clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustration of a carousel of candy machines with two hands holding up packaged Mexican sweets. Pablo Espinosa Gutiérrez

Filed under:

My Sweet, Sour Gateway Drug

Before there was Flamin’ Hot everything, there was the chuchería, or candy stand, the champion of every Mexican mall 

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

I was at a market in the Mexican city of Toluca when I saw it — a gleaming pyramid of dark green, meaty calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin) dripping with syrup. I strode over, ordered, and in one sugary bite reclaimed a piece of my childhood.

I’d been touring as a saxophone player with Mexican pop singer Marisela in the early 2000s, performing in 20-plus states throughout Mexico, and between sound checks, concerts, and early-morning return flights, I’d often slip away to the nearest mercado for respite. I wasn’t looking for deals on gadgets, clothes, or shoes; I was scouring the stands for dulces típicos, regional sweets that perfumed the air with buttery caramel, sweetened lime, and fresh fruit. I was looking for the chuchería.

A Mexican sweets shop, the chuchería takes many forms. In Toluca, it was a glorious array of chrome racks overcrowded with spicy Lucas lollipops, assorted flavors of Pelón Pelo Rico push-up candies, deli containers full of caramel, boxes of chocolate-covered marshmallow pops called Paleta Payaso, and Duvalín pudding. You’ll find a bustling chuchería stall in almost every mercado throughout Mexico — often a parade float of sour candies, spicy chips, and ruby-red bottles of chamoy. Here in the U.S., the chuchería is a standby in the sprawling swap meets and informal discount malls that anchor so many immigrant communities across the country; they’re nestled between cluttered vendor islands and sectioned stalls selling clothing, cowboy boots displayed in glass cases, staples from botanicas (religious stores) like incense, and burner cellphones.

A large market stall displays deep shelves stacked high with various chile-covered candies and gummy snacks. A diverse and broad array of bagged chips, peanuts, and more cover the stall’s side wall and hang from a clothesline above the shelves.
At Tostador el Amate, the snacks include a broad variety of crystallized fruit and chamoy-covered treats. The stall’s diverse array of bagged chips covers one of the stall’s walls, fills wire racks, and dangles over, luring in curious customers.

I’ve spent much of the past two decades exploring the unique delights of the chuchería, both stateside and abroad, while many corporate Mexican treats have gained popularity in the school cafeterias and snack aisles of this country. Even generic gas station mini-marts are now rife with cacahuates japoneses and Pulparindo. Today, American kids brag about their tolerance for spicy Takis and share recipes for chile Gushers on TikTok. But for Gen X children like me, this was not always the case. Access to these snacks was a rarity, and mainstream acceptance of them — and us — even more so.

I was born in 1968, during El Movimiento and the year of the East LA Blowouts, when Mexicans were expected to blend in at all costs under the guise of assimilation. Then, many negative myths and stereotypes about Mexicans were etched deep into America’s psyche. Still, my parents wanted me to have an education and be successful in America, like so many other immigrant families.

The vendors operating the Botanas Navarro stall at the Broadacres Marktetplace welcome customers with smiles and a collection of regional and international treats.
The vendors operating the Botanas Navarro stall at the Broadacres Marktetplace welcome customers with smiles and a collection of regional and international treats.
Rows of clear plastic buckets of candy.
Dulce y Botanas, a chuchería at the Broadacres Marketplace, displays its candy selection in large plastic buckets.

We lived in Stockton’s Civic Center neighborhood, a predominantly Mexican American section of the city. I grew up surrounded by flashy lowrider cars and bikes, Chicano bikers riding choppers, and cholos and cholas. Like a good Mexican American kid, I spent my weekends watching The Muppet Show, listening to Chicano community radio with my dad, and eating rib-steak rancheros at Arroyo’s Cafe. When I was in elementary school, we eagerly piled into my abuelo’s gray Chevrolet G20 conversion van for any chance to shop at south Stockton’s bright concha green-painted El Dorado market to see piñatas, take in the scents of warm tamales and carnitas, and listen to all of the compadres gossip. While the more traditional American malls seemed to tell my family all of the things we needed to change or become, markets like this one, and the family friends, neighbors, and acquaintances we saw at them, felt like an embrace.

