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Miami Mystery: It sounds like an ice cream truck — but it’s full of knives

A couple of you have written in the past couple months asking about the ice cream trucks that sharpened knives. This sounded crazy to some of us too, so we investigated.

Roaming the neighborhood, playing tinkly old-time music, it’s easy to mistake the afilador (knife sharpener) for an innocent ice cream truck — until it gets close enough for you to see the photo on the side: knife after knife after knife.

Longtime afilador Jorge Luis Gonzalez wants to make sure you know the difference. Peek inside his truck and it’s like a scene from a horror film. A metallic smell lingers. Hundreds of sharpening tools line the walls. There’s a blade in plain sight everywhere you look.

For Gonzalez, this is home. The van’s dashboard is decorated with good luck charms from his wife: A large brown monkey, a dried up cactus plant, and a braided horse tail.

“Sometimes people come thinking I’m an ice cream truck and they start laughing,” says Gonzalez. “And I say hey listen, leave that monería, the monkey is right there.”

A sharp start

Most children are told not to play with knives, but Gonzalez grew up surrounded by them. As a 10-year-old in 1975 Cuba, Gonzalez would shadow his father as he continued his grandfather’s tradition of being a mobile afilador.

The tradition began with Gonzalez’ grandfather in Galicia, Spain. When he moved to Cuba, he brought over the “carraton” (mobile cart) and the “pitico” (the music played whenever an afilador is near).

Gonzalez would shadow his father every Sunday in a different province of Cuba. Sometimes Camaguey, sometimes el Vedado. But he could only watch, and occasionally file knives with a rectangular stone.

Gonzalez immigrated to Miami alone at 15 years old. Underage and lacking a work permit in the United States, he started doing what he knew best: knife sharpening.

“I started on foot with the carraton (cart), and my father sent me the pitico (flute),” says Gonzalez. “I keep that original one at home.”

For awhile he just sharpened knives on the sidewalk. But carrying the carraton onto buses to get to Miami Beach or Hialeah proved too arduous, so he upgraded to a van. Today, his van reads “5 Star Sharpener.” It still plays a version of the music his father used to play in Cuba.

“The music has never changed for years,” says Gonzalez. “In all countries, it’s the same music. It’s tradition.”

The daily hustle

Gonzalez is on the road every day by 9 a.m. By 10 he’s playing the signature afilador music to announce his presence. While there are plenty of mobile afiladores in Miami, all neighborhoods are up for grabs. Most of the time Gonzalez will hit only one neighborhood a day, but he also  makes house calls.

His clients include restaurants, beauty salons, barber shops… and your average knife or machete owner. (Because Miami.) During the interview, two separate clients call him in a frenzied state. One of them is an elderly woman who can’t walk.

“That’s why I made it mobile, to make it more comfortable for people,” says Gonzalez.

That’s his favorite part of the job, he says: bringing service to people who can’t seek it out themselves. That and the art of leaving a seemingly unusable knife looking brand new. His face is pure bliss and pride when he’s repurposed a knife.

“The best thing is to get something that’s oxidized or looks like it can’t work and leave it brand new,” he says.

  • Vice-Queen Maria

    Thank you for covering this. When I’m at my dad’s nursing home in Hialeah, I can hear the local Afilador through the window. I ask my dad if he can hear it, too. Cuba has a long history of mobile or walking vendors, including the famous Manicero (peanut guy) all of whom had their distinct music or calls. There are still some Maniceros in Hialeah, which is street vendor central as we already know with the Tamalero.

    There is also a female Afiladora. Her two boys do homework in the truck while she sharpens. Comedian Freddy Stebbins interviewed her.

  • Vice-Queen Maria

    Thank you for covering this. When I’m at my dad’s nursing home in Hialeah, I can hear the local Afilador through the window. I ask my dad if he can hear it, too. Cuba has a long history of mobile or walking vendors, including the famous Manicero (peanut guy) all of whom had their distinct music or calls. There are still some Maniceros in Hialeah, which is street vendor central as we already know with the Tamalero.

    There is also a female Afiladora. Her two boys do homework in the truck while she sharpens. Comedian Freddy Stebbins interviewed her.

  • Vice-Queen Maria

    Thank you for covering this. When I’m at my dad’s nursing home in Hialeah, I can hear the local Afilador through the window. I ask my dad if he can hear it, too. Cuba has a long history of mobile or walking vendors, including the famous Manicero (peanut guy) all of whom had their distinct music or calls. There are still some Maniceros in Hialeah, which is street vendor central as we already know with the Tamalero.

    There is also a female Afiladora. Her two boys do homework in the truck while she sharpens. Comedian Freddy Stebbins interviewed her.

  • Vice-Queen Maria

    Thank you for covering this. When I’m at my dad’s nursing home in Hialeah, I can hear the local Afilador through the window. I ask my dad if he can hear it, too. Cuba has a long history of mobile or walking vendors, including the famous Manicero (peanut guy) all of whom had their distinct music or calls. There are still some Maniceros in Hialeah, which is street vendor central as we already know with the Tamalero.

    There is also a female Afiladora. Her two boys do homework in the truck while she sharpens. Comedian Freddy Stebbins interviewed her.

  • PabloConill

    Thanks for the story – I live in North Beach and it is so nostalgic (of living in South America, etc) to hear then see our Knife Sharpening truck roam the hood for business. (Will check to see if it is the same one.) Can’t say I sharpen knives these days… but nice to hear this person is making a living the old fashion way.

    • Vice-Queen Maria

      There is an Afilador in North Beach? I haven’t heard the truck yet! That would make me happy! Especially since my roommates’ knives are dull, LOL.

  • PabloConill

    Thanks for the story – I live in North Beach and it is so nostalgic (of living in South America, etc) to hear then see our Knife Sharpening truck roam the hood for business. (Will check to see if it is the same one.) Can’t say I sharpen knives these days… but nice to hear this person is making a living the old fashion way.

    • Vice-Queen Maria

      There is an Afilador in North Beach? I haven’t heard the truck yet! That would make me happy! Especially since my roommates’ knives are dull, LOL.

  • Are there any fixed retail locations for afiladores in miami? Also what is the price range?

    • Alexandra Martinez

      There are a few fixed retail locations throughout Miami, El Gallego is one.
      Price range depends on the quality of the knife, but it generally ranges from $5-$8.

  • Are there any fixed retail locations for afiladores in miami? Also what is the price range?

    • Alexandra Martinez

      There are a few fixed retail locations throughout Miami, El Gallego is one.
      Price range depends on the quality of the knife, but it generally ranges from $5-$8.