She helps fill the orders that come in via Instagram DMs—up to two hundred per week.
Chamoy and chilito candies have been popular in Mexico for decades, but in the early aughts, drug wars began pushing Mexican businesses like candy shops into Texas border towns, says Christopher Carmona, director of the Mexican American Studies program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “You’d have to go across [the border] to get those Mexican candies before,” he says. “Now, there’s one of those chilito shops right down the street from where I live.”
The arrival of these stores along the South Texas border set the stage for Texas-bred businesses that, thanks to social media, have a reach far beyond the state. Just ask nineteen-year-old Paloma Beltran, a Mission native who has been shipping her Chilito Loco candies and snacks to Dubai, Egypt, and Australia since before she even graduated high school last May. Now a business student at UTRGV, she has amassed a whopping 300,000 followers on TikTok. She’s a shrewd social media strategist, and often gains followers (and customers) by sending free candy to influencers who post about Chilito Loco in return. On her busiest weeks, she ships up to seven hundred orders at a time.
That means lots of trips to Sam’s Club to buy huge pallets of Gushers, Skittles, and other candies to keep up with the demand, even if she has to drive all the way across the Rio Grande Valley to stay in stock. Chilito Loco is so popular that even videos of Beltran buying ingredients at Sam’s or shipping orders at the post office rack up tens of thousands of views. There’s so much competition from local physical shops and online retailers, however, that sometimes candy can be hard to source. “Once, for a week and a half we were just looking everywhere and there were no Gushers anywhere,” she says. One pallet of the sweet and squishy gems can hold 250 boxes. Since January, Beltran has had to purchase three.
Chamoy’s origins can be traced all the way back to Chinese traders who brought pickled apricots to Mexico, possibly as early as the 1560s—but we have Mexico to thank for the signature spicy flavor we know and love today. It is so beloved that the brother-and-sister owners of Enchilositos Treats in Brenham, JJ and Rudy Jimenez, began getting feedback from older Hispanic customers that their chilito, which coats candies like Sour Patch Kids and peach rings, wasn’t authentic enough. “The candy is American, don’t get me wrong,” says older brother JJ. “But all the spices and flavors are Mexican. It’s a fusion and blending of both cultures.”
Take the chilito Gusher, a prime example of Mexican American confectionary fusion. Officially branded as Fruit Gushers, the Betty Crocker–owned snack has been synonymous with American childhood since the famous ’90s commercials that featured teens’ heads turning into various fruits after popping Gushers in their mouths. One could imagine a similar commercial for chilito Gushers, except the teens’ watermelon- and raspberry-shaped heads would now also be on fire. The soft, chewy candies filled with sugary fruit juice are addictive enough, but with the added heat and texture of the spiced chamoy and chili powder, they’re transformed into something entirely new, something that is both Mexican and American.
For the Jimenez siblings, starting the business was a way to reconnect with their Mexican roots, especially after growing up in a predominantly white town in California. JJ recalls going to Mexican swap meets and enjoying chamoy tamarindo candies when he was younger, but says the flavors largely faded away as he grew up. “You kind of grow up and mesh into the culture, you know?”
Like Beltran of Chilito Loco, Rudy was still in high school, and going to class virtually from home, when online videos inspired to her start making her own chilito candies last year. The business took off in California last summer, but after a visit to family in Brenham for a wedding, the siblings fell in love with Texas and knew they had found their new home. What started off as a side hustle to make some extra cash during the pandemic has turned into a full-time gig for JJ, who was previously delivering food for Grubhub. Rudy also splits her time between Enchilositos Treats and cosmetology school. The two reckon they’ve shipped candies to every state in the U.S. except Alaska. “We joke about it, but really, we’re dulceros now,” says JJ. “Who grows up saying that?”
If anyone did, it’s Rick Samame of Alamo Candy, who helped his parents with the production of their signature spicy-sweet snacks as a kid. In 1991, after retailers complained about the plain Mexican candies Samame’s father Felix was selling for a small San Antonio candy company, Felix saw a business opportunity. He asked his wife, Juanita, if she could make something more exciting, and the family chamoy recipe that’s still used today was born. “My father was the brains, and my mother was the creator,” says Samame. Thirty years later, a network of siblings and cousins run the San Antonio store that supplies chilito products to restaurants and grocery stores across the state. “Let’s just say we’re the number two best-selling candy company at a certain three-syllable grocery store in Texas,” says Samame. “And that’s up against Hershey and those other big guys!”
The uptick in interest in DIY chilito hasn’t gone unnoticed by the old guard, including Samame. He says he’s happy for the renewed popularity, especially since folks online are buying wholesale chamoy and candies from their stores. “We’ll notice customers buying a lot of ingredients and we ask them, ‘Are you having a party or something?’ And they say, ‘No, we’re doing it for TikTok.’”
Social media has been a boon for these small businesses, but it has its pitfalls. Fame on the internet is fickle, and one bad review from the right influencer could prove to be costly. The companies are also at the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service, and customers are quick to cast blame for ever-expanding delivery windows and lost packages. “They compare me to Amazon,” says Beltran of Chilito Loco. “But I’m not a corporation.”
The new chilito businesses agree that, social media aside, they have the pandemic to thank for their newfound success. “Without the pandemic, there would be no Chilito Loco,” says Beltran. When you’re stuck at home with nothing to do, why not try mashing up the flavors of your youth? As these entrepreneurs learned, the appetites of friends, family, and a couple thousand-odd acquaintances online might just turn your new hobby into a career. “I thought I’d be doing this for three months,” says Picate Mucho’s Cortez. “Now, I can picture myself doing this forever.”
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