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Cold, Hard Cash: Ice cream carts mean income for hundreds of immigrants in San Jose.

Ice-Cream Dreams

For San Jose's paleteros, the hours are long and the pay unsteady--but the customers are always happy

By Vrinda Normand

CARLOS HAS BEEN selling paletas, Mexican ice-cream bars made with fruit and milk, since he arrived in the United States six months ago. He only does it a couple of days a week, when he is not delivering vegetables in Monterey. For him, walking 10 miles a day while pushing his 3-foot-high ice-cream cart is good exercise, and selling paletas is considerably less strenuous than some of the other jobs that are available to him.

Like the many undocumented immigrants in San Jose, Carlos' dreams of earning money in the United States have been shattered against the reality that America isn't a "land of opportunity" for those who don't have papeles, or legal documents, to stay and work in the U.S. Instead of getting ahead as they had hoped, Carlos and many of his friends are struggling to survive.

The life of an undocumented immigrant is not made any easier by the reluctance of San Jose city officials to recognize matrículas consulares, identification cards issued by the Mexican Consulate. A form of U.S. identification and a valid work permit are required by the city to obtain the necessary permits to sell paletas, according to Lt. Stan Faulwetter of the San Jose Police Department.

However, Sgt. Steve Dickson says that although many are undocumented, citing nonpermitted peddlers is "not a big priority."

Carlos shrugs and says the job of a paletero is "not bad." It just doesn't realize the American dream that he came here for. He left his family in Acapulco and lives alone in San Jose, still waiting for some opportunity to make money so he can go home to Mexico.

Donde Hay Mexicanos

Carlos finds a little piece of home selling paletas. In a city where 30 percent of the population is Latino, according to the San Jose City demographics website, the Mexican tradition of peddling goods on the street thrives.

And the best places to sell paletas, Carlos says, are "donde hay Mexicanos" (where there are Mexicans). He often meets friends lounging on their front porches, who always have the time to ask him how his day is going. Even other paleteros passing by will stop to chat for a few minutes.

At 4pm, we enter a small apartment complex, where tenants hang around outside their front doors and kids play on the pavement. Carlos rings his bells and says, "Paletas." The kids immediately flock to his cart, mount the large rubber wheels and peer inside the two small openings.

One little boy examines the cartooned ice-cream images on the outside of the cart. When he finds one he likes, he points to it and repeats, "Esto, quiero esto" (I want this one). His friend, who is probably 5 years old, wears brown mini-cowboy boots and skinny jeans. He selects his ice cream carefully, takes a brown leather wallet from his pocket and pays Carlos. He then struggles for a few minutes to put the adult-sized wallet back into his child-sized pocket.

We hang out at the complex for about 10 minutes, waiting for people to decide if they want an ice cream and then to decide which ice cream they want. People buy paletas leisurely, so paleteros sell them in the same manner.

Carlos likes selling paletas because it is peaceful, and people are usually friendly. He especially likes making the kids happy by giving them ice cream. Sometimes, they don't have money, and they ask him to give them ice-cream bars as regalos, or presents.

It is hard, but he tells them to ask their parents for some money. He can't give the paletas away, because he can't do that for everyone. They are also not his paletas to give away. He is just borrowing them from the paletería, the business that provides the carts and ice cream-bars.

Como Vender Paletas

The paletería that Carlos goes to is just south of downtown San Jose. It is a small, one-story building. The main front room is dark and lined with waist-high refrigerator boxes, where the paletas are stored. The paletas are made in Mexico and delivered to many parts of the western United States from Southern California, the manager, Roy, says.

He explains that all a person has to do is show up, borrow a cart full of paletas, sell them for however long he or she wants and then return the cart with half of the earnings. Roy counts the bars left in the paletero's cart at the end of the day.

At the paletería, several carts are parked in the center of the floor. They all have blue health-inspection certificates on them, just one of the permits required by the city to sell paletas.

Although the individual paletero's only investment is his or her time, the owner of the paletería has to jump through hoops to make his operation legal. Lt. Faulwetter says owners must obtain a mobile business permit from the police department, identification cards for each employee, health permits for each cart, business insurance and a business license from the city's finance department.

