Piragua (food)

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Nina and her Piragua2.jpg
Girl eating a piragua in Puerto Rico
Course Dessert
Place of origin Puerto Rico
Created by Unknown
Main ingredients Shaved ice and fruit flavored syrups
Cookbook: Piragua  Media: Piragua

A piragua /pɪˈrɑːɡwə/[1] is a Puerto Rican shaved ice dessert, shaped like a pyramid, consisting of shaved ice and covered with fruit-flavored syrup. Piraguas are sold by vendors, known as piragüeros, from small colorful pushcarts. Besides Puerto Rico, piraguas can be found in the United States mainland areas, such as New York and Central Florida, which have large Puerto Rican communities.


In most Spanish-speaking countries, the word piragua (pi·ra·gua) means "pirogue", a small, flat-bottomed boat.[2] In Puerto Rico the word piragua refers to a frozen treat made of shaved ice and covered with fruit flavored syrup. Unlike the American snow cone which is round and resembles a snowball, the piragua is pointy and shaped like a pyramid. The word piragua is derived from the combination of the Spanish words pirámide ("pyramid") and agua ("water").[3] In Latin America, frozen treats similar to the piragua are known by many different names.[4][5]

Piragua and piragüeros[edit]

A customer poses in front of a piragua pushcart in Puerto Rico.

A piragua vendor is known as a "piragüero". Most piragüeros sell their product from a colorful wooden pushcart that carries an umbrella, instead of from a fixed stand or kiosk. The piragüero makes the treats from the shavings off a block of solid ice inside his cart[6] and mixtures of fruit-flavored syrups.[7] The tropical syrup flavors vary from lemon and strawberry to passion fruit and guava. Once the syrups are ready, the piragüero will go to his place of business, which in Puerto Rico is usually close to the town plaza, while in the United States it is usually close to the public parks near Hispanic neighborhoods, to sell his product.[6]

Hand ice shaver used by a piragüero

In the process of preparing a piragua, the piragüero shaves the ice from the block of ice with a hand ice shaver.[8] He then puts the shaved ice into a cup and uses a funnel shaped tool to give it the distinctive pyramid shape. The piragüero finishes making the piragua when he pours the desired flavored syrup over it.

Unlike the typical American snow cone, which is often eaten with a spoon, the piragua is eaten straight out of the cup or sipped through a straw.[6]

Piragüeros only go out on hot sunny days because those are the only days when they can expect good business.[4]


Fruit flavored syrups
A girl eating a parcha-flavored piragua in Puerto Rico

The more common flavored syrups used in piraguas are the following:[7]

Note: Certain terms used in Puerto Rico are not common in other Spanish speaking places. Among those terms used are the flavors china, which in most other Spanish speaking locales is referred to as naranja (which in Puerto Rico refers only to the bitter orange) and melón, whose name in standard Spanish is sandía. The Puerto Rican china is much sweeter than the naranja customarily eaten or served as a juice elsewhere and which could even be more bitter in taste, whereas "melón" is an Anglicism, the word coming from the English "watermelon".[9]

Piraguas in the United States mainland[edit]

A piragüero in NYC posing with his piragua pushcart in the 1920s

In the 1940s, during the Puerto Rican Great Migration in which large numbers of Puerto Ricans moved to New York, they took with them their customs and traditions, including the piraguas.[10][11][12]

According to Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia by Winston James, piraguas were introduced in New York by Puerto Ricans as early as 1926. In his book, James describes the presence of piragua pushcarts during the Harlem Riots against the Puerto Rican migrants in July 1926.[11] Author Miguel Meléndez, who moved from New York City to Chicago in the late 1950s, expresses in his book We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights the following:[13]

"For me, as a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York, a piragua pushcart vendor is a very special person. He represents an important part of our culture. Those shaved-ice cones filled with Caribbean tropical syrups, not only ease the body during the hot summers, their sweet goodness reminds of us of who we are and where we come from, without words."[14]

The piragua has even been referred to in a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which deals with the quality of water. The agency's reference to the piragua is in a report titled "What is in your piragua?" of August 2007, and states the following:

