We spent a day following a 58-year-old paletero through Denver. We got tired, he didn’t.

The bells. The bells!

A waitress stops Delgado and picks out a paleta while he’s on his way to a nearby convenience store for refreshments and a break in downtown Denver on Oct. 8, 2020. He sometimes worries about meeting so many people throughout the day during the coronavirus pandemic, but knows he must take the risk to make money to survive.

A waitress stops Delgado and picks out a paleta while he’s on his way to a nearby convenience store for refreshments and a break in downtown Denver on Oct. 8, 2020. He sometimes worries about meeting so many people throughout the day during the coronavirus pandemic, but knows he must take the risk to make money to survive.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Octavio Delgado hunched down to tie his gray lunch bag to the corner of his paletero cart, right next to the three little bells underneath the cart’s handle. He used a thin white string to keep the bag in place, making sure it was nice and tight.

Are you sure that’s going to work?, his supervisor, Marychuy Robles, asked in Spanish as she watched him put the nylon bag in place. He smiled, stepping back to see his setup.

Octavio Delgado, 58, packs paletas, or Mexican popsicles, into his cart in the back of Paletería Chihuahua in Cole on Oct. 8, 2020. The cart can hold around 300 paletas.

Octavio Delgado, 58, packs paletas, or Mexican popsicles, into his cart in the back of Paletería Chihuahua in Cole on Oct. 8, 2020. The cart can hold around 300 paletas.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

Delgado had just finished packing his cart with an assortment of helados, including bright popsicles and ice cream cups, inside Paleteria Chihuahua at the corner of Bruce Randolph Avenue and Downing Street in the Cole neighborhood.

He and other paleteros were getting ready to head out for the day. Wearing face masks, they took turns packing their carts inside the shop’s cavernous backroom, where paletero carts were stacked against a wall and several large fridges that stored paletas. As they packed their carts, Robles marked down how much ice cream each paletero took.

Delgado, alongside another paletero, gets popsicles for the day’s sales in the back of Paletería Chihuahua in Cole on Oct. 8, 2020.

Delgado, alongside another paletero, gets popsicles for the day’s sales in the back of Paletería Chihuahua in Cole on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

As he pushed the cart outside, Delgado started ringing his bells. If you grew up in a certain kind of neighborhood, you know exactly what those bells sound like. They produce a distinct, bright ring that somehow echoes on the streets the same way it does in the backroom at Paleteria Chihuahua.

Delgado, who turned 58 last month, is new at this. He’s been working as a paletero for about three months after a friend hooked him up with the job. He speaks both English and Spanish, sometimes switching between the two. He’s been living in homeless shelters since May and currently calls the Denver Coliseum home. He said he hasn’t had a steady living situation since he lived in Aurora about five years ago.

Paletas come in many favors, like watermelon, coconut, spicy mango, bubble gum and chocolate.

Paletas come in many favors, like watermelon, coconut, spicy mango, bubble gum and chocolate.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

The paletero gig is temporary but an integral part of his life’s goal. He plans to raise money to move to Illinois, where a former boss has promised him a job working with show horses if he can find his way back.

“She told me, ‘You know what, you have you job here still if you want to come, and I’ll pay for half and you pay for half for the trip,'” Delgado said in Spanish. “That’s what I’m doing now right now: pulling money together.”

Delgado, who’s originally from Mexico, has traveled across the country to end up where he is today.

He came to Colorado in the early 1980s, first moving to Commerce City to work at a flower shop with his brother. He got paid about $1 an hour and usually worked 12-hour days. He went back to Mexico before returning to Colorado for a few years. Then he moved to California to work as a horse groomer at a racetrack in the Bay Area. He made decent money, much more than what he made in Colorado, but it was grueling work that began early in the morning.

Paletería Chihuahua employees recorded the amount of each paleta flavor taken by Delgado and other paleteros in a notebook at the beginning of the day.

Paletería Chihuahua employees recorded the amount of each paleta flavor taken by Delgado and other paleteros in a notebook at the beginning of the day.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

Delgado worked there from the mid-’80s to the late-’90s, eventually taking a job as a janitor that turned into an assistant floor manager position at a movie theater in Redwood City, near Palo Alto. He was fired after he said he was falsely accused of stealing money while he tried to refund cash to a customer.

He struggled to find another job. Then his father, who lived in Illinois, found himself in some legal troubles. Delgado agreed to move there to help his family, taking a two-day bus trip to the Midwest. He got a job working with show horses in Geneseo, Illinois, from the early 2000s until 2008, when he returned to Colorado. That job in Illinois is the one he’s trying to get back.

Delgado walks along Bruce Randolph Avenue in Cole to start his day of selling paletas on Oct. 8, 2020. Some days, he walks up to 20 miles.