The owner of a medium-sized paletería with 10 carts would have to pay approximately $5,500 dollars a year just in licenses, permits and insurance. This excludes the $29 identification cards that each paletero must have. Sgt. Dickson says the paleteros are responsible for getting the ID cards themselves, which they must display on their carts.

The costs are less daunting to launch a paletería business on one's own, with one cart and one vendor, at around $1,400 a year for the same licenses, fees and insurance. Of course, this figure doesn't include the cost of the cart, the paletas and their refrigerated storage.

Las Noticias Malas

Carlos says he sells 60 to 80 bars on an average weekday, and up to 150 on a Saturday or Sunday, at a dollar a bar. But, he warns, the work is not secure. Some days, he might not sell any paletas. Like most paleteros, Carlos works for a paletería and takes home only half of what he earns.

As a result of the cost, many paleterías don't have the proper permits, according to Lt. Faulwetter. He says it is "up to the officer's discretion" to ask peddlers for proof of permits. The fine for a permit violation is $250 dollars, and if the officer catches a peddler selling illegally more than once, he might detain the person and/or confiscate the cart.

Sgt. Dickson says it is often more effective to take the cart, because citing the individual paletero doesn't affect the paletería, which is responsible for buying the permits in the first place. If there are complaints, usually by legal peddlers who are losing business, then one officer from the permits division will investigate the situation.

Most of the time, Roy explains, paleteros come and go as they please. They are not obligated to sell for any fixed amount of time. Roy says he never knows how many people will show up to work in the morning, and that's why it is difficult to provide the right kind of insurance.

Roy says paleteros must steer clear of prohibited areas, such as schools and commercial districts. They also have to remain on the sidewalks, and as their mobile peddler permit dictates, they cannot stay in one place for more than 15 minutes.

Theft is often a problem, according to Roy, as paleteros don't have more than their 3-foot-high cart standing between their earnings and a potential thief. The only thing that paleteros can do, he says, is avoid sketchy areas and stay alert. The few women who work as paleteros have to be especially careful not to invite the wrong kind of attention, Roy warns.

La Vida Dulce

So, after all the risks and costs are considered, what's in it for a paletero?

The job may not be as glamorous and lucrative as one would hope, but the hours are flexible and once on the street, you are your own boss. And not all paleteros are undocumented.

Newcomer Abe sells paletas because he needs the exercise and wants to make a few extra bucks. Abe has a bad knee, which he injured being a construction worker for many years, laying cement on the street. The doctor said he needs to walk.

Abe is from Guadalajara, Mexico. He has lived in the U.S. for 36 of his 54 years. He came to stay with his brother in San Jose only recently. He expects his Social Security payments to come in about eight months, but until then, he plans on spending his time as a paletero.

Abe will push his cart for at least six hours today, but it is easy going, and he stops often to wait in front of houses for kids or adults to emerge at the sound of his distinct bells. "Paletas," he yells, even though the majority of his customers, who are Mexican, already know what is inside this street peddler's cart.

His eyes crinkle into a smile when he greets me. I ask him if he has any strawberry bars, helado de fresa. He motions to the two small square openings at the top of the cart and says, "Mira lo que quieres" (Look for what you want).

I reach into the cart and shuffle through rectangular fruit bars in a plethora of flavors, including lime, coconut, watermelon, tamarind, strawberry and pepino, an oddly spicy frozen treat with chile seeds that make your tongue tingle. I settle for a coconut bar, and the milky crunchiness of it is worth every bit of the dollar I paid.

We walk through quiet neighborhoods on a lazy Thursday afternoon. A gentle breeze keeps the temperature at a comfortable level, but is still hot enough to eat ice cream. I have had three bars already, thanks to courteous Mexican gentlemen wearing boots and cowboy hats who insist on buying paletas for me as well as themselves.

American ice-cream bars, like chocolate sandwiches and push pops, also crowd the paletero's cart, which is plastered with cartoon treats. Abe doesn't know exactly which ice-cream bars live in his cart today, but he patiently waits as customers search for the right one. "Es mi primera vez vender paletas," he tells everyone--that it is his first time selling paletas--and shoves his hands into his pockets, smiling sheepishly.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the August 29-September 4, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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