The Piñata Makers of Tijuana

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Piñatas.

Just the word conjures up images of candy, birthday party shenanigans, singing “dale, dale, dale” as a proud parent spins a happy and blindfolded child in circles. They are the images of childhood birthday parties and traditional Christmas posadas, bright and strong.

By strong, I mean ‘sometimes impossible for the little children to break through’ strong, ‘no matter how hard we hit it we are not getting any candy falling’ strong, and ‘what is this piñata made of’ strong.

Almost four decades after my very first piñata, I decided to head into the world of its makers and find out: how do you make a piñata?

Turns out, it’s much harder than you’d think!

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The piñata artist cuts each piece in order to later assemble it into a child’s dream. This artist has over 30+ years experience.

Let’s start with the basics: piñatas come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and designs. There are piñatas, like the one my mother got for my first birthday party, that are bigger than elementary school children. There are piñatas that are as small as a Christmas ornament. Most, of course, fall happily in the middle. Average sized, bright and happy looking piñatas. Let’s face it, we all know why they are happy: they are full of Mexican candy!

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Arte Piñatas, at the Internacional Mercado de Artesanias in Tijuana, offers this hand crafted Buzz Lightyear for $900 pesos ($52 USD).

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Traditional piñatas have a three dimensional star shape. Today, these are used at adult parties and family Christmas gatherings and posadas. Birthday piñatas, however, can be anything you want them to be. Design is limited only by your imagination and the skill of your piñata maker.

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These traditional piñatas (made by Arte Piñatas at the Internacional Mercado de Artesanias in Tijuana) sell for $150 pesos for a small, simply decorated one to $300 USD for a recently made 8 foot one!

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Piñata maker?, you wonder. What’s a piñata maker?

Well, for everyone who ever thought that piñatas were made by machines in factories, or worse, who never even wondered about how piñatas are made, I’m here to let you know: piñata makers are building artists.

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This piñata artist has been designing and creating piñatas since he was a boy

Just last week I saw a father and his small son carrying out a huge (as in, bigger than the dad) piñata. It was a Batman piñata. Life sized. I hadn’t realized Batman was so tall and buff, but he is. I say this because this piñata had a seriously uncanny resemblance to the real Batman (you know, as seen on tv). The piñata maker had captured intricate details and sheer size to perfection. The little boy was visibly pleased with his piñata and the father beamed with pride as he pulled, tugged, carried and dragged the bigger than life piñata. I have no clue how they transported said piñata anywhere since it would not fit in a car or minivan. I’m starting to understand why so many dads here have big trucks. It’s to haul all those life sized piñatas around!

Piñata makers, the true artists, take an average of one to five dedicated days to fulfill an order. It is not just size that matters, but likeness, strength, and bragging rights.

So, how do you make a piñata anyway?

It’s a long and meticulous process. In short: you begin with a design (usually at the clients request), then you cut out strong and heavy cardboard into the various shapes and sizes needed to make your design a reality (anywhere from five to almost a hundred in a typical piñata). Once you have all your pieces, it is time to bend, stretch, curve, glue and cement them into their shape. Cardboard is not a very cooperative material and you can imagine both the strength and patience piñata makers have to cultivate. Finally, after several hours, the piñata “bones” are assembled and it is starting to look like a piñata. The next step involves a lot of special glue and paper. Observing it reminded me of kindergarten and made me realize that if you failed at keeping your space tiddy during cut and paste time you probably do not want to pursue a job as a piñata maker. The man I observed did it with such ease and precision you would think he was in the operating room. At this point, after roughly four to six hours, you have a working model from which you will build a dream. The top layers, the colorful paper, shapes, face, etc come next. This is where the artistic talent of your piñata maker is really going to matter. Hire the wrong person and your piñata looks like a failed Picasso replica. Find the right talent, and your piñata can pretty much look like anything you want.

