One of the best things about the summer time in Brooklyn is a good ol’ shaved ice, aka a piragua. For those you haven’t tried it, you’ve got a little time left to experience such happiness.
It’s very easy to spot the sellers of shaved ice. A medium height Hispanic man or woman pushing a white, tan or silver painted wooden cart with a multi-colored umbrella sticking out from the side. The horn or bell of arrival. You can find them roaming parks or train stop entrances or busy corners. I usually find them strolling in the middle of wide streets in Williamsburg or Bushwick, especially when cars aren’t plentiful in the streets of the neighborhoods I call home, but they aren’t in these neighborhoods exclusively. Just whistle to one to get their attention.
If you’re lucky, sometimes piraguas will only be $1.00 or $1.50 like in the late 90s but most will run you $2.00 nowadays. Despite there being about 21 flavors, many made from scratch, including orange, cherry, strawberry, vanilla, blueberry, canela (cinnamon), tamarind (a dense and smokey fruit flavor), melón (melon) and coco (cononut), I always choose crema (cream).
While eating it, you’ll be reminded of a snow cone except with better flavors, including some that will give you a taste of an island here in the city. Another difference is that while snow cones are ice in triangular cups with a round top, piraguas are ice in a round or square cup with a triangular top. Also, the ice is shaved by hand and not by a machine.
Piraguas popped up on the scene in New York City when Puerto Ricans and Dominicans first migrated here, particularly Williamsburg, in huge numbers in the 1950s. Selling piraguas became a second job or a summer job for many of these new immigrants because a lot of the work they could get didn’t pay well enough to support their families for a full year or for a full work day.
The carts that hold piraguas are not easy to come by and they’re heavy to push. Most of the flavors are imported straight from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic but the wooden carts are hand-built here in New York City. Some nowadays are metal if they belong to a certain family of sellers who’ve managed to upgrade their service (along the price of their piraguas). Many carts and flavors are stored in already tight apartments. It’s a long, hard work day.
There were many who migrated to New York City selling piraguas but truth is that few remain. What was once a booming pleasure for those who strolled the streets is now a rare commodity. “There are maybe 10 families still pushing piraguas in today’s age,” says Augie Ayala, former owner of ABC Beverages South End Distributors.
The reason he can speak so much about the shift in this industry is because his dad was one of the first who used to sell piraguas to support his family. According to Ayala, the decline in piragua selling is due to the fact that children of those that sell piraguas are going to or have gone to school and graduated and started taking jobs in offices, and moved out of the city. Their parents came to this country to help their children move up into the middle class life, so there was a step away from the physical labor required to move the heavy piragua carts. In doing so, this next generation now supports their parents, who no longer have to press forward with the hard labor either.
Another cause of the decline is the many regulations that exist with carts (and food trucks) nowadays. Back in the 50’s, there were regulations with no enforcement. Now, vendors face regulations from the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. Now, a vendor can’t really park a cart like they used to because there is a bidding process for permits. Pushing your luck can mean a summons for parking a cart, and therefore the only choice left is to keep on riding on. Pushing the cart forward until someone places an order.
For those who spot a piragua cart, it’s definitely worth whistling at them for a taste of ethnic goodness in our diverse borough. Take my advice and go with the crema, which combines the the relief of chewing a chunk of ice on a hot day with the taste of a milkshake.