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Mexican dulcerías are a cultural staple for Phoenix Latinos. Here's how they came to be

By Tiffany Acosta, Arizona Republic,

2023-09-24

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For many Mexicans who have made the U.S. their home, remaining connected with their roots is an important part of life. For me, that was exactly the case, and what helped me most was the connection I developed between my culture and its cuisine, especially its sweets.

Mexican candy offers such a unique experience.

It's not your typical "open the wrapper and eat." It's far more interactive.

Some, like the Mazapan, require you to carefully unwrap them so they don't break. Others can be poured onto the palm of your hand for you to eat up, like the Gusanito or the Miguelito, leaving a sticky mess in its wake. And the initial feeling of disappointment — which inevitably leads to joy because of chocolate — is expected when opening up a Paleta Payaso, as the hope of it looking like the clown on the wrapper is rarely the case.

Paletas, obleas, cocadas, Carlos V, Rellerindos, cucharitas — Mexican candy is known for its bright color and unique flavor profiles of tamarind, chocolate, cinnamon, chilies, coconut, cajeta and fruit flavors like watermelon and mango.

Craving Mexican food? Check this out: Here's where to go for authentic Mexican food: Burritos, tacos and empanadas

Dulcerías offers a comforting sense of belonging and familiarity, making them an integral part of the immigrant experience in the United States. Today, we get to see dulcerías — Mexican candy shops — popping up in major cities, selling classic, traditional and nostalgic candy that many grew up eating.

Have you tried jamoncillos, Pelon Pelo Rico, Bocadín or Kranky? Or how about the increasingly popular gummy bears covered in chamoy and powdered chili? The choices are never-ending.

But how did we end up eating lollipops covered in chile piquín? What are the origins of the famous dulcerías in Mexico? And how did they make their way to Arizona?

Here is your full guide on everything to know about dulcerías and what they offer.

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What is a Mexican candy store called?

In Mexico, a candy store is commonly referred to as a "dulcería," where one can find a wide variety of traditional Mexican candies, chocolates, tamarind-based treats and chili-covered sweets.

The word "dulcería" comes from the Spanish word "dulce," which means "sweet" or "candy." "Dulcería" refers to a candy store or a shop that specializes in selling candy.

There are many local dulerías in the Valley, such as Valentina’s Party World, which opened its doors in 1997 in Phoenix near Thomas Road and 35th Avenue.

“We saw the need for a dulcería in Phoenix,” said Franklin Martinez, chief of operations at Valentina's Party World. “Back then, there was no dulcerías, so that's how the idea started out. And we started obviously very small and we grew with time. And now we got three locations throughout the Valley and we are planning on expanding and growing. We are among the three oldest dulcerías here in Phoenix.”

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Valentina's Party World has three different locations: two in Phoenix, with the second location near McDowell Road and 24th Street, and one in Glendale, near Cactus Road and 43rd Avenue.

Another popular dulcería is Dulceria La Bonita, which also has three Valley locations: two in Phoenix, near Encanto Boulevard and 35th Avenue and the other near Central Avenue and Alta Vista Road, and one in Mesa, near Southern Avenue and Stapley Drive.

As you enter Valentina's dulcería in central Phoenix, you’ll be welcomed with colorful hanging piñatas and endless aisles of vibrant Mexican candy, like crowd favorites Mazapan, Lucas, Pulparindo, Bubu Lubu and Duvalín.

Besides selling all types of candies, Valentina also has rows of party essentials and decorations. Inside, you'll find shelves stocked with colorful balloons, streamers, themed tableware and an assortment of ingredients for your antojitos, such as chamoy, cueritos and chicharrones.

According to Martinez, coming from Mexico provides them with a significant cultural advantage, and he's been able to build a successful business because of it.

"We obviously know our culture and we know the needs of our people. We have something for everyone here for all kinds of occasions, even the things that are hard to find,” Martinez said.

Mexican cookie recipe: Mexican coconut cookies have an extra sweet secret. Here's how to make cocadas

What is the origin of Mexican candy?

"Mexican candy is like Mexican food, with many origins, from pre-Hispanic roots, colonial and contemporary cultures. Mostly are made with fruits, nuts and dairy products,” said Daniel Vargas, professor of Literature and Cultural Mexican-American Studies at Arizona State University.

The Indigenous peoples inhabiting what is now Mexico had a rich tradition of using natural ingredients to create a wide variety of sweet treats, many of which laid the foundation for modern Mexican candies.

Some of the key ingredients used in traditional Mexican candy include:

  • Maguey sap (agave)
  • Honey
  • Cacao
  • Amaranth
  • Chilies
  • Tamarind
  • Piloncillo

Today, Mexican candy is known for its bold flavors, vibrant colors and diverse textures. It includes a wide variety of sweets, from tamarind-based candies and spicy chili-covered fruit to caramel-like cajeta.

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What was the first Mexican candy?

It's difficult to pinpoint the very first Mexican candy because Indigenous peoples in Mexico had been making sweet treats from natural ingredients long before Spanish colonization. However, one of the earliest forms of traditional Mexican candy is believed to be "alegría," meaning happiness or joy.

“Energy bars made with amaranth, nuts, or pumpkin seeds were the first sweets made in Mexico. They remain bestsellers today, along with coconut macaroons. If consumed in small amounts, bars are healthy options, although it’s always better to eat the nuts or seeds by themselves,” according to the news wire site Zenger.com .

It's important to note that there were likely other Indigenous sweets and treats created using locally available ingredients like honey, agave and cacao. The introduction of sugar and other ingredients by the Spanish during the colonial period further influenced the evolution of Mexican candy into the diverse array of confections we see today.

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What is the candy capital of Mexico?

Every state has its unique candy that represents them. For example, jamoncillo, which is a type of milk fudge, is a typical traditional sweet produced in the state of Veracruz and the mountainous region of Puebla. And cajeta, a thick syrup made of caramelized goat's milk, is popular in Guanajuato, Mexico.

“I would say Puebla. There is a dulcería called Dulcería Celeya. It's the best candy store in Mexico,” Vargas said.

Many say the city of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, is often referred to as the "Candy Capital" of the country, due to its candy-making tradition, which dates back to the colonial era when nuns in local convents began creating sweets from locally available ingredients. One of the most famous candies associated with Morelia is "ate," a sweet, jelly-like candy made from fruits.

Thanks to the nuns during the colonial era, the art of candy-making in Mexico moved beyond convents and into the hands of commercial producers. Candy shops and dulcerias began to pop up in towns and cities, offering a wide selection of candies to the public.

Dulcerías in metro Phoenix

Valentinas Party World: Three Valley locations, valentinaspartyworld.com .

Dulcería La Bonita: Three Valley locations, labonita.store .

Dulcería La Chikita: Hours vary. 7707 SW. W. MC. 85, Buckeye, 623-386-4181, facebook.com/dulchikita .

Dulcería El Caramelo LLC: Hours vary. 5821 N. 67th Ave., #107, Glendale. 623-215-2575, facebook.com/Dulceria-El-Caramelo-LLC .

Got a story you want to share? Reach out to Tiffany.Acosta@gannett.com . Follow @tiffsario on Instagram.

Support local journalism and subscribe to azcentral.com .

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mexican dulcerías are a cultural staple for Phoenix Latinos. Here's how they came to be

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