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The Record

In Latino Neighborhood, Forecast Calls For Snow Cones


July 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Record, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

In the park, youngsters are working up a sweat at soccer or baseball. Outside, Concepcion Aguilar stands by a white wooden cart that carries an umbrella, colorful liquids, and a huge block of ice, waiting for a chance to quench the youngsters' thirst.

Aguilar, 74, is a piraguero, a man who sells piraguas - better known here as snow cones.

But not just any snow cones. Piraguas have tropical flavors - orange, lemon, coconut, tamarind.

Throughout Latin America, where the weather is almost always summer-like, snow cone vendors are a familiar sight. But in North American barrios, they are a dying breed.

Yet you still see them - from mid-June to mid-September - in neighborhoods like the one surrounding Washington Park in Jersey City, where Aguilar recently started his own business.

"I may be old, but this keeps me active," he said as he energetically scraped a big block of ice with a tool that turns solid ice into snow. "It keeps me productive. At first, my arm would get tired. But you get used to it."

Aguilar is trying two locations. From noon to 3 p.m., he is stationed on Central Avenue between Grace and Poplar streets. From 4 to 7 p.m., he is at Central Avenue and North Street. Both locations are across the street from Washington Park, and both are far enough away to avoid direct competition with other piragueros who work the park traffic along Paterson Plank Road. He learned the trade working for a competitor.

Aguilar labored in the coffee fields of Honduras before coming to New Jersey a year ago. To protect himself from the sun, just like in San Pedro Sula, he wears a cowboy hat.

But now he is in business, with an investment of $370.

"I paid $300 for the cart, $35 for the ice scraper, $35 for a license [from the Jersey City Health Department], and now I have my own little business," he said, chuckling. "You can't ask for a better deal."

His Latino customers agree. For $1, $2, or $3 - depending on the size of the plastic cup - they get a refreshment that takes them back to childhood.

Javier and Leida Presa are married, but as they slurped Aguilar's piraguas, they learned something they never knew they had in common.

"In Mexico, I grew up drinking these raspados" he said.

"I grew up on them too," she said. "But in the Dominican Republic, I knew them as frio-frios, or guayaos."

Their friend, Dimarie Jaquez, said she has always known them as piraguas.

"I'm Dominican," she said. "But I was raised here."

Although piraguas is the most common name to describe a snow cone here, this term is mostly Puerto Rican. Throughout Latin America, there are many different ways to describe a snow cone. For Cubans, it's a granizado. For Dominicans, it's either a frio-frio or a guayao. For Mexicans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, and a few other nationalities, it's a raspado. Hondurans call it nieve. In El Salvador, it's a minuta and in Guatemala, a charamusca. The list goes on.

Slurping on a coconut piragua, Emilio Flores, of Jersey City, said the sight of a piraguero takes him back to Puerto Rico. Drinking a tamarind raspado, Carolina Estrada, of Secaucus, said it reminds her of her native Mexico and makes her homesick. Watching her granddaughter devour a cherry frio-frio, Tina Estevez, of Union City, said she is passing on a Dominican tradition.

"When I come to this park, I always get one," said 9-year-old Andrea Cancu. "I love them."

Her grandmother, Estevez, laughed as she realized that she paid $1 for a treat that had cost her 5 cents when she was a child in Santo Domingo. And yet, she said that on sunny weekends, she has had to stand in line to buy a piraguas.

"I just had to have one," said Estrada, who pulled over and parked her car just to buy refreshment. "When I saw him [Aguilar] there, I didn't only feel thirsty. I felt nostalgic for Mexico."

Flores and his wife, Josefina, also had to stop their car, like they did many times in Puerto Rico. "On the island, you see piragueros everywhere," he said. "Here you see a lot of people selling Italian ices. But that's not our thing. Our thing is the piraguas. And here piraguas are a summer thing. In Puerto Rico, piragueros are out there the whole year."

Aguilar said his job is not steady, even in summer. "It depends on the weather," he said. "We can only work when it's sunny and hot, because that's when people are thirsty."

Due to the rainy and cloudy weather, times have been hard for piragueros this year, said Felix Tavera Jr., 44, a Dominican piraguero who sold one of his three remaining carts to Aguilar.

"There have been weeks when we have only been able to take out the carts one single day," he said. "You can't expect to make a big profit when you can only work one day."

It was Tavera's late father, Felix Sr., who pioneered the piraguas business in Jersey City about 12 years ago.

At one point, Tavera and his father had 10 piraguas carts in Jersey City. He said many of his competitors, including Aguilar, are people who once worked for him.

"They learn from us and then they go off and become our competitors," he said. "But unfortunately, when the weather is bad, there is not enough business for all of us. The ice melts and we don't make much money."

Aguilar said he has been doing much better since he became self employed. As an employee, he said, he made $20 to $25 on a good day; as a cart owner, he makes $40 to $50.

"It's more work and responsibility," he said. "Now I have to buy the ice and mix the drinks. But I don't have to share my profits with anyone."

Aguilar, a legal U.S. resident, lives with his three daughters. They help him prepare the drinks and buy the ice for his cart.

But in mid-September, when the piraguas season is over, Aguilar plans to return to Honduras. The piraguas profits will be invested in his small coffee plantation.

"I will go there to check up on my crops and on my mother," he said. "She is 94 and still depends on me. But I'll come back again next summer to sell piraguas."


The cold facts:

    * In Latin America, snow cones are known by many different names. But in North Jersey, piraguas is the most common term to describe them.

    * Pirageros, or snow cone vendors, are found in parks near Hispanic neighborhoods in Jersey City, Newark, and elsewhere.

    * Pirageros are only out on hot, sunny days, because those are the only days when they can expect good business.

    * Piraguas usually come in three sizes. Small, $1 to $1.25; medium, $2; large, $3.

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