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More than child’s play

ACOLMAN, MEXICO (AP) – María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías swiftly cuts hundreds of strips of newsprint and coloured crepe paper needed to make a piñata, soothed by Norteño music on the radio while measuring pieces by feel.

“The measurement is already in my fingers,” Ortiz Zacarías said with a laugh.

She has been doing this since she was a child, in the family-run business alongside her late mother, who learned the craft from her father. Piñatas haven’t been displaced by more modern customs, and her family has been making a living off them into its fourth generation.

Ortiz Zacarías called it “my legacy, handed down by my parents and grandparents”.

Business is steady all year, mainly with birthday parties, but it really picks up around December. That’s because piñatas are interwoven with religious traditions in Mexico.

There are countless designs these days, based on everything from Disney characters to political figures. But the most traditional style of piñata is a sphere with seven spiky cones, which has a religious origin. Each cone represents one of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Hitting the paper-mache globe with a stick is a symbolic blow against sin, with the added advantage of releasing the candy within.

Piñatas weren’t originally filled with candy, nor made mainly of paper. Grandparents in Mexico can remember a time a few decades ago when piñatas were clay pots covered with paper and filled with hunks of sugar cane, fruits and peanuts. The treats were received quite gladly, though falling pieces of the clay pot posed a bit of a hazard.

But the tradition goes back even further. Some say piñatas can be traced back to China, where paper-making originated.

In Mexico, they were apparently brought by the Spanish conquerors, but may also replicate pre-Hispanic traditions.

Spanish chronicler Juan de Grijalva wrote that piñatas were used by Augustine monks in the early 1500s at a convent in the town of Acolman, just north of Mexico City. The monks received written permission to hold a year-end gathering as part of a religious celebration.

But the Indigenous population already celebrated a holiday around the same time to honour the deity Huitzilopochtli. And they used something similar to piñatas in those rites.

The pre-Hispanic rite involved filling clay jars with precious cocoa seeds – the stuff from which chocolate is made – and then ceremonially breaking the jars.

“This was the meeting of two worlds,” said director of Mexico City’s Museum of Popular Art Walther Boelsterly. “The piñata and the celebration were used as a mechanism to convert the native populations to Catholicism.” Piñatas are also used in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, mainly at children’s parties.

The piñata hasn’t stood still. Popular figures this year range from Barbie to Spider-Man.

Ortiz Zacarías’ family makes some new designs most of the year, but around December they return to the seven-pointed style, because of its longstanding association with the holiday. The family started their business in Acolman, where Ortiz Zacarías’ mother, Romana Zacarías Camacho, was known as “the queen of the piñatas” before her death.

Ortiz Zacarías’ 18-year-old son, Jairo Alberto Hernández Ortiz, is the fourth generation to take up the centuries old craft.

“This is a family tradition that has a lot of sentimental value for me,” he said.

ABOVE & BELOW: A worker hangs the most traditional style of ‘piñata’, a sphere with seven spiky cones, that will be filled with fruit and candy; a piñata maker works on a traditional design; and a traditional piñata is displayed at the municipal building in Acolman, north of Mexico City. PHOTO: AP
PHOTO: AP
PHOTO: AP
María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías sells piñatas at her small family-run piñata-making business. PHOTO: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: A tourist takes a selfie with a painting showing a piñata on display; and María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías displays piñatas for sale. PHOTO: AP
PHOTO: AP

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