Irene De La Cruz: Keep cool with a ‘paleta’ from a ‘paletero’

When I was growing up in the labor camps of Merced and Planada, running around with friends on those scorching-hot sunny days, playing hide-and-seek or anything else we could think of, a treat I always looked forward to cooling down with was a “paleta.”

Just like clockwork, the “paletero” (popsicle man) would come into the campgrounds and yell out “Paletas, se venden paletas” (“Popsicles, popsicles for sale”) as he rang his little familiar bell to announce himself. As I waited in anticipation, I would ask my mom for 25 cents to buy me that special dessert that would please my palate at least for a few minutes. Nowadays, that paleta will cost you a dollar or more. The cost isn’t the same but the taste has continued to be a very delicious one.

But the feeling extends even further for me. It’s something that helps me feel connected to my sons and my grandchildren because it was something we did together. Even though it was a simple act of a transaction between business and consumer, it was a simple, happy event that sometimes led to profound conversations.

Once the warmer weather sets in, wherever there are kids and families, you can be sure you will see a paletero either walking down a neighborhood, in the park or at a special community event throughout the communities of Merced County. You will see a paletero either walking and pushing a small cart, riding a bicycle that has the cart attached to the front end of the bicycle or a minibus/minivan converted into an ice cream truck. The ice cream truck paletero sells the traditional American ice cream you find at the grocery store, like ice cream sandwiches, drumsticks and the like. But the paletero who pushes the cart sells the delicious natural fruit-flavored ice creams more familiar to the Hispanic culture like mango, coconut, pineapple and watermelon. Either way there’s just something about hearing that musical tune of the ice cream truck or hearing the bell ring of the “push-cart” paletero that spurs your appetite for an ice cream or a paleta.

The paleteros have been around for many years and will hopefully continue to be around for years to come, because they are part of the culture of small business in any town and through their work help any economy. They buy local to make their product and they sell local. In what may seem to some an insignificant business, to those selling the product it is a way of life and a means to survive economically. You also have to hand it to them for all the walking they do day in and day out, pushing the paleta cart around, with the goal of hopefully selling all their product in one day.

Here in downtown Merced, there is a business at the corner of 16th and N streets that has been there a little over 41/2 years called Las Palmas. Aside from the food items they sell, they also sell paletas made from scratch and they use their own traditional Mexican ingredients. They have a wide variety of flavors to pick from and they taste great! You can even request them freshly made for a special event or party. For example, Steve Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, provided 200 freshly made paletas for his re-election kick-off event he held in front of the Merced County Courthouse Museum last October. It was a great, unexpected treat to end the event with.

The owners of the Las Palmas paleteria are Jose and Ana Valdovinos and their two daughters, Crystal and Belen. They are extremely proud of their small business and when you listen to them talk about their product, you can see the passion they have for what they do.

This is the perfect time to stop by and try one of the paletas at Las Palmas; you won’t be disappointed. On the other hand, next time you see a local paletero, have a paleta! If you haven’t tried one before, you’ll find out what I’m talking about when it comes to a good-tasting ice cream. Enjoy!