The history of Mexico’s famed paleterías—the ice cream shops that started in the Mexican state of Michoacán—is a rich one that is slowly expanding its presence throughout the city: While most denizens were only able to score paletas at Paletería la Mexicana on Pacific Avenue for years, La Michoacana Premier opened up shop on Seventh Street earlier this year and now North Long Beach will get its own La Michoacana thanks to Sergio and Carmen Villavicencio.
The shop, celebrating its grand opening in Virginia Village at 5155 Long Beach Blvd., follows the rich history of the paletería, one I’ve written about before—and it’s a history that is worth repeating.
La Michoacana ice cream shops are so ubiquitous throughout Mexico that journalist Gustavo Arellano—leaning heavily on the work of Sam Quinones’ “True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx”—said La Michoacana “refers not so much to a specific chain as to an idea.”
And he’s right. Step into practically any city in Mexico, especially toward the west coast, and you’ll easily find one or three in every town. Mexican journalist and writer Laura Sands said there are “anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 La Michoacáns throughout Mexico.” In My Dude’s hometown of Jalostotitlán in Jalisco, just north of Michoacán, there are two, which citizens will vehemently proclaim are different from one another and with equal passion, expressing their reasons for preferring one or the other.
This latter point is the story of La Michoacana: the idea and branding—typically a pink-dressed indigenous girl holding an ice cream cone; sometimes some abstract form of fruit—has been largely left up to a mix of Mexican history and mythology. While it is universally agreed that the birthplace is Tocumbo, a town of about 11,000 people in Michoacán that borders with Jalisco, other details remain arguable.
According to Sands and scholars at El Colegio de Michoacán, the state of Michoacán was rich in agriculture, especially bovine, during the early 20th century. With electric power—and therefore freezers—beginning to pop up throughout the region combined with easy access to fresh milk, the almighty paleta (popsicle) began to popularize and Rafael Malfavón Villanueva of Tocumbo took advantage of this and birthed what Mexico came to know as La Michoacana.
One of his employees, Ignacio Alcázar Pulido, basically stole money from Villanueva. Partnering with his brother Luis and friend Augustín Andrade, the trio fled to Mexico City in order to open their own paletería located near the old prison of Lecumberri. Featuring what Sands described as “crude drawings of fruit,” it turned out that Pulido’s success would match that of Villanueva.
“The business turned out to be so good that not only a short time later was Pulido able to pay his former boss Villanueva for the ‘debt’ he had basically stolen,” said Esteban Barragán López of El Colegio de Michoacán, “but allowed him to open more shops, including franchises to his family as the business began to grow.”
Here we have the origin of how the Paleteros of Tocumbo began to dominate Mexico with the explanation that, despite sharing the same name, each had subtle differences. Add on top of this a businesses model that required only a small investment—making it easy for families to join in or borrow small loans from the wealthy—and soon they were everywhere.
“Hundreds of paleterías were opened throughout the country,” López said. “All, mind you, with names that are nostalgic and remember their homeland: ‘La Flor de Michoacán,’ ‘La Flor de Tocumbo,’ ‘Janitzio’—or, simply, what would become ‘La Michoacana.'”
Stateside, it is no different: There’s La Michoacana Premium in Orange County and Tennessee. (You read that right.) There’s La Michoacana Premier here in Long Beach and up in L.A. In fact, numerous entrepreneurs in the States have tried to lay claim to the La Michoacana brand by trying to trademark it for their own: at least 18 separate trademark applications exist for some variant of the name and logo.
La Michoacana is located at 5155 Long Beach Blvd. La Michoacana Premier is located at 1168 E. Seventh St. Paletería la Mexicana is located at 1864 Pacific Ave.
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