‘No more fun’: Mexican piñata makers are badly damaged by a pandemic

The piñata industry, dependent on social gatherings, recorded a sharp drop in sales. Some artisans, in a creative quest for survival, have added coronavirus figures to their superhero and princess settings.

CITY OF MEXICO – The scene roars against the smog and concrete that mark this part of Mexico City, a tangle of highways and overpasses with old buses roaring and burping with smoke.

But there, they burst like flowers in the middle of ashen buildings, hanging in a row: pinatas, painted in all colors, from light fuchsia to midnight blue to green Baby Yoda. On the sidewalk, a Spiderman piñata stands next to Batman, while Mickey Mouse leans against Sonic the Hedgehog.

And among the copyright-protected cartoon heroes, superheroes and Disney princesses with doe eyes, is a newer addition to the Mexican piñata repertoire. Painted lime-green with a golden crown, spikes erupting in all directions, the coronavirus furiously watching passers-by.

Pandemic pinata is one of its most popular options, said Ivan Mena Álvarez, who runs one of the oldest stores in the Cuauhtémoc district known for its pinatas.

Turning the deadly virus into a comic picture might seem like a risky business move to some, especially in the country with the third highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world. But Mr Mena said his customers had been given the opportunity to invest in an adversary that had devastated the economy and devastated entire communities.

“We Mexicans laugh even at death,” Mr. Mena said. “It just became another monster.”

The creators of piñata, often close families whose business depends on social gatherings that were largely halted during the pandemic, as well as much of the country, have suffered both financially and personally over the past year.

Mr Mena said his sale had plummeted into a difficult economic situation, but that personal losses were even worse. Eleven members of his extended family died from Covid-19, as well as more than two dozen others he knows of in the industry.

“It’s so hard for many of us,” he said. “It never occurred to you that there would be so many dead in so little time.”

Last month, the Mexican government updated its official figures, showing that the virus may have claimed more than 300,000 lives, a staggering tribute to a country of 126 million people.

The impact of the pandemic on the economy was almost as devastating. Mexico suffered that last year the largest annual economic decline of the Great Depression, and a financial downturn could push millions into poverty.

The piñata trade, a national tradition in Mexico dating back to the 16th century, was largely dormant due to restrictions on birthday parties and other gatherings, where shooting figures full of treats is a central part of many celebrations.

The pain is felt all over the country.

“You can’t work, no more parties, no one buys from you,” said Dalton Ávalos Ramírez, who leads to the piñata shop in the town of Reynosa, near the American border. He said he went from selling 20 to 30 pinatas a week before the pandemic, ranging from about $ 15 to $ 125, to just one or two weeks.

Mr. Mena from Mexico City is the fourth generation of piñata producers in the family that he said has been in the business for almost a century. His great-grandparents, he said, were among the first to establish a store in this part of the capital.

“We are pioneers of pinatas,” he said proudly.

Mr. Mena made his first piñata when he was only 6 years old. On his desk is a photograph of him at the age of 9, when he made some of his first large pinata in the shape of a star with seven arms, the central part of the Mexican Christmas tradition.

“You develop a love for this craft,” he said. “It’s in your blood.”

Nothing could prepare Mr. Men for the devastating impact of the pandemic. When most of the country closed in late March last year sales fell 90 percent, he said. Five workers had to leave Mexico City after being washed away.

To survive, Mr. Mena began to improvise. Along with the coronavirus pirot, his store began selling paintings Distance from Susanna, A Mexican superhero moving away from social protection, as well as Hugo López-Gatella, the emperor for the country’s coronavirus, who was much embarrassed for underestimating the tribute from the pandemic in Mexico.

“People would beat him, but because he wasn’t telling the truth,” Mr. Mena said of touching López-Gatell.

To increase sales, Mr. Ramírez, the owner of a store in Reynosa, also decided to diversify the offer of his store. He started learning how to bake cakes, while his sister learned how to deal with balloons.

“If we don’t have a job in one thing, let’s help by doing something else,” he said.

But despite the ingenuity of these masters, sales have risen slightly, and the Mexican government has given companies nothing in terms of incentives to make ends meet.

Sitting between the miraculous woman’s piñata and the portrait of the Virgin Mary, Mr. Mena wiped away tears recalling how things were so desperate last summer that his clients and neighbors began adding food parcels to their piñata payments to help him, his family and others. the piñata makers who supply his business pass by.

“People already knew us, thank God, good people,” he said. “They helped us.”

The family hoped sales would rise around Christmas, usually the busiest season, but in mid-December the capital entered a new lock and the store was forced to close. Yet far from being outraged at the government, Mr Mena said he understood the need to “sacrifice our earnings for the good of the people”.

The forced slowdown caused by the pandemic also gave him more time to appreciate the craft of making pinatas. “We’ll make them with more patience,” he said. “A return to creating, designing and feeling a love for what you do.”

In Reynosa, Mr. Ramirez, who recently became a father for the first time, is also experimenting with new types of pinatas, whose inspiration can often be personal as well as from popular culture.

“I’m a dad and I have a daughter, so now I have to make sweeter pinatas,” he said.

Although the current situation remains gloomy, Mr. Mena feels more optimistic about the future. As vaccines are being thrown out, albeit slowly, he believes his business and the century-old industry he is so proud of will finally begin to recover.

“Like a phoenix from the ashes,” he said, “the piñata trade is starting to drag on.”

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