Jonathan Omar Ramirez (Facebook profile pic, right) had been a teenage paletero, he said. We asked him for his story:
POCHO: So what led you to become a paletero?
Well my friends from high school told me about it. Many did it before and they said there was a lot of cash involved and within a couple of hours of work. Also I was very poor.
POCHO: Was this right after high school?
No [it was] while I was in high school. Still I got money to go to the movies and for food or whatever I wanted to buy
POCHO: Wow, cool! So were you allowed to eat your own ice cream? Did you just have to pay it back?
I had to pay it back but it was half price. Once we finished, (we) always asked the owners of the paleteria for ice cream and they let us pick whatever we wanted. It was awesome!
We sold the paletas for $1 and paid the owners kept half always so $.50 for each paleta. So if we sold 100 paletas we would get $50 which was awesome.
The paleteria had everything ready: little carritos with dry ice and paletas. I only went to pick my carrito up and start selling. There was no particular time to start or leave. You just work whenever you felt like it. They never asked for papers, or anything–just honest workers for an honest job.
POCHO: So who were your best customers? Were the kids polite or mean? I like how you said it was a noble job — do you feel like you made people happier? I was always happy eating my UFO (Unidentified Frozen Object) ice cream from the paletero.
The best customers were the construction workers. One day, I arrived to a house being remodeled by a group of Mexican construction workers and they started joking around for who was gonna pay the paletas for everyone. Long story short one of the workers said just get whatever to everyone and they got like 20 paletas. It was an amazing day, to say the least.
POCHO: Yes! The UFO was my very favorite. What is your favorite paleta?
My favorite paleta is coco. Very often. More often that I thought.
POCHO: That’s my second-favorite paleta! Haha, adults are weak. So what city did you do this in and where do you work now?
In a very racist town, actually. It’s news now — Dalton, Georgia.
This town is full of Mexicans like no other town because of the carpet industry. Now I work for AmeriCorps as a Vista Maker for a nonprofit organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee..
POCHO: Fascinating. Did the police officers or any officials react strangely when you were selling the paletas? For example, when I went to elementary school, the paleteros were banned from standing near our school. By the way, your job sounds so cool!
Yes, paleteros were banned from the park actually; can you believe that? There is a small park that all Mexicans go to play soccer and it’s big for the paleta market but sometimes the police would kick us out.
The job is great. It’s my career now. I’m working on my masters degree in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management.
POCHO: Wow, that is so stupid (about the ban). Double congratulations on your master’s path! You’re an inspiration. Last question: What did being a paletero teach you and would you recommend it to someone else?
It taught me that life can be hard but if you work hard enough, you will succeed. I definitely recommend it to anyone that needs cash ASAP and wants to maintain an honest life.
[Editor’s Note: Transcript slightly edited to improve clarity.]