Honoring (And Smashing) Tradition in Texas
SAN ANTONIO, Texas--On the list of recession-proof items, right below liquor and lipstick, add one more: Piñatas.
“There’s always going to be a birthday and so people will always need piñatas,” Martha Rodriguez said in Spanish.
The 56-year-old comes from a long line of piñata makers and carries on the Mexican tradition in a living room in San Antonio. On any given day, it’s not unusual to see paper-covered cars, castles and crowns leaning against a wall opposite the couch -- or, as Michael and I saw on the afternoon we visited, a wrestler resting next to a teenage pop star (need I say her name?)
Michael and I decided to stop in San Antonio not because it’s been devastated by the economic downturn, but because it hasn’t. It tops the list of recession-proof cities. (It's a reputation, we discovered, that has made the area a magnet for new residents looking to escape recession-pounded states. But that's a conversation for another day). What we took away from our visit with Martha Rodriguez was that while housing prices and job creation have all played a part in shielding San Antonio from the worst of the financial fallout, so have cultural strengths that can’t be measured. Part of the area's strength is an abiding sense of family and tradition.
Just look at the piñata business.
The breakable candy containers sell because families are still holding backyard birthday parties and barbecues in parks. Likewise, piñatas are made, at least in the Rodriguez home, because her grandchildren value a skill passed down from their great great-grandmother. Rodriguez was not the first in her family to make a piñata, and she will not be the last.
"My great-grandmother, she died making piñatas," said Rodriguez's granddaughter, Miuvsary Garza, 16. "And I’ve been doing it since I was a little girl.”
The teenager started helping when she was about 8 years old, wrapping brightly colored paper around the sticks used to whack open the piñatas and release the sweets hidden inside. She then moved up to papering easy figures like cars and can now hold her own alongside her mother, aunt and grandmother on the most complicated designs.
Three generations, honing their craft between other jobs and school, were working on the piñatas when Michael and I visited.
Rodriguez said the children are never forced to help, but they always want to. While we were there, her 4-year-old grandson David wandered into the room and began to cut cardboard. With each piece he cut, he pretended he had created a train, running it along the floor and saying “Choo choo.” He spends hours cutting each day and is able to do it with both hands, Rodriguez said.
Most of the piñatas sold in Texas are from Mexico and don’t resemble the characters they are supposed to represent, Rodriguez said. But her family brainstorms on how to create 3-D structures from images they see only on TV or in photographs. When it comes to making piñatas, there are no patterns to follow, no drawings to trace.
The family once made a life-sized piñata of Selena, the late pop music star, by using a mannequin. They also made an eight-foot tall Curious George and a bride and groom for a wedding.
The family sells about 15 piñatas a week, with most costing between $10 and $20. They could charge more back when they had a store, but the family's shop was robbed last year and the bad guys took everything, including the highly profitable moon bounces. After that setback, the family is limited to selling through word-of-mouth, flea markets and local retail outlets.
Even so, orders have been steady. In fact, if anything has hurt business, it’s been the family's own superior craftsmanship. Some piñatas are so pretty, the child who gets it as a gift refuses to break it--and the Rodriguezes are called in to keep it in good repair.
"There are kids that save it for years," said Paloma Garza.
“There was a little boy,” added Rodriguez. “He had a castle and saved it for four years.”
The Disney-themed castle is one of the family's best sellers. Another is the large pink guitar with a picture of--you guessed it--teen sensation Hannah Montana (there, I said it).
As we watched, Penelope Garza built a guitar in less than 15 minutes, taping together two pieces of precisely-cut cardboard and then sealing it with a coating of homemade glue and newspaper.
She then took the guitar outside to dry. Depending on the sun, it could take less than an hour or more than a day to harden, Rodriguez.said. The business may be immune to the financial crisis, but it's still vulnerable to the weather.
“That's the only thing that could affect this business, is if it rains," Rodriguez said. "Rain is more a threat than the recession."
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