Simon Bahena ambles along Imperial Avenue in Logan Heights atop a bright blue, custom-made tricycle. A frame above its two front wheels supports a wooden box with a cooler of shaved ice. Compartments on both sides carry bottles of colorful syrup.
“Raspaditos! Raspaditos!” he announces in Spanish, as he pedals past aging storefronts with faded exteriors and homes with barred windows. He squeezes the end of a rubber air horn attached to his handlebars. The sun is low in the sky, but hot enough still for the honk of his horn to lure a few parched customers outside.
Bahena sells raspados, shaved ice doused in fruity syrup. He’s sold them on the streets of San Diego for 30 years, since he first arrived in the United States illegally.
As he passes a furniture store near the intersection of Imperial Avenue and 25th Street, its owner emerges. Roberto Lee is an old friend, and he buys two. It’s the end of the day, but Bahena’s cooler is still more than half full of ice, and his fanny pack less than half full of cash.
On a hot day like this, it should be the other way around, he says.
But competition is fierce in Logan Heights.
“Aqui hay mucho paletero. No vendo,” he says. There are lots of ice cream men here. I don’t sell.
When he first started selling, he says he was one of the only vendors working the streets of San Diego’s inner neighborhoods. Customers flocked to Bahena’s cart. No one else sold raspados in this community. He became a local novelty. A Tijuana television station featured him in a news segment. He was the Mexican who sold raspados on the streets of San Diego.
“The customers used to surround me like flies,” he says. He regularly filled his fanny pack with earnings, sometimes hundreds of dollars a day.
Today, he competes with vendors selling ice cream, tamales, corn on the cob, cheese, and who knows what else. He’s lucky to make $100.
So one of his sons, or his son-in-law, usually drives him and his tricycle to University Avenue in City Heights, which is crowded with people. There, the volume of sales makes up for the song for which he sells his product: $1.50 for a Styrofoam cup piled high with ice.
Or they drive him to the downtown waterfront. Few vendors — often unlicensed or here illegally — dare venture there because they fear police enforcement, so Bahena still has the market mostly cornered. And he can charge tourists more, $3 for a raspado.
But on days when he can’t find a ride, he settles for selling in Greater Logan Heights, where he got his start. On those days, he can neither expect many sales, nor can he raise his price.
“People here are screwed,” he says of the poor community where he lives. He lets out a laugh.
Still, despite the competition and lack of expendable wealth, Bahena maintains a competitive advantage in the neighborhood.
Raspados are a popular icy treat in Latino communities. Though immigrants peddling popsicles from pushcarts have nearly saturated the neighborhood frozen dessert market, Bahena stands out with his product and his creative contraption.
A man on a bright blue tricycle with two wheels in the front and one in the back, a horn at the ready and his syrups homemade? In Logan Heights, the charm is almost unmatched.
Bahena’s voice is soft but high-pitched and nasally, his Spanish heavy with the drawl of his southern Mexican state of Morelos that makes even affirmative statements sound like questions. He speaks in the slow cadence of stretched taffy.
Years ago, when he was a more able-bodied man, Bahena maneuvered his cart through the city not with a cooler of pre-shaved ice like today, but with a solid block of the stuff, which he bought at an ice store in City Heights. He shaved it by hand to order, and the familiar sound of his scraping blade alerted neighborhood children that the raspadero was near.
“This Indian was new back then,” he jokes.
Not anymore. Years of forcing his blade back and forth against the ice have taken their toll. He is 67 now, and it all aches: his back, his hips, and especially his right shoulder. Shaving by hand has become too much. He’s replaced the manual hand tool with a machine.
Each morning, he rides his tricycle to an ice cream store on Imperial Avenue, where the owners sell him bags of ice cubes for a dollar each. He places five or six in his moving contraption’s wooden box and drives them back to his home, where he runs them through the ice shaver.
He packs the shaved ice into his cooler, aware that he’s sacrificed the powdery fluffiness of a freshly shaved raspado to save his aging body the strain.
“People still want it shaved by hand,” he says. “But this is better for me now.”
The trade-off doesn’t worry him much. Bahena knows he’s earned his reputation not for the quality of his ice, but for the succulence of his syrups.
Each morning, he puts the finishing touches on the 10 flavors he’s prepared the night before.
In its clear bottle, his tamarind syrup is a thick murky brown, and the pieces of fruit that settle at the bottom offer proof that this is no store-bought concentrate. The eggnog-flavored rompope separates when it settles, requiring a vigorous shake before pouring. The other flavors, like bubble gum and cherry, are based in store-bought syrups, but he mixes them with a special sugar formula he prepares at his daughter’s house where he lives.
His customers and other raspado vendors ask him how he does it. How does he achieve such flavor, such richness in his syrups?
That is a secret he won’t reveal. He’ll say only that he prepares the concoctions by hand, with the greatest of care.
“It’s not out of jealousy or egoism,” he says. “It’s a matter of protecting my livelihood.”
As he passes the open doors of storefronts on Imperial Avenue, storeowners wave.
“They all know me,” he says. “They’re all my friends and they respect me. Even the police buy from me.”
He no longer worries about police like he once did. Three years ago, one of his sons, a U.S. citizen, arranged his immigration papers, so now he rides his tricycle with new calm.
“Paso como balazo,” he says. I pass like a bullet. In reality, he struggles to gain enough momentum to scale the curb cuts at intersections, and often has to dismount and push his contraption by hand.
He arrives home after a long, hot, slow day. His daughter’s house is one of only a few on Commercial Street, a desolate stretch dominated by industry. The house is tucked between a junkyard with piles of cars looming high, and a car repair shop. The trolley zooms down the middle of the street.
He walks to the heavy front gate and swings it open.
He contemplates all the ice he didn’t sell.
“Well,” he says, wiping the sweat from his brow as he tucks his tricycle in the corner of the patio. “It was a hard day for me. But my raspados, they refreshed many people.”