I'm Reclaiming Piraguas This Summer as an NYC-Bred Latina

POPSUGAR Photography | Kim Dole / Getty / Alexandra Oquendo and Photo Illustration: Michelle Alfonso
POPSUGAR Photography | Kim Dole / Getty / Alexandra Oquendo and Photo Illustration: Michelle Alfonso

Summertime in New York City is unmatched. And in many Latine-populated neighborhoods in NYC, piraguas, or shaved ice (also known as icees), are a summertime staple. Lin-Manuel Miranda captured this perfectly, playing the piragua guy in his film adaptation of "In the Heights." The late Afro-Puerto Rican artist Jean-Michel Basquiat also had an untitled drawing of a man pushing a piragua cart as an ode to his youthful days in Puerto Rico and Brooklyn. Culturally specific references like these are what allow many NYC-based Latines — including myself — to feel seen.

After years of not having piraguas, this summer, I plan on reclaiming this experience. Piraguas are more than just a refreshing treat; they actually have ties to Latin America. Piraguas have roots in Puerto Rico, as well as other Latin American and Caribbean countries. In New York City, where there is a large Puerto Rican population, piraguas represent a connection to their Boricua and other Latine cultural heritage and traditions. They are a symbol of identity and serve as a reminder to people of our roots, as well as provide a sense of nostalgia and belonging.

Puerto Ricans refer to this cold dessert as piraguas. The word piraguas comes from a combination of the word piramide, which translates to pyramid, and agua, which translates to water. But its name varies across Latin America, with Dominicans referring to them as "frio frio," while they are known as "minutas" in Honduras.

During the hot and humid summer months, piraguas offer a delicious and affordable way to cool down. They are essentially flavored shaved ice treats, similar to snow cones. These shaved ice treats also form part of New York City's street-vendor culture and are commonly sold in parks and beaches, as well as on the busy street corners of bustling neighborhoods in Manhattan such as the Lower East Side and Washington Heights, the South Bronx, Corona, Queens, and certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Piraguas became a thing in NYC in the 1950s when Puerto Ricans migrated to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and uptown Manhattan. They continued to flourish throughout the '80s, '90s, and even early 2000s in predominately Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods. Piragua carts were and still are for many immigrants a summer side hustle. Although it's on a small scale, it's a business venture that allows these entrepreneurs to earn additional income during the summer months. Piragua vendors for decades contributed to the local economy and helped sustain the cultural fabric of our neighborhoods.

At one point, there were numerous piragua carts throughout NYC's Latine-populated neighborhoods. Now, there are significantly fewer, and for a number of reasons. One is that there are a lot more regulations that exist in the city today regarding permits for carts and food trucks. Secondly, the owners of many of these carts have gone on to retire while their children have attended college and pursued their own careers. Even so, my appreciation for the piragua carts that still remain in NYC has not gone away.

Growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, there would always be a vendor pushing a brightly colored wooden cart through some of the neighborhood's busiest streets, ringing a bell or honking a horn, letting those in the area know that the piraguas were here. For many Latine communities, the piragua cart was our Mister Softee ice cream truck. It was cultural but also a lot more affordable than the ice creams you'd get from the Mister Softee truck. Piraguas used to sell for a dollar or $1.50 at most. These days, they run for at least $3, and in most cases more. Piraguas are typically sold by vendors known as piragüeros whose colorful pushcarts would bring out a big umbrella on the hottest days during the summer season, as a way to prevent the block of ice from melting under the hot sun. There's also a variety of flavors to choose from, such as coco (coconut), canela (cinnamon), parcha or maracuyá (passion fruit), mélon (melon), cherry, strawberry, mango, pineapple, vanilla, blueberry, crema (cream), tamarind, and many more. Your average piragua truck often offers up to 20 flavors.

On days when it was particularly hot, there would always be a line. I remember asking my mom for money and then going up to the vendor on Knickerbocker Avenue. While I was waiting in line, I'd have to make the tough decision of choosing a flavor. Mango was always my favorite, and as a kid, I would watch in excitement as the vendor scraped the block of ice back and forth several times with a hand ice-shaver tool, before placing it into the cup in order to shape the ice into its distinctive shape. Unlike snow cones, piraguas aren't served in a triangular cup. Instead, they are formed in a round or square cup with a triangular top. And unlike American snow cones, piraguas aren't eaten with a spoon but sipped with a straw.

My eyes would light up as the vendor would then top the shaved ice with the syrup before handing it over to me. The best part was always taking that first sip. I would instantly feel that sweet coolness reach my soul. So of course, this year, I decided to kick off my summer by heading back to Brooklyn — to my old stomping grounds — on the hunt for a piragua. I knew it would not only cool me down but also bring joy to my inner child.

While walking through the parts of Bushwick that have not fallen victim to gentrification, I was able to track down a piragüero, and immediately, I cracked a smile. His pushcart, spray painted in red and blue, was befittingly blasting "Un Verano en Nueva York" ("A Summer in New York"), a classic salsa by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. I walked up to the vendor, greeted him, and ordered my treat. I watched with anticipation as he repeatedly shaved the ice while asking me in Spanish which flavor I wanted. "Mango, por favor," I answered. My eyes lit up as he poured the syrup, placed the straw into the red cup, then handed it over to me with a smile.

I handed him a $5 bill and took my first sip as he searched for change. Just one small sip transported me back to my childhood — to a simpler time. As an adult, I look back fondly at piraguas and how something so simple can remind me of some of the best moments I had while growing up.

Many New Yorkers such as myself have fond memories of enjoying piraguas sold by these street vendors during their childhood and sharing them with friends and family. Their presence not only brought a vibrant charm and sense of camaraderie to our neighborhoods but also added a unique flavor to the summertime experience in the city. Piraguas are an important and cherished part of New York City's summer traditions — one that I will continue to carry on for as long as I remain a New Yorker.