When I was a teenager, my family made frequent trips to the San Fernando Cemetery to visit the graves of my tía Blanca and my grandmother. On these gloomy days, neighborhood paleteros, local vendors who sold icy treats from their brightly colored carts, offered relief. On the sidewalk outside the cemetery, they would offer up their selection of paletas, through the gaps in the chain-link fence, to families visiting lost loved ones. It was a sweet, comforting distraction that even the adults couldn’t resist. There’s a certain childlike joy that comes from calling out your flavor to the family member appointed to grab the frozen popsicles from the cart. “Coco! Nuez! Piña!” On these days, I’d swap out my go-to coconut paleta for my grandma’s favorite flavor, creamy pecan.
An ice cream truck rolled through the West Side of San Antonio a few times a week, but it never elicited the same response as the paletero. Before he turned the corner onto the block, I’d hear him honk the bike horn mounted to his three-wheeled pushcart. For my cousins and me, that was the signal to race inside and beg our aunts and uncles for a few dollars. Within a minute, we were back at the end of the driveway, ready to fork over our money in exchange for flavors like watermelon or pickle. By the time the paletero turned off our street, the sound of his cart fading away, we were licking our sticky fingers and tipping the plastic wrappers into our mouths to savor every last drop.
In Mexican American neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, paleteros are part of the communities they sell to. It’s what makes the treat even more special. A paletero might remember that your house is always the one that orders “dos de coco y una de fresa” (two coconut and one strawberry), or he might stash a few of the flavors that are going fast that day if he knows your favorite.
Last year, neighbors in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood mourned the loss of paletero Jacinto Mireles, whom multiple residents remembered as a kind figure who sometimes gave away the treats if someone didn’t have a few dollars to spare. In San Antonio, a local TV producer, Luis Muñoz, helped raise more than $5,000 this February to support the paletero he’d been buying from for years—despite, sadly, not knowing the man’s name. Paleteros often stick to regular routes, working the same neighborhoods for years and selling paletas to the same houses, even as the families inside them grow and change.
When I moved to Austin in 2014 to go to college, I was excited to be somewhere new. But I also wanted it to feel like home. Here, the Tex-Mex spots felt less authentic, it was harder to find greasy, delicious breakfast tacos, and it seemed impossible to run into a paletero. Sometimes I was desperate enough to buy the overpriced, Austin-ized versions of paletas at festivals or in the freezer aisles of the grocery store. Matcha and cold-brew flavors just weren’t the same as horchata, strawberry, or piña colada hand-delivered to you by a friendly paletero.
What makes paletas so delicious is their simplicity: natural flavors, often made with fresh fruit, blended with cream or milk, and frozen onto a popsicle stick (or “palo”) that gives the paleta its name. They’re a simple treat with a history that’s hard to pin down, though experts credit two brothers, Ignacio and Luis Alcázar, and their friend Agustín Andrade, who opened the first Michoacana (a market that often sells ice cream) in Tocumbo, Michoacán, in the thirties. Eventually, hundreds and hundreds of independent shops, many of them also called La Michoacana, popped up in Mexico and across the U.S.
In San Antonio, however, every paleta I eagerly unwrapped came with the name “El Paraiso”—a family-owned brand that claims to have opened the city’s first paleteria in 1984. Newlyweds José and Maria Flores came to San Antonio from Chicago’s Little Village, a tight-knit, predominantly Mexican American neighborhood. In the Windy City summers, a local vendor and friend sold paletas, conjuring up memories of José’s and Maria’s childhoods in Mexico.
When they moved to Texas, José and Maria decided to re-create that sense of nostalgia with their own paleteria. The name “El Paraiso” was meant to evoke a paradise full of mouthwatering fresh fruit. They started with ten flavors: strawberry, coconut, vanilla with raisins, chocolate, mango, watermelon, lemon, pineapple, cantaloupe, and piña colada. On trucks and in traditional pushcarts brought over from Mexico, José’s paleteros rode through West Side and South Side neighborhoods to serve up ice-cold paletas for 50 and 60 cents a pop. Like his paleteros, José became a fixture of the community, and through his close relationships with customers, he continued to grow and develop new flavors. He paid attention to the candies and snacks kids ate around town and catered to their palates with pickle, chamoy, and tamarindo. (My cousins ate these up, but I was more of a paleta traditionalist.)
Today, José still sources fresh fruit at nearby markets every morning, then chops them up at the store before adding a mix of sugar and water for the fruit-based paletas or milk for the cream-based varieties. From there, he pours the mixture into molds that are dipped into a tank, where a cold, briny solution freezes them into shape.
It’s the same recipe El Paraiso has been using since 1984. The flavors may change, but the paleta will endure as a testament to the Mexican American immigrant story. Whoever invented them, they ended up here, in Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and hundreds of other places. And to everyone in those neighborhoods, the sound of the paleta man is instantly recognizable. Even in Austin, where paleteros are harder to find, I’ll hear the jingling bells of the paleta cart at the park or while I’m cooling off at Barton Springs, and I’ll feel like I’m right back home.