He has been selling shaved ice for 70 years and doesn't plan to retire

Don Justo is a staple of the Puerto Rican town of Arecibo. He has been selling shaved ice (piraguas) for most of his 88 years of life and plans to continue for as long as his body allows him to.

by Bianca Graulau

Every weekday Justiniano Torres pushes his red and white wooden cart from his house to the street in front of an elementary school in Arecibo, Puerto Rico where he has made a name for himself as one of the best piragüeros in the island.


"We have coconut, tamarind, raspberry, ice cream, anise," Don Justo, as his customers know him, said.


But things have changed in the last 70 years since he started selling shaved ice. 


He used to have no problem dragging his mobile workspace on his own, but now, the weight is too much for his almost 90-year-old body and he needs his son's help. He used to arrive to a line of people waiting to buy his 20-cent piraguas. Now, at $1.25 each, he sells far fewer than he used to, and sometimes an hour goes by before a customer shows up. He supported all of his seven kids with his income as a piragüero. Now, he makes just enough to cover his own expenses.


Despite the downturn of Puerto Rico's economy and his sales dropping, Don Justo is proud of being debt-free.


"I don't owe anyone. Not even five cents," Don Justo said. 


But he has no plans to retire.


"It's like when you get married, till death do us part," he usually tells customers who wonder how much longer they'll get to buy his homemade-syrup piraguas.


His shaky hands are used to the drill. As soon as he sees a car approach, he starts shaving the ice and shaping it neatly in a plastic cup, so when a customer makes the order, he's ready to serve the syrup. Sometimes, his buyers don't even get out of the car.


"I even have drive-thru here," he said.


Don Justo became a piragüero by default.


"Since I didn't go to school, I don't know how to read or write," he said. "The only job I could find, where I didn't have to read or write, just count, was piragüero."


But in the small town of Arecibo, with a population of 95,000 people, he became a staple. The kids he used to sell piraguas to years ago, continue to be his customers as adults and now, they bring their children.


"Whoever doesn't know me, is not from Puerto Rico," Don Justo said.


His answer to the question of what he would do if he were to win the lottery is confirmation that he was meant to do what he does.


"Sell piraguas," Don Justo said.


He would buy a few more carts to expand his business, he says, but he would not give up the job that made him a local celebrity.


"Next stop: Hollywood," Don Justo said.