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In Mexico, piñatas are not just child’s play. They’re a 400-year-old tradition

by Gabriel Martinez
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Piñata Tradition

In Mexico, the tradition of crafting piñatas is not merely child’s play; it represents a rich cultural heritage that spans over four centuries. María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías, a skilled piñata maker, meticulously cuts newsprint and colored crepe paper while listening to Norteño music on the radio, a craft she learned from her family. This artistry has been passed down through generations, starting with her late mother, who acquired the skill from her father.

Ortiz Zacarías affectionately refers to piñata making as “my legacy, handed down by my parents and grandparents.” Throughout the year, her family’s business remains steady, primarily catering to birthday celebrations. However, it experiences a significant surge in demand during the Christmas season, as piñatas are closely intertwined with Christian traditions in Mexico.

While modern piñatas come in various designs, from Disney characters to political figures, the most traditional style is a spherical one adorned with seven spiky cones, each symbolizing one of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Striking the paper-mache globe with a stick is a symbolic act, representing a blow against sin, with the added bonus of releasing the candy hidden within.

The evolution of piñatas is intriguing. They were not always filled with candy or primarily constructed from paper. In the not-so-distant past, grandparents in Mexico recall piñatas made from clay pots covered with paper and filled with sugar cane, fruits, and peanuts, although the falling shards of clay presented a minor hazard.

Yet, the history of piñatas reaches back even further, potentially tracing their origins to China, where paper-making originated. In Mexico, they were introduced by Spanish conquerors but may also draw inspiration from pre-Hispanic traditions.

According to Spanish chronicler Juan de Grijalva, Augustine monks in the early 1500s used piñatas at a convent in Acolman, just north of Mexico City, with the approval of Pope Sixtus V, as part of their celebration of Christ’s birth. However, indigenous populations in Mexico had already been observing a holiday around the same time to honor the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, employing something akin to piñatas in their rituals. In these pre-Hispanic rites, clay jars filled with precious cocoa seeds, the very substance from which chocolate is derived, were ceremoniously broken.

Walther Boelsterly, director of Mexico City’s Museum of Popular Art, describes this as “the meeting of two worlds,” as the piñata and the celebration surrounding it served as a means to convert native populations to Catholicism.

The tradition of piñatas has also spread to other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, where they are primarily used at children’s parties.

While the piñata has evolved over time, with contemporary versions featuring popular figures like Barbie and Spider-Man, Ortiz Zacarías’ family maintains the classic seven-pointed style during Christmas due to its enduring association with the holiday.

Their family business in Acolman, where Ortiz Zacarías’ mother, Romana Zacarías Camacho, was revered as “the queen of the piñatas,” continues to thrive. And now, the tradition extends to the fourth generation, as Ortiz Zacarías’ 18-year-old son, Jairo Alberto Hernández Ortiz, takes up this centuries-old craft, cherishing its deep sentimental value.

In summary, piñatas in Mexico are far more than festive decorations; they represent a cherished cultural legacy passed down through generations, bridging the gap between ancient rituals and modern celebrations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Piñata Tradition

What is the significance of piñatas in Mexican culture?

Piñatas hold deep cultural significance in Mexico, symbolizing a 400-year-old tradition that blends history and celebration. They are used in various festivities, especially during Christmas, to commemorate Christian traditions.

What is the traditional style of piñatas in Mexico?

The most traditional style of piñata in Mexico is a spherical one adorned with seven spiky cones. Each cone represents one of the seven deadly sins. This style is closely associated with religious origins, as striking the piñata symbolizes a blow against sin.

How have piñatas evolved over time?

Piñatas have evolved from clay pots covered with paper and filled with sugar cane, fruits, and peanuts to their contemporary paper-mache form filled with candy. The tradition may have originated in China and was introduced to Mexico by Spanish conquerors.

Are piñatas only popular in Mexico?

No, piñatas are popular in various Latin American countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, mainly at children’s parties.

Is piñata making a family tradition?

Yes, piñata making often passes down through generations as a cherished family tradition. Many families, like María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías’ family, have been involved in this craft for multiple generations, preserving its cultural heritage.

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