Southern Arizona embraces the piñata — a storied decoration that protects its treats until blindfolded celebrants release rewards as the object of games. The piñata also importantly serves as the traditional centerpiece of so much community ceremonialism.
In Tucson, master piñateros Jesus Garcia has crafted colorful, cultural piñatas with his hands for 30 years. He made his first piñata as a teenager from Guadalajara, Mexico, learning from his mother and other family members who passed on their artistry of preparing the engrudo paste and fashioning/decorating the three-dimensional papier-mâché forms.
The piñata has a long history.
Centuries ago, bull-shaped paper figures were part of Chinese New Year celebrations, where seeds of fortune were released from the figures as gifts from Gods to the celebrants. Italy evolved the custom as pignattas or fragile pots, broken as part of religious ceremony. The pots represented evil, which was defeated by the faithful who wielded the stick that cracked the pot and released the pignatta’s sweet rewards. The custom spread to Spain, and ultimately to New Spain via the missionaries, where the now-colorful piñatas were employed to teach Christianity to new converts. Today, one of the most traditional piñatas is shaped as a sphere with points, representing deadly sins as taught by the Roman Catholic Church (and faithful who broke the pointed piñatas reaped symbols of good over evil). A star shape piñata also symbolized the Star of Bethlehem, and was incorporated into the December Christmas Nativity masses, which eventually evolved into today’s traditional posadas.
Shaping his forms with coatings of newspapers, Jesus pastes strips of colored tissue paper until his structures become traditional shapes, even animals. Some of Jesus’ most favorite piñatas take the form of airplanes and car sculptures.
Today, Jesus’ craftwork is primarily reserved for special occasions and for Tucson Meet Yourself demonstrations, although some of his masterful piñatas are found at local party supply stores and dulcerias.
Once his papier-mâché figures are covered in colorful tissues, the forms are filled with fruits, candy or other wrapped goodies. Jesus is particularly fond of traditional fillings which include sugar cane, peanuts, and tangerines. Each piñata process can take several hours.
In 1991, as part of a Tucson Festival Society challenge to craft the world’s largest piñata for the Guinness Book of World Records, Jesus and an associate created a 14-foot donkey (which for years stood in the hallway of the Thomas O. Price Service Center on South Park Avenue, eventually donated to a children’s organization).
Piñatas are a matter of art as well as spirit, used in both celebration and sacred ceremony to represent storytelling, faith and joyful play.
- More about the traditional arts of Southern Arizona Mexican community is here: http://parentseyes.arizona.edu/cadena/comun1.html
- A video about the piñateros is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOX72Jyhgcw
- Read more: Griffith, University of Arizona Press: Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson’s Mexican American Community