February 6, 2004

Piñata: Party’s Game Is Ancient History

By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

It’s four o clock’ in the morning. While the city sleeps, Gustavo Lomelí heads to his backyard in Tijuana where he begins his daily routine of designing, cutting and assembling colorful piñatas to be enjoyed by children in their birthday celebrations. Just like Lomelí, thousands of piñateros begin their own artistic routine by creating dozens of piñatas for local candy shops as well as successful supermarket chains for the Tijuana market. By purchasing great amounts of cardboard, paper maché and wire, the creation process begins as piñateros put their creativity to test on a daily basis. Amongst the mass production of these national icons, however, looms an imposing cloud of unfamiliarity with the true significance and origin of the piñata.

Although the creation of the piñata is often accredited to Mexico, piñatas are traced back to China where colorful figures of cows and buffaloes were filled with seeds to celebrate the coming of the new year. Once the figure was broken, those surrounding the figure would rush to gather the fallen seeds that according to tradition, were meant to be burnt. The remaining ashes from the fire were kept throughout the year as a good luck charm since they were believed to bring forth a promising new year. Around the 14th century, Italy adopted the custom from China with its own style, personality and religious affiliation. During the first sunday of Lent, the faithful would celebrate by placing treasures in a fragile pot that was meant to be broken by the devoted, a term known as ‘pignatta’ in Italian. With time the tradition spread to Spain where the figure was titled ‘la olla,’ meaning pot in Spanish, according to Lomelí.

When Spanish missionaries arrived to America, the piñata was employed as one of many tactics used to lure the indians into accepting Catholicism. Filled with religious symbolism, the traditional star like piñata with seven spikes, represent the seven deadly sins that humans are meant to overcome and destroy, thus greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust are decorated in bright and luring colors to mirror the deceiving ways evil is often masked in, according to Aaron Navarro from La Dulcería Conchita. The rewards of destroying evil and keeping the faith in a time of disorientation are eminent: the candies and fortunes released by the piñata.

This custom was readily accepted by the indians because they had a similar tradition long before the arrival of the Spaniards. At the end of each year, in order to honor the birthdate of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, priests would decorate and hang a pot filled with colorful feathers above a figure representing their god. Once broken the colored feathers would fall at the feet of Huitzilopochtli to adorn and respect the ways of their god. The Mayans also had the tradition of blindfolding the eyes of those trying to break the piñata. However, the Spaniards took this idea and transformed it into a religious notion, where those who persist with blind faith amidst the eyes of evil, [star like piñata] will eventually receive good fortune.

Now days, although Mexicans are constantly bombarded with piñatas in nearly every local candy shop, few know the significance and history of this cultural trademark. Made largely for birthdays and posadas [re-enactment of Joseph’s and Mary’s journey at Christmas-time] piñatas often define the climax of a festive gathering for children.

“The tradition has been lost,” said Lomelí “People don’t really know the symbolism behind it which is ironic because we as Mexicans are very attached to our religion.”

For 13 years Juan Guzman has perfected the art of his piñatas by developing an artistic sense that now comes as second nature. The measurements are automatic, details come naturally and mass production is a must. Nonetheless when asked about the significance and history of the piñata, a long pause resulted in a “I don’t know.” However, what he does know with great pride is that his 90 weekly piñatas will easily be sold in local markets.

“The demand is greater than the supply,” said Arturo Cantero, co-owner of Dulcería Don Regino. “The piñatas are all very commercialized now, but if they are made they will be sold. Piñatas are a big part of our industry’s profit.”

The economy in bordering regions such as Tijuana and San Diego County is inevitably interlocked and dependent on one another. Although an average of 300 weekly piñatas are sold in Dulcería Conchita, neighboring shops will admit that the attacks of September 11 significantly diminished their sales.

Juan Guzman with a couple of new piñatas ready for market..

“Around 80 percent of our customers are Mexicans who live in the United States,” said Guillermina Ramirez, owner of Dulcería Don Regino. “Ever since then our business has never recuperated full blast.” In addition, the ever-changing value of the dollar in Mexico has also significantly affected the profits gathered by piña-teros in the last few years. However, amidst the fluctuating economy that comes along in a border town, sales of the piñata have held their ground throughout the years. Their never fading popularity has resulted in a cultural trademark throughout the world.

“My piñatas have been bought by people who ship them to their families in New York, Florida, Venezuela and Veracruz,” said Lomelí. “My friends who own a Chinese restaurant here in Tijuana always ask me for a piñata so they can send them to their family and friends in China. Ironically enough, they tell me they don’t exist over there.”

Even though piñatas are currently seen as a party game that promises excitement and fun, they hold centuries of historical and cultural fusion in their shape and form. A new wave of commercialism has risen over the past. Now, animated films outline the next successful piñata design.

When asking Mr. Guzmán about the significance of being a piñatero for more than a decade, he rapidly responds, “It’s an art form, it’s my job.” His answer was cut short by the owner though, whose voice is heard amid her cell phone conversation a few meters away. “I need ten red cars and five barney’s piñatas by tomorrow.”

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