Delgado walks along Bruce Randolph Avenue in Cole to start his day of selling paletas on Oct. 8, 2020. Some days, he walks up to 20 miles.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

He returned to Colorado to try and reconnect with his two daughters, whom Delgado said he pretty much abandoned when they were born, in the early 1980s. He had a poor relationship with their mother, who he said called the police on him when he tried to see his daughters. He ended up arrested and jailed during one of those visits, only to learn afterward that she had a restraining order against him.

“All that time, since they were about three, four years old, I left and never talked to them,” he said in Spanish. “I didn’t know anything about them, nothing. I didn’t even know if they still lived here. I didn’t even know their phone numbers. I didn’t know their addresses, nothing.”

Delgado walks through a construction site in RiNo on Oct. 8, 2020. He often purposefully plans his route along construction sites because the workers, who are often in the sun all day, are frequent customers.

Delgado walks through a construction site in RiNo on Oct. 8, 2020. He often purposefully plans his route along construction sites because the workers, who are often in the sun all day, are frequent customers.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

After returning to Colorado, he worked at Del Monte in Aurora, making guacamole. He eventually got his own apartment (he lived with one of his daughters, but they had a falling out). Shortly afterward, around 2014 or 2015 — he doesn’t remember exactly when — he was struck by a car on his way to a bus stop after work. That’s when he said everything fell apart. He spent about two months in the hospital and lost his job and his apartment. When he left the hospital he crashed at his brother’s apartment, near Federal, but could only stay a few days because guests weren’t allowed. He ended up living on the streets, thinking he could make it work by sleeping on benches. He met other people experiencing homelessness who showed him how to get services and things like food and clothing.

Then this year, a friend told about being a paletero.

Delgado can make about $130 to $140 a day, after he gives half of what he makes to the paleteria where he gets his elados. What really helps him make money are people who give him $20 for a $2 paleta and let him to keep the change. And he’s gotten some pretty great tips since he started.

On his very first day, he said he made nearly $400 after he was stopped at a Wendy’s on Colfax by a man who gave him $40 and got a bunch of restaurant staff to buy from him. It was about 1 p.m., and the sun was beating down hard.

Delgado makes a sale and shares a laugh with a man taking a break from work in his truck in RiNo on Oct. 8, 2020. Each popsicle costs $2, which he splits 50/50 with the paletería, but he often gets tips from people, which significantly increase his income.

Delgado makes a sale and shares a laugh with a man taking a break from work in his truck in RiNo on Oct. 8, 2020. Each popsicle costs $2, which he splits 50/50 with the paletería, but he often gets tips from people, which significantly increase his income.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

Then one of the staffers, whom Delgado figured was the manager, ended up paying for all the ice treats he had left, which came to about $300.

“‘I don’t want the ice cream, I just want to buy them so you can not be walking anymore,'” Delgado recalled the man saying. “That was the very first day that I started working for this. And I said, ‘Wow, I’m going to keep doing this.'”

Delgado is reflected in the bells as they ring on his cart while walking on Oct. 8, 2020. The ring, synonymous with ice cream in many Latinx neighborhoods, brings business by alerting people that Octavio is around.

Delgado is reflected in the bells as they ring on his cart while walking on Oct. 8, 2020. The ring, synonymous with ice cream in many Latinx neighborhoods, brings business by alerting people that Octavio is around.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

There have been dark moments. He’s been robbed, and he said he was assaulted by a person who tried to buy a paleta but started punching him after refusing to pay for the treat. Robles said a man attacked in Green Valley Ranch in June, Antonio Ramirez-Chavez, was a colleague.

On a recent Thursday in October, he walked more than 10 miles around Denver on his route.

During the morning, he pushed his cart through Five Points, walking along the RiNo Art District, before heading downtown on 17th Street. He avoided the 16th Street Mall — he’s been warned by security there that it’s off limits — before taking a lunch break. He continued along Colorado Boulevard and Colfax later in the afternoon.

Delgado waits outside of a regular customer’s store in RiNo to see if they want a paleta on Oct. 8, 2020.

Delgado waits outside of a regular customer’s store in RiNo to see if they want a paleta on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

The first hour, starting around 11 a.m., wasn’t very fruitful. But Robles acknowledged October isn’t the height of the paletero season, which peaks in the summer when people want to find an instant escape from the heat. Delgado made only a handful of sales as he walked near construction sites in RiNo. He tries to walk near these places to entice men in hard hats covered in dust and others trying to find some shade.

Robles said paleteros are like independent contractors. They get half of what they sell, and the paleteria lets them use the carts, which she said can fit about 300 normal-sized paletas. The city’s licensing department said the shop currently has nine mobile food licenses for each cart. Most of the paleteros find out about the job like Delgado did, through word of mouth. Robles said she has hired paleteros from other ethnic backgrounds including Black, Indian and white, but she said they’re usually Mexican.

Delgado passes through the 16th Street Mall, watching out for security guards, while walking to a convenience store to buy lunch and water on Oct. 8, 2020. Since he’s not allowed to sell on the mall and has been kicked out by security before, he feels on edge when in the area.

