A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Mexico. Leer en Español.
When Romana Zacarías Camacho's husband, Nicolás Ortiz Valencia, died in 1999, she was faced with a tough reality. Not only had the Mexican woman lost the man she loved, her family also lost its breadwinner. Camacho, who is affectionately referred to as "Doña Romanita," knew she needed to do something to take care of her four children. So she took up the one trade that her hometown of Acolman is renowned for.
“My mom enrolled in a piñata-making class," recalled Ana Lilia Ortiz Zacarías, Camacho's 27-year-old daughter. "The next year she began by putting 50 up for sale. In that same year, she trained 53 women. She began making more, and we got to the point where we were making ten to 15,000 pieces during the Christmas season."
Camacho died in May 2016. Diabetes ravaged her body. But in 2010, before she passed, she was named the "Queen of Piñatas" by the State of Mexico. And her legacy of manufacturing piñatas lives on today. Her children continue to carry on her piñata business in the town where the Mexican tradition was created.
While various versions of the piñata exist in different cultures around the globe, the custom of breaking piñatas in Mexico dates back to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 1500s. And it embodies the syncretization between Aztec and Christian customs.
Each year, the Aztecs would honor Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war whose birth was linked to the winter solstice. Throughout, December celebrations were dedicated to him. To kick off the festivities, Huitzilopochtli worshippers would fill a clay pot with feathers and precious stones and hang it at the base of temples. Using a stick, they'd break the pot open as an offering.
To counter this tradition, a missionary at the Acolman convent named Friar Diego de Soria came up with pre-Christmas celebrations known as Las Posadas that take place from December 16 to 24 and honor the pregnancy of the Virgin Mary. For the posadas, the Christian friars appropriated the Aztec practice of breaking clay pots. But they decorated their pots in vibrant colors and shaped them with seven points to represent the seven deadly sins. And instead of filling their pots with feathers and stones, the friars used sweets. The colors and candies were intended to draw the Aztecs away from their traditional gods.
Today, Acolman still bears remnants of this past. Located just north of Mexico City, one of the main focal points of the town is the colonial-era monastery that harkens back to the Spanish effort to evangelize Mexico. While Acolman boasts great food—especially its mixiotes (a Mexican pit-barbequed dish) and tasty pulque (a fermented agave drink)—it garners most attention during the winter holiday season, when people are looking to break piñatas.
Camacho made her family an integral part of the Acolman's piñata tradition when she transformed part of her home into a piñata workshop. When I visited the space, it smelled of newly dyed tissue paper and paste and was filled with vibrant crepe paper in reds, yellows, blues, and purples. Hanging from the ceiling and the walls were hundreds of piñatas of various sizes, ranging from decorative to monumental. Others were carefully arranged on the floor. In the back of the workshop, eight people—family and employees alike—decorated these celebratory objects, readying them for retail, where they sell from 20 pesos ($1) to 3,500 pesos ($170) each.
Camacho distinguished her piñatas among the many made in Acolman by creating a unique design feature. With paper cut in the shape of leaves, she pasted a poinsettia in the center of her piñatas to make it look like a flower ready to bloom. Carrying on that tradition, Camacho's daughter Ana Lilia Ortiz Zacarías has pioneered a new design of her own. It's made with papers that are folded until they look like half-closed cones, which she uses to create a flower. Zacarías calls this design the "Flirt."
While I was at the workshop, Camacho's grandson, who's about seven years old, appeared from behind a door with a piñata between his hands. It was one of the first ones he decorated, and he couldn't hide his satisfaction. The boy carried his work through the entire shop, bragging that it only took him nine minutes to decorate.
Making this type of piñata is simple, but also very time-consuming. First, you cover a balloon with layers of newspaper and glue to form the pot. This might be the longest part of the process, as the drying time depends on the weather. According to Zacarías, the base will be ready in a day if it's sunny and hot outside. But if it's cloudy, it can take up to a week to dry. Decorating the cones generally takes 30 minutes, whereas the decoration of the belly takes about 45 minutes.
I noticed that all the pots I saw were made from newspaper, whereas tradition dictates they should be made of clay. “Originally, it was a clay pot covered in newspaper, with cones made of cardboard and tissue paper. In our case, we use metallic paper and crepe paper,” Zacarías told me. “Now, the majority are made of cardboard because kids were getting hurt [with the clay versions]. Hardly anyone asks for them anymore.”
Camacho’s workshop has been so influential in modern-day piñata-making, it’s also spawned other piñata businesses in Alcoman. Julián Meconetzin Rangel Sosa , who started making piñatas at Camacho’s family’s workshop when he was 13 years old, now owns his own operation called Pomposa. Sosa’s workshop produces 2,500 to 3,000 pieces during the holiday season. His offerings can cost anywhere from 23 pesos ($1.25) for the decorative ones, to more than 3,500 ($188) for his 10-foot creations. As a young entrepreneur, his primary sales tool is social media, which helps him move many piñatas in Mexico City.
Sosa isn’t a native of Acolman. He arrived here 15 years ago with his family, in search of a place where life wasn’t as stressful as it was in Mexico City. Living in Acolman, the piñata captivated him so much that he got one tattooed on his right forearm. He told me his love for them springs from their ability to translate their creator’s feeling.
“Ever since I began working with piñatas, it was a reflection of my emotions as an artisan—how to order the colors, how to arrange them.”
Sosa launched Pomposa with help from a subsidy from the National Institute of Entrepreneurship. He designed a logo and registered the name “Pomposa” as a brand. Unlike other local artisans, most of the time he wears a shirt bearing the symbol of his company. He also teaches workshops in schools and to women’s groups, who often start their own workshops and contract work from Pomposa.
“When I started, I only had one school-based workshop. I was lucky to sell 20 piñatas. A year ago, I taught a group of 22 women and fortunately, from that group about six now have their own workshop. They don’t produce much, but I support them. I order piñatas and sell them, or I ask them to help me with an order. There’s no need to be egotistical with the students. A single workshop just doesn’t have the capacity to supply so many piñatas. These things take time.”
In addition to his co-operative business practices and his use of social media, Sosa has also introduced innovation through his decorative practices. He’s traded in his scissors for a machine that cuts a whole stack of paper at once. And he’s designed a simple mast on which he places the piñata he’s decorating. This allows him to take advantage of working in smaller spaces. His workshop can make gigantic piñatas that stand more than 10 feet tall and hold more than 33 pounds of fruit and candy. But as Sosa says, the most complicated part about making piñatas isn’t the labor involved. It’s tapping into a passion for the tradition.
“[We have a] love for the piñata," Sosa told me. "If there’s no pleasure in it, it’s going to be very hard to make it. If there’s no love for the colors, for everything it represents, really, you’re not going to do a good job, because every piñata is a reflection of its artisan.”