Edible Monterey Bay

LAST CALL: Aguas Frescas

One final story about water…Mexican style

Photo by Rob Fisher

At age nine, José Luis Barajas started selling fresh fruit drinks at baseball games and soccer matches in Jiquilpan, a small town south of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

“I was practically born in the market,” he says. “My father sold fruits and vegetables, and my mother served meals there. They sent me out to sell aguas frescas to make money for school.

“I always thought I could do something big with my life, but I never imagined it would be this,” he says, proudly referring to his Salinas- based company, Jiquilpan Frutas y Aguas Frescas.

You may have seen Barajas, now 42, standing behind a row of colorful barrels filled with iced drinks at the Tuesday night farmers’ market in downtown Monterey. He also works the Mercado Popular in Watsonville on Sundays and the San Jose Flea Market twice a week. Two years ago Barajas opened his first permanent shop in the Northridge Mall in Salinas, and as this issue of EMB was going to press, he was on the verge of opening a second shop on Fremont Boulevard in Seaside. Aguas frescas, which literally means fresh waters in Spanish, are simply pieces of cut up fruits or vegetables blended with water and sugar. Barajas makes them freshly every morning, selecting from a repertoire of 50 or 60 flavors, depending on what’s in season. There’s nothing artificial in aguas frescas and far less sugar than in sodas. You can find flavors like strawberry, pineapple and watermelon, alongside more tropical drinks like mango, guava, tamarind, hibiscus and coconut, which has delicious bits of coconut in it.

Cucumber is often available, and sometimes Barajas will even whip up a batch of broccoli water. But the most popular flavor by far is horchata— a refreshing beverage made by soaking rice overnight and blending it with water, milk, sugar and a hint of cinnamon.

“These drinks remind Latinos of being back home,” Barajas says. “There aren’t many places where you can find them around here, but in Mexico there’s an aguas frescas shop on every block.” They’re also common in Central America and the Caribbean.

“José Luis was the very first vendor I invited to join the Watsonville market,” says Patricia Rodriguez, who manages the Mercado Popular and grows organic berries with her husband in Castroville. “I knew how professional he was, and he’s a really good example for the other vendors.

“If you give people an opportunity to start out small, you’d be surprised how far they can go,” she adds.

Barajas plans to expand his product line at Northridge Mall, adding smoothies and pure vegetable juices without added sugar, as well as Mexican sandwiches. He travels back to Michoacán once a year and gets inspiration from a cousin, who also runs a business selling aguas frescas. But most of the family lives here now. He employs 10 relatives in the company, including his father and his wife, Irma Sanchez.

Even his 11-year-old son, Jairo, helps out on weekends. I ask Jairo what he plans to do when he grows up. Without skipping a beat, he smiles up at his dad and grandpa and says he wants to “be a merchant, too.”

Jiquilpan Frutas y Aguas Frescas
796 Northridge Mall, Main Level: 1B, Salinas • 831.449.7226