Making Authentic Pinatas is a Serious Business

Growing up in Sonora, Mexico, Astor Toyos spent many happy hours working in his neighbor’s piñata shop after-school and on weekends. Thirty years later, after he moved, got married and started a family, Toyos found himself searching frantically for a piñata for the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter, Sophia.

“I couldn’t find one in the whole San Francisco area,” he says. “I mean a real authentic piñata, not a mass-produced one from China.”

The piñata he eventually brought home was far from perfect and things got worse when the young partygoers could not smash it open and Sophia got hit in the eye from some flying debris. Toyos finally had to wrestle the piñata apart. He was amazed to find it was full of wire and industrial-size staples.

“It wasn’t kid-friendly at all,” he says.

A year later, Toyos launched an internet business selling authentic piñatas, www.MexiPiñ, joining a small but growing group of entrepreneurs and artists hoping to revive interest in hand-crafted piñatas. Authentic piñatas, which are made from paper maches and balloons and can be as large as four feet, differ from mass produced ones which are usually much smaller and made of cardboard.

But they are also more expensive: they cost $50-$100, compared to mass-produced ones which cost $15-$25.

“We work with second-and third-generation piñata makers,” Toyos said. “These guys are real artists but it can be a challenge to find them.”

Artist L.C. McKay found some in her adopted hometown of El Paso.  She and local photographer Matthew Scullin noticed that a number of new piñata storefronts had opened up in El Paso, the result of merchants and piñata makers or piñateras fleeing drug violence in neighboring Juarez.  The two decided to make an exhibit based on the piñateras and their creations, “El Paso Piñata Extravaganza,” which was shown at Los Paisanos Gallery this summer.

“It was hard to convince some of them to talk to us,” said McKay, a painter who was born in Chihauhua. “They’re very protective of their art.” In the end, though, McKay and Scullin convinced 11 piñateras to let them observe and take photographs.

“There was an interesting diversity of techniques,” Scullin said. “One of the guys had a very stylized and realistic technique. He applied the tissue paper very smoothly almost like a plaster sculpture instead of the traditional way of putting curly tissue paper on top of cardboard.”  McKay believes the piñateras are artists. “They have unbelievable skill with their hands,” she says.

Still they are poor artists who get paid by the piece so they work fast in order to create up to 12 piñatas each day. One reason why only a handful of them came to see the show.

“These people are so busy working they can’t afford to take time off to see an exhibit,” she says. “Plus,” she said. “They have a different mentality. They’ve never really been involved in the arts and some didn’t see the point of the show.”

McKay’s piñateras are competing against those of factory workers in Mexico and China who crank out inexpensive Piñatas depicting cartoon characters like Dora the Explorer and Sponge Bob Squarepants, which are then sold in chain party stores. K.C. Macnamara, an artist in Eugene, Oregon sees them every time she goes to work at her day job in a local party supply store.

She never imagined herself becoming a piñatera until one day, a customer at the store expressed frustration that she could not find the piñata she wanted and Macnamara offered to make one for her at home. After that, Macnamara began to take more requests and now she has a steady side business making custom piñatas. She’s made Michael Jackson Thriller piñatas, giant cupcake piñatas and bacteria piñatas, all of which were part of a show last summer at the David Minor Theater in Eugene. Though Macnamara has done some research into traditional techniques she says she learned her craft mainly through trial and error. “It’s a very time-consuming process,” she says.

Despite all the effort that goes in, she says it doesn’t bother her that her creations are made to be destroyed.

“It’s all part of the process,” she says. “Piñatas are a very ephemeral work of art.”