On the busy corner of 16th and Mission streets the bell on Estela’s ice cream cart competed with bus engines, car horns and the chatter and laughter of pedestrians. Still, the sound had a Pavlovian effect on some.
“They are cool and delicious,” said 5-year-old Kevin Alvarado, savoring a lemon-flavored Popsicle his mother had just bought for him on a recent 89-degree Thursday afternoon.
While it is common to see paleteros — male Popsicle vendors — pushing carts in streets or parks across major cities, it is rare to see women vendors. In the Mission District, there are two other women who sell ice pops from push carts, said Justino, a paletero who has worked in the Mission neighborhood for two and a half years.
During her three months as a paletera, Estela has gotten to know her customers well. On hot days, they favor paletas de agua, or water-based fruit Popsicles. The most popular are lemon, tamarind and watermelon, she said. The cream-based paletas that sell fast are coconut and strawberry.
On a smoldering day, the 47-year-old mother of five can sell up to $100 in paletas. She earns 40 cents on every dollar, or $40 on a good day. On an average day, she’ll make $20 — double what she made producing clothes for mass distribution in Mexico.
“I have to say, it’s a hard job but I also enjoy doing it,” Estela said.
Estela was motivated to work as a paletera after a friend told her she could get paid daily by selling the treats that have long been popular among Mexicans and other Latin Americans, and have become increasingly mainstream in Latino neighborhoods like the Mission. They are the less expensive alternative to the high-end ice cream stores, and also a reminder of home for immigrants.
At first, Estela was hesitant about taking the job because, since arriving from Mexico six months ago, she had only seen male vendors pushing the colorful iceboxes.
The soft-spoken woman, who is from Xochimilco, a district within Mexico City, said she decided to give it a try only after a friend told her that other women were now making a living that way.
Far from her former job sewing shirt cuffs and collars, where she adhered to a rigid schedule, Estela now works at her own pace. She said she quickly adapted to her new job.
“I get to watch people walk by and be outdoors. I don’t have to be stuck working with people who I don’t like,” Estela said in Spanish.
A friend put her in touch with Paleteria Morelia, an Oakland-based company that supplies her with the pushcart. The Popsicle cart, measuring approximately three feet by two feet, is covered in color pictures of her inventory which range from traditional Mexican frozen fruit bars to the American-inspired treats resembling the shapes of the Pink Panther and Dora the Explorer.
Her new job requires her to buy blocks of dry ice for $4 daily, but otherwise she has few expenses.
But as the summer heat ends here, so will her job.
“When the winter comes, I’m headed to Mexico to be with my children and grandchildren,” Estela said. “This is only a temporary job.”