March 06, 1997|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His name is Victor Salgado, but everyone knows him as the singing paletero (ice cream vendor).

A native of Guerrero state, he has pushed his cart of ice cream bars, or paletas, through the streets of Santa Ana for a dozen years.

For those on his route, he brings a predictable distraction–a serenade, a joke and, for only $1, a bar of frozen sweetness.

“Almost everybody knows him, and they always smile when he comes,” said Francisco Munoz, who works at Leo’s Tire Service, a daily stop for Salgado. “I always buy something from him because sometimes I feel sorry for him, you know. He works a lot.”

His nickname, Pipiri Pau, was taken from a cumbia dance hit about a man who wanders about, minding his own business. It seemed to fit Salgado, who talks little and asks few questions.

“I stop and buy paletas from him all the time,” said Jose Vargas, Latino affairs officer for the Santa Ana Police Department and a native of Mexico. “I hear the horn blowing and I look for him. He’s a peculiar guy. He doesn’t like to talk about himself much.”

Even in the evening, during his long walk home from the Tropical Ice Cream warehouse on 5th Street, when Salgado stops to play for passersby or employees in strip malls, he reveals little of himself.

“He lives somewhere around here, but I don’t know much about him, really,” said Leticia Ocampo, who runs a beauty shop on Bristol Street called El Garage. Then she smiled. “But I know he’s a good man. He plays for the people, and he never asks for money. Everyone here knows him.”

A robust man, full-bellied and thick in the face, Salgado, 53, said he took up his route in 1985 after failing as a strawberry picker. “I was too fat to bend over,” he recalled, holding out his arms in a wide circle.

In those days, Salgado was a novelty, one of a few sidewalk vendors in Santa Ana. Now more than 50 men and women sell ice cream bars from pushcarts, catering to the city’s enormous population of Spanish-speaking immigrants who, along with their language, brought their songs, their customs, and their love of a good ice cream bar.

The city licenses only 200 pushcart vendors, who sell an assortment of foods, from hot dogs to tamales. Bruce Dunham, who supervises the permit program, said it was started three years ago to bring some control to what had been an unregulated and booming business. “There’s a long waiting list for those permits,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s lucrative, but it is a living for those folks.”

Salgado, who was recently ticketed for working with an expired permit, is generally acknowledged as the most successful of the paleteros. His colleagues speak with a mixture of admiration and envy of the veteran’s good fortune.

“He makes twice as much as any of us,” one said with a wink late in the evening, as the vendors gathered under a street light at the ice cream warehouse to count out their money and pack their paletas for overnight storage.

Salgado, in contrast, quietly walked behind a row of aging ice cream trucks to the parked truck where he stores his hat and trumpet. He pushed visitors away with a wave of his hand, demanding his privacy, and remained there for at least 15 minutes. The sound of his trumpet blared through the warehouse parking lot, followed by that deep voice.

When Salgado counted his money later that Sunday night, he had taken in $51.46.

On a good weekend, when the city comes alive with families, Salgado said he might gross more than $100 a day by working crowded garage sales and supermarket parking lots. About half of that goes for supplies.

Weekdays are slow, he said, and much of his days are spent hanging around familiar haunts–auto repair shops and produce markets. “Some days, I don’t even make enough to eat,” said Salgado, who lives alone in a small converted garage.

Salgado said he works seven days a week, covering at least five miles a day, slowly and methodically pushing his cart through some of Santa Ana’s poorest neighborhoods. He breaks the monotony with occasional rest stops, leaning up against an alley wall to practice his music and taking discrete sips from a beer or a pint of tequila.

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About ocbarrios

Professor for Cal State Fullerton's Barrio Studies class for Fall 2011 semester

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