"As this commitment (new water treatment plant) is fulfilled, the water will just get cleaner and cleaner whether it is coming out of a tap or is served in a piragua (no, not a canoe, but a Puerto Rican snow cone) - regardless of the weather."[15]

Piragua vending is not limited to Puerto Rico and New York. Piragüeros with their piragua pushcarts can be found in Hispanic neighborhoods in Bridgeport, Chicago, Jersey City, Miami, Newark, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Cultural influence[edit]

Piraguero Monument

The Puerto Rican piragua has been the subject of paintings and a book. The painting Carrito de Piraguas ("Piragua Pushcart") is a mixed media piece by an unknown artist, on exhibit at El Museo del Barrio in New York.[16] Puerto Rican artist Iván Moura Limardo created various paintings related to the piragua. Among them are Piragüero 5 and Piragüero 10, which are on display in the Siena Art Gallery in San Juan.[17] The town of Coamo commissioned the creation of a monument in the honor of the piragüeros. The statue, which is called Monumento al Piragüero, is located in the town plaza.[18]

In the book Luisito and the Piragua, the author tells the story of Luisito, a Puerto Rican boy who has recently moved to the United States and misses his friends and his afternoon treat of a piragua. The happy ending is that one day, while on an errand for his mother, Luisito sees a piragüero making piraguas, and is happy to find that he can buy piraguas once more.[19]

The 2008 Broadway production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical In The Heights included songs entitled "Piragua" and "Piragua (Reprise)" in which a local piragüero in Washington Heights (known in the play as the Piragua Guy) sings about his life and trade.[20] This character became the basis for a web-based reality-show parody, Legally Brown: The Search for the Next Piragua Guy, which featured several well-known Broadway actors competing to take over the role.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Columbia History of Latinos in the United States Since 1960, by David Gregory Gutiérrez, published 2004 by Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-11808-2
  • Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, by Winston James, published 1998 by Verso, ISBN 1-85984-140-6
  • Luisito and the Piragua, ERIC #: ED209026, Author: Toro, Leonor, Publisher: New Haven Migratory Children's Program, Hamden-New Haven Cooperative Education Center

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Dictionary, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  2. ^ [1] Setting sail, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  3. ^ "Luisito and the Piragua", Page 12, Author: Toro, Leonor, Publisher: New Haven Migratory Children's Program, Hamden-New Haven Cooperative Education Center; ERIC #: ED209026; Retrieved July 14, 2008
  4. ^ a b Puerto Rico Herald
  5. ^ Puerto Rico Piragua
  6. ^ a b c Puerto Rico Food and drink, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  7. ^ a b Piragua, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  8. ^ History of Snow Cones, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  9. ^ Language of the Puerto Rican street: A slang dictionary with English cross-references; by Cristino Gallo (Author); Publisher: Gallo: distributed in Puerto Rico by Book Service of Puerto Rico (1980); ISBN 0-9604174-0-0; ISBN 978-0-9604174-0-7
  10. ^ "The Columbia History of Latinos in the United States Since 1960"; By David Gregory Gutiérrez; pg. 98; Published 2004 by Columbia University Press; ISBN 0-231-11808-2
  11. ^ a b "Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia"; By Winston James; page 226; Published 1998 by Verso; ISBN 1-85984-140-6
  12. ^ Great Depressions of the Twentieth Century, edited by T. J. Kehoe and E. C. Prescott
  13. ^ We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights, by Miguel Meléndez, published 2003, Macmillan, ISBN 0-312-26701-0
  14. ^ "We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights"; By Miguel Melendez; Published 2003 Macmillan; ISBN 0-312-26701-0, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  15. ^ What is in your piragua?
  16. ^ 6 July 1984, New York Times, “Art: In Museo del Barrio, Influences on a Culture” by Vivien Raynor, pg. C22, Retrieved June 19, 2008
  17. ^ Siena Gallery
  18. ^ De Paseo por la Plaza de Coamo
  19. ^ Luisito and the Piragua, ERIC #: ED209026, Author: Toro, Leonor, Publisher: New Haven Migratory Children's Program, Hamden-New Haven Cooperative Education Center. Retrieved June 19, 2008
  20. ^ Official site