Columnist Gustavo Arellano Discusses Paletas and Pirateria
An online search reveals a number of images for Paleterias La Michoacana throughout Mexico and the United States. In the U.S., you can find them in California, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Some even have the same or a similar logo, including the producer of supermarket paletas and ice cream based in Modesto, California. La Michoacana's are so ubiquitous in Mexico, someone started a Flickr group dedicated to them.
It turns out that although the stores are all independently owned, they have common roots. A town in Michoacan, Mexico is the birthplace of paleterias in Mexico and the U.S. In the 1940s, two cousins in the village of Tocumbo introduced and successfully marketed paletas. They were so successful that they generously helped their fellow townspeople start their own paleterias. Now Tocumbo is a wealthy town with a large paleta monument at its entrance.
The paleta business is a fine example of pirateria at its best.
Gustavo Arellano of "Ask a Mexican" on paletas and pirateria after the jump.
To get some West Coast perspective on paletas and pirateria, I decided to ask a Mexican -- that is, Gustavo Arellano, managing editor of our sister paper, OC Weekly, and author of the "Ask a Mexican" column and book.
Arellano casts no aspersions on pirateria, which is a Mexican Spanish word for "stolen goods," but which can also mean copying another business. He says, "Pirateria is the time-honored tradition in restaurants of copying what is successful." He gives the example of Manhattan's Papaya King, the hot dog and tropical fruit joint, which has many imitators. "First there was Papaya King. Then there was Papaya's King, then Papaya Kings, then Gray's Papaya--all of these derivatives trying to trick people who think they are trying the original, much ballyhooed location." An LA version that currently delights Arellano is Calbi, a new rip off of the famous Kogi Korean taco truck.
"You can't really pursue legal methods. You can if people are using the logo, but if you're using a derivative of the logo and the name, it's harder." However, sometimes brands become large enough to enter the cultural vernacular, "and then good luck trying to stop it." Arellano cites how some behemoth brands like "Xerox" become vernacular terms -- to "Xerox" stands in for "to make a copy." The same might be said for "Google" and "perform an Internet search." The brands become shorthand.
"'La Michocana' is now shorthand in Mexico for 'great paletas' and so of course, any business person in their right mind would want to associate themselves with that. Michoacan is synonymous with paletas because of that original business, so people will shamelessly call themselves "La Michoacana" although they may not even be from there. They have the business sense to know that it guarantees an upper hand in attracting customers."
Whatever you think about pirateria, its products can be tasty. Interestingly, since the cousins from Tocumbo willingly shared their business secrets with others, one might say the paleta business is "open source" entrepreneurship. To learn more about Paleteria La Michoacana in Homestead, take a look at my photo post.