August 3, 2020

Carlos Velasco

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The Chile Trader

On the road with my dad and his cargo in Nebraska

The smoky warmth of guajillo chiles burned through the winter cold.

It was still dawn. We had filled every inch of the back seat with boxes. I was squeezed in the middle, my face tired as I tried to settle in. The neighbors probably wondered what we were up to each weekend as they sneaked glimpses through their window shades. We were already foreign enough in our small town in Nebraska.

On the road, the only sound this early in the morning came from a worn Luis Miguel cassette. “¡No me gusta Luis Miguel! ¡Cambiale!” I’d beg my parents, wishing for more room and something else to listen to. I didn’t have much patience then. The cardboard boxes had already traveled 1,500 miles. Another eighty or so was nothing to them.

It started with my dad, a truck driver who worked routes that took him to southern California. There, he made friends with the wholesalers at El Central De Abastos in downtown Los Angeles. The deals they gave him on bulk dried chiles inspired a side hustle that took us across Nebraska when he came home, from Grand Island to Omaha, from Abarrotes La Popular to the rival Mercado Los Tres Hermanos.

Ring, ring, ring. My dad’s phone was always ringing, and I’d always hear the same old stuff back and forth. I never paid much attention to it. There were dozens of stores. They were almost all the same. Place to place, no importaba donde.

Each one was a maze of narrow aisles flooded with an overstock of products. Cumbia radio stations played at volumes that varied with the owners’ moods. Harsh fluorescent lights reflected off the scratched vinyl floors. Walls were plastered with layer upon layer of international calling cards. A long, worn-in glass counter housed treasures like rosaries and colorful alligator boots. In the corner, framed by a saint candle or two, was a watchful Virgen de Guadalupe.

The owners all knew my dad. They all bought his deeply discounted chiles.

The Chile Trader - Quote

Ring, ring, ring. My dad’s phone was always ringing, and I’d always hear the same old stuff back and forth. I never paid much attention to it. There were dozens of stores. They were almost all the same. Place to place, no importaba donde.

In the summer, the heartland humidity was oppressive, and we would roll down the windows to escape the chile burn. As we drove up and down streets, store to store, I would spot the paleteros stationed nearby. I had an uncanny ability to spot them miles away. Truthfully, nothing beats the summer heat like a paleta de horchata.

My favorite stores were the ones with little restaurants attached. Some had dedicated eating spaces. Those were the ones where you’d usually see families sitting down, digging into helpings of cocteles de camaron or caldo de res—minor comforts to combat the dreary winter. Some places were simple: A metal countertop with a plate of curtidos that had seen better days and pairs of plastic chairs. You knew the tacos de asada were good if they had the plastic chairs.

Sometimes, instead of settling for a foil-wrapped torta de frijol in the car, we’d get to eat inside the stores. My puffy coat would deflate and my glasses would fog up. I would eagerly sink into a plate of whatever comforting dish awaited me. Meanwhile, my father would be on his silver flip phone in the background. He’d enter and leave the room with people I didn’t know. Whenever I’d turn my gaze somewhere, my mom would grab one of my grilled onions and sneak a bite.

Occasionally, in Omaha, while we waited for my dad to finish his business, we’d walk down South 24th Street, a familiar and comforting world where the aromas of rich cinnamon and chocolate wafted out from panaderias and stands of Talavera pottery stood on display next to Cobijas San Marcos.

Most of the time, we unloaded the boxes ourselves, but sometimes, we’d park and store employees would come out to unload. When we did that, I liked to watch people. Cars with loud music would drive by, shaking the ground. Groups of kids screamed tonterias into the spring air. Abuelitas diligently headed to la misa while clutching their black purses. Old couples slumped alongside overstuffed sabucanes. Sometimes, we’d be near the bus station and I’d see colorful packages covered in blue tape.

With time, the sights and smells that defined a chapter of my childhood faded. My father’s routes shifted from California to Arizona. We no longer spent much time driving around Nebraska.

My teen years came, and so did an air of obnoxiousness. I’d refuse to go into these stores, instead wanting to go to “normal” ones. I thought that would help me fit in. Fortunately, the teen years fade, and with them, their arrogance. As I moved away from home, little would I have imagined that I’d begin to find comfort hidden in the freezer of a paleteria near my college campus. When I eventually moved into my own apartment, I eagerly looked forward to panaderia visits on weekend mornings. I felt like a real adult with my pan dulce and cafecito in the morning.

And years later, walking around a Mexican grocery in Brooklyn, I was was struck by the sameness again—by the display cases with the boots, the stacked calling cards, the sights and smells of my heartland childhood there in New York. As I reached for some tostadas on the shelf, I glanced behind me to acknowledge the employees walking by with boxes. In that moment, I felt as if time had paused, and I could smell the warmth of guajillo chiles on a cold morning on the Plains.


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