La Piñata: The soul of a Mexican fiesta
Published Aug 2, 2007 - (Updated Dec 11, 2012)
Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Summer/Fall 2007 issue.
Piñatas are the very soul of children’s parties in Mexico. All youngsters wait impatiently for the moment they can try to break this model made of papier mache and metal, its belly a clay pot filled with candies. This folk art attracts not only children; adults also fall under its colorful spell when it appears at a Christmas party or even sometimes at a wedding.
The origins of the piñata go back to China, where cow-like models were covered with colored paper and eventually torn apart. The remains were burned, the ashes considered a good luck talisman. Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and explorer, took this custom to Italy in the 12th century, where it received the name pignatta, or “pot.” Europe soon adopted this custom, attributing it with religious characteristics and filling it with candies.
When the piñata came to Mexico, it was used to bring people closer to religious ceremonies, the seven points representing the seven deadly sins and the candies a symbol of divine rewards. While someone’s trying to break the piñata, the accompanying chant preaches: “Hit it, strike it, don’t miss your aim, because if you lose it, you lose your way.”
The process of making a piñata is not easy; it’s an artisan process based on the clay pot and paper set with paste. The paste is an inexpensive, homemade adhesive made with water and flour.
Josefina Castillo: My Destiny was Making Piñatas
Aquiles Serdan 325 in Emiliano Zapata is the home of Josefina Castillo and Francisco Correa, 75 and 83 years old, respectively. Josefina has been making piñatas, as well as memorial wreaths and paper flowers, for over 50 years, almost as long as she’s been married to Pancho, as she lovingly calls his husband.
Josefina discovered her taste for crafts when she first took piñata-making classes. “Since I was a little girl, I knew making piñatas was my destiny … and now I teach the craft and have a diploma,” she says, pointing to a framed diploma hanging on the wall.
Her left hand bears an enormous callous from the daily use of scissors, which she displays with pride, the same pride with which she displays her ability to cut paper in the air without a table or equipment. It’s hard to believe that she has already suffered two strokes, and that doctors had lost all hope for her. Nonetheless, Josefina recovered and continues doing what she likes most: making piñatas.
Josefina and Pancho never stop talking while they work. He helps her with the process because “I’ll be in trouble if I don’t,” he jokes. Currently, there are at least three other families on their street that sell piñatas, but Josefina was the first and holds a special place in the hearts of her clients, who sometimes ask for whimsical figures that have nothing to do with the typical star. “A lady just came by asking for a crab and a fish, and I’m here, ready with the paste, paper, metal and a clay pot,” she asserts.
This charming couple has even taught courses on piñata making. With up to 40 pupils per session, usually only one or two possess the skills required to make piñatas. One has to be born with a special talent and manual dexterity. Josefina has that special ability, her paper flowers even having been exported for sale in a store in Pasadena, California. “I used to take boxes full of paper flowers to the post office, where they were weighed and documented so they could be shipped,” she remembers with a smile.
Josefina’s energy belies her age; she speaks of her three children and grandchildren with the same passion she has for making piñatas. She is proud to live in Puerto Vallarta and uses the common phrase for those born in this city: “I’m a salty paw.” She continues, “We’re a typical Vallartense family, and with my work I’ve earned recognition and even prizes at the seniors’ clubs I attend. I won second place in a singing contest, and I don’t even sing!” Don’t miss the chance to visit Josefina and Pancho, some of the most interesting characters in the daily life of Puerto Vallarta.