Words by Josue Ramirez
Edited by Abigail Vela
Piñatas are a staple for many Latinx communities, but they are not just associated with childhood anymore. It is common for mainstream western culture to use the symbolism behind piñatas in popular entertainment to stereotype or make fun of Latinx communities. Doing so disregards the history, evolution, and the deep cultural significance of an practice and craft that has sustained generations of families and continues to be a staple of our visual identity.
To explore the piñata as an art form and to counter the craft’s negative framing, Trucha collaborated with ARISE Adelante to host a two-day creative workshop during their youth summer program.
Piñatas Then and Now
The history of the piñata, while deeply rooted in Mexican tradition as described by the Craft in America Center in LA, also has ties to Chinese practices associated with the Spring Festival, Indigenous rituals, and Italian culture. The practice of breaking a decorated vessel (originally made of clay or barro) was used during religious celebrations to indoctrinate native peoples into Catholicism. The traditional seven-pointed star, for example, is representative of the seven deadly sins meant to be violently destroyed.
Therefore the piñata is a cultural product of colonialism and oppression that is now a contemporary signifier of Latinidad. While the meaning behind the practice now is much more secular and associated with celebrations, joy, and laughter in the Latinx community, it is not held in the same regard by the public imagination. Unfortunately, it is still a continued subject and tool of violence and ridicule.
Like many cultural practices outside of the white hegemony, the piñata continues to be weaponized. Instead of assimilation, as was the goal in the early Spanish colonial project, this time, the piñata is used as a trope in popular culture to otherize Latinx minorities, especially Mexicans.
Examples of the piñata as a trope can be seen in cartoons to prime-time shows, for example, in Episode 14 of the third season of The Office. A subplot of the episode is the planning and preparation of a party for Oscar, the only Latinx character in the office. Lead character and boss, Michael Scott, suggests throwing a party to celebrate Oscar’s “Mexicanity.” Because his Mexicanness is “what defines him.”
Scenes of the party prep included Mexican stereotypes like burritos, chilis, sombreros, “Limoñadé” and, of course, piñatas. While satirical, placing the piñata on the same level as tropes like the “spicy” or “fiery” Latinos, the consumption of Latinidad through food and the hardworking/lazy Mexican dichotomy (vía the sombreros), further illustrates the cultural object’s use to negatively frame our communities in the popular imaginary.
Activating the Piñata
High school-aged students from ARISE Adelante’s four centers throughout Hidalgo County were presented with lessons on the craft of piñateria. As Trucha’s cultural organizer, I gave an artist talk about how I incorporate the piñata into my creative work.
Piñata People, a short documentary by Charlie Vela showcases the craft of piñateria by Rawmirez.
The mini-documentary by Charlie Vela, titled Piñata People, was screened for students who, afterward, were presented with a choreographed Piñata Person dance.
Students learned the basic techniques of piñata making and began their own project. They included collages, masks, and sculptures. Groups cut and assembled fringed tissue paper and cardboard shapes in the form of hearts, stars, skulls, and animals.
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The second day involved a day outdoors where students discussed the piñata in terms of performance and politics. They broke two piñatas and repurposed the leftover newsprint and tissue into piñata paper. Because piñatas are primarily made of newspapers that consist of stories, happenings, and events locally, the concept of a piñata as an anthropological artifact and a repository of memory was explored.
Students blended and liquefied the piñata pieces into mush and splattered it into recycled abstract art. A large-scale collective piece was made to archive the piñata and experience of the region. It was set out to dry under the hot sun. Students completed their piñatas as they snacked on the candy innards of the paper mache figure.
On the second day of the workshop, students broke a pinata and recycled it into piñata paper, including a large-scale collaboration.
Edith Aviles, an ARISE Adelante participant, described the two days as helpful to the group, “Channel(ing) our creativity” and consider “how much we can do when we think about it.”
The workshop was an opportunity to celebrate the tradition of the piñata and to learn more about such an important cultural craft. It was a great way to collectively explore how the piñateria can extend beyond the limitations that it is placed under by popular culture and its significant historical baggage.
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