LOS ANGELES — If you grew up in and around a Mexican or Mexican-American community, you know that breaking piñatas is a ubiquitous tradition at most celebrations. The scene goes a little something like this: a tio stands on the roof of the house pulling the rope attached to the piñata as dizzy children, with covered eyes, try to hit it with a wooden stick in hopes of being the one to bust it open and collect the most candy. These paper mache structures could be anything from a Disney character to beloved (or hated) figures like Selena and Selena’s murderer Yolanda Saldivar. They’re usually purchased at mercados and, in LA’s case, the piñata district in downtown. As a child, it’s cathartic being allowed to destroy something, and of course, the sweet treats at the end don’t hurt. But beyond a fun activity at parties, piñatas are both a craft and an art form that reflect pop culture and politics. The shape-shifting nature of these items is currently on display at the Craft in America Center in Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration.
Traditional piñata makers and artists recontextualize the art form and present a wide array of figures from COVID-19 vaccine piñatas to cheeky interpretations of abstract art like Roberto Benavidez’s Piñathko series, an ode to Rothko. Benavidez’s talent is most poignantly displayed through his series of fantastical animals reminiscent of Mexican alebrijes which have a colorful luminescent quality by way of an intricately cut and applied mix of metallic and tissue paper.
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While piñatas have long been used as a form of practical social commentary (think the proliferation of Donald Trump piñatas during his presidency), Giovanni Valderas takes it a step further through site-specific placements of piñatas in the shape of sad-faced houses — a comment on gentrification and the displacement of Latinx communities. Diana Benavidez engages the US–Mexico border through the series Vehiculos Transfronterizos; motorized piñata cars carry messages like “Border Crosser” and “La Pinche Migra.”
I was reminded of cherished childhood memories when walking through the exhibit, and in my head I couldn’t help but hear the tune we used to sing in unison as each person got their turn hitting the piñata: “dale dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino, porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino. Ya le diste una, Ya le diste dos, Ya le diste tres, Y tu tiempo se acabó.”
Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration continues at Craft in America Center (8415 West 3rd Street, Beverly Grove, Los Angeles) through December 4. The exhibition is curated by Emily Zaiden.