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Piñatas start as strong cardboard pieces that must be cut into several pieces that will eventually make up the finished product

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With over 30+ years of experience, the piñata artist at “Arte Piñatas”, inside the Internacional Mercado de Artesanias in Tijuana, is an expert in his field

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Pieces are cut and prepared to build a child’s dream piñata

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The various pieces are then assembled into the bones of the piñata

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A special glue mixture is used in building the piñatas

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The glue mixture is used to hold different pieces of the piñata together

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After all the pieces are assembled and glued together, the piñata must be air dried. Sometimes they are hung outside to have the sun help in the process.

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During inclement weather, the piñatas must be air dried inside. Of course, this makes the building process much harder and take longer.

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Once the pieces are all glued together and the mixture has dried, the piñata is ready to be “dressed”.

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Once several pieces of cardboard, this piñata is ready to defend its hidden candy loot within!

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So, the question beckons: how does one become a piñata maker?

There is no training course or schooling necessary to become a piñata maker. Raw artistic talent, patience, and a keen eye are a must. The cutting, the molding, the shaping of raw materials into a finished product, it all takes talent and commitment. Sometimes it also takes going back to the drawing board several times. Anyone can make a piñata, but only a true piñata maker can transform cardboard, glue, and paper into a life sized model of a child’s dream. My mother has dabbled into piñata making. She made Mackenzie an amazing tower for a well known, tower locked princess themed birthday party. And I myself once tried, and seriously failed, at piñata making. It is a lot harder than you think and requires far more patience than I posses. Watching the piñata makers of Tijuana hard at work, I realize just how much you have to like building and glue (there’s lots of glue in piñata making) and creating to be a great piñata maker. It really is a special skill set. Many, if not most, of the great piñata makers have been around the craft their entire lives. Some of the artists I met grew up watching their fathers or uncles building pinatas. Once they were old enough, they were allowed to make or stir the glue. Slowly, they were introduced to the precision needed to cut the various components of a piñata, then the molding, followed by assembly and the art of creating a real likeness to the original inspiration. It’s a lot like a time honored apprenticeship.

In Tijuana, the options for piñatas are limitless. I have seen Mexican dolls, fish, chespirito, donkeys, footballs, clowns, unicorns, calaberas, every Disney/Nickelodeon/video game character imaginable, birds, cars, dolphins, beer cans (yes, you read that right. Because adults sometimes want piñatas at their parties too!), and even Donald Trump. Political ideologies aside, I want to be invited to a party where the theme requires a Donald Trump piñata. Seriously. For the savvy party planner I imagine the piñata stuffing possibilities are also endless.

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Piñatas can be found throughout Tijuana. These ones were at a candy shop.

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At the traditional Mercado Hidalgo, piñatas are bright reminders of the joys around us.

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At “Arte Piñatas”, a pink carriage or a lion tamer are at your disposal.

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And because even adults have been known to have piñatas at their parties, a beer piñata is ready to be purchased in El Mercado el Popo

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The piñata possibilities are endless, whether you go to a Mercado to look around, a candy store in search of one, or a piñata artist who can build you anything you can dream.

From start to finish a medium sized piñata takes approximately three days to complete. For this level of work, time, and dedication, piñata makers can make from $150.00 to $900.00 M.N. (pesos) per piñata sold. And the piñata, the work of art that took so long to build and create and envision, will take a couple of candy loving kids a few rounds of “dale, dale, dale” to destroy.

Such is the short lived life of a beautiful piñata and the hard earned, praise worthy job of a talented piñata maker.

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This is the piñata that started it all for me. It was my 1st birthday party and, as you can see, the piñata is bigger than me (and my mother!).

 

I would like to extend my gratitude to the owner, the helpers, and especially to the piñata artist at “Arte Piñatas”. These wonderful individuals went above and beyond to answer my questions about the piñata making process and shared their love for this art with me every time I stopped by (with yet another question). If you find yourself in Tijuana, stop by to check out their great inventory. You’ll be as amazed as I am and will probably want to buy yourself a piñata. They have in no way compensated me or asked me to share their information with you. I do it because they have won my trust and admiration for their detailed and great work.

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