Party favor or art? Preserving the craft of the piñata.
Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
June 24, 2022
Would you take a sledgehammer to the David? A flamethrower to the Mona Lisa? A shredder to the latest Banksy? (Actually, scratch that last one.)
Why then, some people are beginning to ask, would you want to pulverize a piñata?
Alfonso Hernandez, for one, wants you to lower the bat and take off the blindfold and appreciate the artistry of a form that dates back hundreds of years.
The Dallas-based artist has crafted life-size piñata sculptures of Mexican singer Vicente Fernández and Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” He wants the public to help turn an industry into art.
“Piñata makers never treated it like an art form,” he says. “They’re taught to make it fast. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, just hurry up because they’re going to break it.”
Unsatisfied with the generic mass production that has characterized their discipline for decades, piñata makers are pushing the artistic limits of the party pieces. These piñatas, bigger and more detailed, are made out of wood, foam, wire, and clay, and sculpted to look like beloved icons and life-size low-riders. Some move, some are political, and some even talk. Rihanna is a fan, as are, increasingly, art galleries.
For generations, the real cost of bargain piñatas has typically been borne by the piñata makers themselves working long, arduous hours for less than minimum wage. By proving that piñatas can be more than just clubbable party pieces, people like Mr. Hernandez hope they can both create art and bring a wider respect and dignity to a craft long viewed as cheap and disposable.
“It’s been an underappreciated art form,” says Emily Zaiden, director and lead curator of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles.
“Piñatas are so accessible. They speak to everybody,” she adds. But there’s also a flip side. Piñatas “can be about appropriation, can be about, I think, the trivialization of a cultural tradition.”
A new generation of Hispanic artists, she continues, “see how much metaphorical potential piñatas have, and how deeply it reflects their identities.”
The piñata-making grind is familiar to Mr. Hernandez. He tried to sell the first piñatas he made for $100, only to end up accepting $40. He quickly learned the importance of speed and volume. He’s wiry and lean – the product of losing about 40 pounds during a sleepless four-year tear when he made piñatas seven days a week. And he speaks with a rattling impatience, like he needs to get his words out as quickly as he once did his piñatas.
Today, Mr. Hernandez works slower, with more care and craft, from his garage workshop in east Dallas. And across the country, other piñata makers are doing the same.