Delgado passes through the 16th Street Mall, watching out for security guards, while walking to a convenience store to buy lunch and water on Oct. 8, 2020. Since he’s not allowed to sell on the mall and has been kicked out by security before, he feels on edge when in the area.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

She usually works with 20 during the summer, then just five during October, which is usually the last month of paletero season.

“When they first start, they will walk around any street,” Robles said in Spanish. “But once they have more experience, they know where to go and what hours work best more or less, like the lunch hour for construction sites and parks with a lot of people there and where there are parties, where there are fiestas.”

Delgado wore a mask while he walked around the city. He was pushing his cart down Larimer Street when Mike Krause, a traffic control worker, waved him over from his pickup truck. Krause is a self-proclaimed ice cream connoisseur who often buys some for his coworker (he had a box of ice cream popsicles to prove it). This time, he got a treat for himself.

“Whenever I see one of these guys, I stop them,” Krause said.

The contents of Delgado’s cart are still cold and colorful after a half day of work in the heat on Oct. 8, 2020. The carts can hold around 300 paletas.

The contents of Delgado’s cart are still cold and colorful after a half day of work in the heat on Oct. 8, 2020. The carts can hold around 300 paletas.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

Delgado usually works until about 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. 

That Thursday, he found a shaded bus bench on 17th Street. He sat down to eat some pizza. At that point, he had been walking for nearly two hours.

His legs had to hurt, right? They do, he said. As he finished, he summed up his life at the moment, speaking in slang that, loosely translated, means, “Well, what can you do, that’s how this job goes.”

Pero ni modo, eda? Asi es este jale,” he said, smiling. He sat on the bench and finished his slice, preparing for another route in Denver.

Photojournalist Eli Imadali contributed to the reporting in this article.

Delgado guzzles water before beginning his sales route again on Oct. 8, 2020.

Delgado guzzles water before beginning his sales route again on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
Mike Krause, a construction worker, talks with Delgado after buying a paleta in downtown Denver on Oct. 8, 2020. Krause said he frequently buys ice cream from paleteros while on the job.

Mike Krause, a construction worker, talks with Delgado after buying a paleta in downtown Denver on Oct. 8, 2020. Krause said he frequently buys ice cream from paleteros while on the job.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
As the day winds down, Delgado walks back into Paletería Chihuahua to tally up his sales on Oct. 8, 2020.

As the day winds down, Delgado walks back into Paletería Chihuahua to tally up his sales on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
Delgado maneuvers his cart into the back of Paletería Chihuahua on Oct. 8, 2020.

Delgado maneuvers his cart into the back of Paletería Chihuahua on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
Leonor Gonzalez Romero, a Paletería Chihuahua employee, records the number of paletas Delgado sold on Oct. 8, 2020. The day was a very slow one, with around 15 paletas sold. The paletería gets half of the sales. He took home about $25, including tips.

Leonor Gonzalez Romero, a Paletería Chihuahua employee, records the number of paletas Delgado sold on Oct. 8, 2020. The day was a very slow one, with around 15 paletas sold. The paletería gets half of the sales. He took home about $25, including tips.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
Delgado unties his bag, filled with snacks, water and a change of clothes, in the back of Paletería Chihuahua on Oct. 8, 2020.

Delgado unties his bag, filled with snacks, water and a change of clothes, in the back of Paletería Chihuahua on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
Delgado buys a bag of Funyuns at the dollar store to eat while he waits for his bus in Cole on Oct. 8, 2020.

Delgado buys a bag of Funyuns at the dollar store to eat while he waits for his bus in Cole on Oct. 8, 2020.

Eli Imadali for Denverite
Delgado waits to ride the bus home after a more than 10 mile day of selling paletas on Oct. 8, 2020. At 58 years old, he usually showers and turns in early every evening, exhausted by the day's grueling work.

Delgado waits to ride the bus home after a more than 10 mile day of selling paletas on Oct. 8, 2020. At 58 years old, he usually showers and turns in early every evening, exhausted by the day's grueling work.

Eli Imadali for Denverite

Thanks for reading another Denverite story

Looks like you’re the type of person who reads to the ends of articles! Well, true believer, you might really like our morning newsletter. It’s quick, free and gets you up to speed on the important and delightful things happening right here in Denver. Does Denverite help you feel more connected to what’s up in your area? Do you want to be a part of it?

Member donations are critical to our continued existence and growth.

Weird times

Denverite is powered by you. In these weird times, the local vigilance, the local context, the local flavor — it’s powered through your donations. If you’d miss Denverite if it disappeared tomorrow, donate today.

You’re our superpower

Denverite supporters have made the decision to financially support local journalism that matters to you. Ready to tell your networks why? Sharing our “About” page with your own personal comments could really help us out.

You’re our superpower

Denverite members have made the decision to financially support local journalism that matters to you. Ready to tell your networks why? Sharing our “About” page with your own personal comments could really help us out.