Across the country, these malls remain important parts of the local community. In Las Vegas, the Broadacres Marketplace is a large warehouse that spills into the parking lot, where tables piled with toys and cheap Tupperware are dwarfed by a state fair-size stand overflowing with Mexican candies. In Chicago, the Little Village neighborhood’s Discount Mall, neatly arranged inside what structurally looks like a 1960s department store, is the go-to spot for puffed-up quinceañera dresses, Mexican food, and Laura Michelle at booth 217, which specializes in Mexican candies, snacks, and piñatas.

When I was a kid, these markets were some of the few places where I could come face-to-face with my Mexican heritage. Because elsewhere, my parents actively discouraged me from learning Spanish or displaying our culture too proudly, in the hope that our American first names — carefully paired with Anglicized pronunciations of our last names — would shield us from the racism they’d endured in the 1950s. They and other like-minded immigrant parents hoped that Ga-lay-gos (Gallegos), Mira-mon-tays (Miramontes), and Her-rare-uh (Herrera) would help us seem harmless.

“Don’t speak Spanish to him; he’s an American and will speak English,” my dad would say whenever my abuela spoke in her usual mix of Spanish and English. My dad was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, but was brought to America when he was 1. He experienced a level of racism that was debilitating, scarring him to the point that he rarely spoke Spanish and used a hushed, barely audible voice if he did. Upon reflection, I have heard him speak it only a few times.

Six boxes of camotes, packaged in cardboard boxes covered with illustrated flowers, in a display.
Camotes, or candy made from sweet potatoes and studded with other fruits, regularly appear in candy display cases and on shelves at mercados across the country.

When my dad had a little malt liquor in him, he’d tell me about seeing signs in Texas when he was young, signs that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed,” and the ugly words that were hurled at him and my abuelos while walking the streets. His eyes would water. “Just so you know why,” he’d say without stating the obvious: that my assimilation was for my own good.

He wasn’t altogether wrong. In the sixth grade, a new friend — a white classmate and neighbor — made a comment when I said I needed to go home. “What, you gotta go eat some beans?” he said, snickering in front of my other classmates. One kid’s dad called me a “taco bender,” an old-school, racist dig. The white kids, fueled by the anti-Mexican rhetoric they heard at home, were even more antagonistic toward Spanish-speaking students who had recently arrived from Mexico and Central America, calling them dirty, useless, and even worse things right in front of us. Anything could make any one of us targets, including what we ate. So, for treats, we eschewed the camotes and other traditional Mexican candies for Hershey’s, Pop Rocks, and Swedish Fish. None of us were going to be seen eating a huge camote (sweet potato) in the school cafeteria.

But my abuelo and abuela’s house, located in a nicer part of Stockton, was different — one of the few safe havens where I felt immersed in my culture. My abuelo was a union truck driver for Tri-Valley Growers, hauling tomatoes my cousins picked and my abuela sorted before they were sold in cans from the plant where my dad worked as a millwright. At my abuela’s house, we ate only Mexican food, and the only candies on hand were imported Mexican ones — a fact that, at the time, I wasn’t very happy about.

On a lonely corner of my abuela’s white tiled sink, there always sat an assortment of dry, dull hunks of crystallized pineapple, sweet potato, and pumpkin, or a stack of crumbly pink-and-white or Mexican flag-themed coconut bars. I’m sure I nibbled little pieces here and there and smiled when asked if I liked them, but in truth, they were a hard sell for a 10-year-old Chicano kid who was trying to assimilate, raised on M&M’s sold in plastic tubes, uniformly wrapped Snickers, and Tootsie Rolls.

It became a running joke among me and my cousins that they were just “something for the abuelos.” But over time, I came to appreciate that these crusty, ugly morsels were also pleasingly soft and chewy. Secretly, I developed a love of the crystallized fruit on display at the El Dorado Market and the other chucherías around town. But that was the extent of my exposure to Mexican sweets — and my Mexican identity — until much later in life.

