THE BIGGEST POPSICLE IN MEXICO
By Jay Lotven
December 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 17, Number 4

Visitors to the village of Tocumbo in Michoacan are greeted at the edge of town by a monumental, three story tall, paleta (Popsicle). It honors what has made Tocumbo one of the wealthiest villages in Mexico. Tocumbans invented La Michoacana ice cream shops, developed their special kind of rich, fruity paleta, and turned them both into one of the great small-business success stories in Mexico. The first Michoacana shops belonged to Ignacio Alcazar and Augustin Andrade, two illiterate rancheros from Tocumbo who found themselves in Mexico City in the early 1940s. Their paleterias were small and not terribly attractive. But Alcazar and Andrade plowed their profits back into the business and helped other Tucumban migrants set up their own shops. By the 1950s, entire families from the town were peddling ice cream in Mexico City. A father would start a paleteria, then use the profits to finance others for his children, his nephews and his cousins.
When Mexico City became saturated with La Michoacana outlets in the 1970s, Tocumbans expanded to the rest of the country. Today, with somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 paleterias, La Michoacana is an inescapable part of Mexico's municipal scenery. Because La Michoacana is not a corporation, but a series of independent businesses, no one knows exactly how many shops exist. The key lies in La Michoacana's simple and flexible business model: Owners make the ice cream and paletas on the premises as demand warrants, eliminating the need to buy and maintain refrigerated delivery trucks. Each owner sells at his shop whatever local tastes favor. In December, Tocumbo has its annual, ten day long Feria de la Paleta (Paleta Fair). Among the paleta shaped lights, the townspeople parade in paleta costumes, crown a paleta-fair queen, and eat free ice cream as they dance the night away to bands playing from a stage by the town plaza.
At this time of the year, Tocumbo fills with ex-Tocumbans. Business is slow in December and many tocumbans come home. They come from all over Mexico where most of the year they tend their Paleterias. In contrast to surrounding villages, Tocumbans live in beautiful homes and drive on paved streets. Their city hall boasts computers. Their church, which the first paleta fair helped pay for, was designed by the same architect as the massive Basilica to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. And they have the monumental, three story tall paleta!