Pushing the sweet stuff
Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
Alejandro Nino is a pusher, a man of the streets.
He’d be the first to admit it.
Nino offers his wares from a specially reconstructed stroller that he uses to store and showcase his shiny, sweet goods.
So perfectly rigged is his store-on-wheels that there is a refrigerated unit to keep the treats cool and fresh.
Up and down the streets of East Harlem, he pushes.
Nino specializes in brightly colored sweet mounds of homemade gelatina.
Unlike the store-bought batches that you might have had to endure when sick at home, this is no mere Jell-O.
Instead, the gelatin treats, native to his homeland of Mexico, are prepared from flavors such as mango, eggnog, almond coconut, chocolate, vanilla, and caramel.
In Mexico, gelatin desserts are a common delicacy often made at home and also found on nearly every buffet table for birthday parties, quinceañeras and other family celebrations.
The gelatins are inexpensive and festive, and are molded into cake-pan shapes.
Although he is has lived in El Barrios for 23 years, Nino has been selling the gelatin for three years now.
“Business goes up and down,” he said.
The number of small tins of gelatin that depart from his stroller depend on what other sweet things might be available. His biggest competition when it’s cooler outside is the churro guy, and when it’s hot, it’s the ice cream man.
But while there is some rivalry, Nino insisted it was friendly.
He added that street vendors tended to stick together, and all accepted that there’d be an ebb and flow in business.
“Success is what we look for,” he said. “One day we sell, one day no.”
On the days he does sell, children stream past, cradling their treasured gelatin in their hands as if it were delicate china.
Everyone loves gelatin, but for the Mexican immigrant population of East Harlem, Nino’s wares offer an additional flavor: home.
“In Mexico, they are very popular,” observed Nino.
Years ago, the intrepid entrepreneur might not have been able to count on a constant stream of compatriots to sell his wares to.
“We didn’t know where any Mexicans were,” he recalled.
But now, the expanding population has made itself manifest in the storefronts and restaurants on 116th Street, east of Third Avenue.
Mexican cuisine and products abound – which makes Nino’s work a little easier.
“Before it was a little complicated, but now you can get Mexican products anywhere.”
The presence of his compatriots, many hailing from Guerrero, as he does, cheers him.
As does their voracious appetite for his goods, sold at $1 a pop. “I’m much happier now.”