By the time I was touring with the Chris Cain Band in the early 1990s, led by the phenomenal blues guitarist, I’d built a thick skin for the comments I’d get while traveling through the clubs and bars of the Midwest and South. If growing up in a multicultural city like Stockton wasn’t enough of a challenge for a Pocho (Mexican American), passing through places like Angola, Indiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee, was a new level of difficulty. Witnessing the intolerance — like the time I saw a Spanish-speaking family get yelled at for not knowing English at a Midwestern gas station — I felt myself being pulled farther from my roots, working to blend in at any cost.

It wasn’t until my father passed away in 2002 that I recommitted to learning Spanish and reestablishing the ties I’d been denied. I booked a flight to Mexico City, then on to Aguascalientes to connect with family and embrace what I’d been missing. Corny as it sounds, I hit all of the tourist hallmarks: I climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, looked down on the Valley of Mexico, and said, “This is who I am.” I was deep in grief and consumed by sadness, but I was free.

Rows of candy on display in plastic tubs or large bags in a market-like setting.
Chuchería customers at the Botanas Locas stall can order any size portion of dry goods, wholesale candies, large bags of commercial sweets, and individually wrapped hunks of crystallized fruits.

At the same time, I began leaning further into my heritage through food. I had always been an adventurous eater, but suddenly, finding and experiencing the breadth of regional Mexican cuisines that I had missed became my life’s mission: I devoured all of the dishes — and especially the sweets — I could find, scouring markets for local creations that might not have graced the shelves of the Stockton markets in the ’70s.

That visit to the market in Toluca while touring with Marisela was part of my grand Mexican tasting tour. Wherever we performed, I beelined for the chuchería, the perfect entry point to experience the whole mélange of Mexican gastronomy in a few rainbow-colored aisles. I’ve come to believe Mexican gastronomy is unique in that our candies and sweets are so intertwined with our staple dishes — the chocolate used in mole poblano, mole negro, and mole Teloloapan; lime squeezed over our tacos, soups, and beertails; and the comprehensive application of chiles, from savories to sweets. In American culture, our candies and savory foods seem to be more separate. At the chuchería, however, those distinctions fade away, within the shiny wrappers and colorful tubes of Skwinkles Salsagheti and Lucas Gusano.

Today’s generation of Mexican American kids has it differently. In LA, The Mercado de Los Angeles, which has slowly evolved into a Mexican snack-and-sweets emporium, opened in 1968, followed by El Faro Plaza and the massive Alameda Swap Meet, which opened in the ’80s. In the ’90s, Mexico became a force in the candy industry, fueling the supply side of Mexican markets popping up across America. Today, you can easily find Mexican snacks in most markets and even mainstream grocers, and it’s cool to have spicy candies in your lunch box. This gives my 10-year-old self much comfort, but it doesn’t erase the feelings of envy, and a twinge of resentment, toward a place and time that was wasted on assimilation.

A child, standing in front of a long table covered in gummies, crystallized fruits, caramels, and more, buys candy from an outdoor market.
Botana la Michoacana’s young shoppers prove that although the breadth of candies changes, the chuchería’s generational appeal endures.

Now, as an adult, nothing feels better than walking through LA’s Alameda Swap Meet, or the Mercadito, for an obligatory stop for something sweet on my way to find the next taco stand, a novel routine for me that has been decades in the making. Perhaps it would be cathartic to find some of my Chicano classmates at my 40th high school reunion in 2026 to share pulpa de tamarindo spoons and the biggest pieces of crystallized pineapple candy from the top shelf of the sweet bread case at El Dorado Market. Then we’d meet up the next morning at the swap meet on South El Dorado in Stockton, where being Mexican, and eating Mexican candy, has long been a point of pride.

Or, I might just go by myself, purchase a Vero Mango pop, and lie about the tears that well up as I lick. “It’s really sour,” I’ll say. And then I’ll go in for another.

Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer, author of L.A. Mexicano, and a leading voice on Latin American cuisines.
Pablo Espinosa Gutiérrez is a psychedelic illustrator with a lifelong dream of secretly living in a mall.
Louiie Victa is a food photographer, stylist, and recipe developer based in Las Vegas.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein


Finally, Starbucks Is Going to Bargain With Its Unionized Workers

James Beard Foundation Awards

James Beard Foundation Awards 2024: Winners, News, and Updates

Awards Season

The 2024 James Beard America’s Classics Winners Are Here