Celebrating a Mexican Christmas tradition in Southeast Baltimore

In Highlandtown, celebrating a Christmas tradition made to be broken

The women balance on ladders, stretching up to hang bright pinatas from the ceiling of the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown.

The bold yellow pinata with the red flowers should move a little to the right, one says. The green-and-gold pinata must be higher, another directs. The women — Mexican immigrants who live in Southeast Baltimore — tease one another, discuss sales of their work and squint up at the ceiling.

Outside the gallery walls, the women are mothers and grandmothers. They clean hotels and they bus tables. Many are undocumented immigrants. But in here, they are artists.

"We want to continue the tradition so we do not lose it," master pinata maker Aurelia Vargas, 73, says in Spanish. Although Vargas — who came to the United States eight years ago — has been making pinatas since she was a girl in Mexico, it is only in the past year, since she joined the program, that she has begun thinking of herself as an artist.

Vargas and the others are taking part in an apprenticeship program at the Creative Alliance in which they study — and teach — the art of the pinata. They meet monthly to discuss how to make their papier-mache forms strong and stable, how to experiment with form and symmetry as they arrange curls of bright, fragile paper.

"These women are traditional Mexican artisans living in Southeast Baltimore," says Maria Aldana, the Creative Alliance's community arts manager and organizer of the pinata project. "They're learning how to price their work. They're learning how to value themselves as artists."

The women are paid the Creative Alliance's standard rate for visiting artists, $30 an hour, to teach occasional workshops on pinata making. It's a way for the arts organization to show its respect for the cultural contributions of undocumented immigrants, Aldana says. The women are among the half-million Marylanders of Hispanic descent, according to the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.

Creating — and destroying — pinatas is a Christmas tradition in Mexico. The pinatas made by the Creative Alliance group will be carried during a Christmas procession, known as a posada, scheduled for Saturday.

In Mexico, pinatas are traditionally filled with nuts, sugar cane and fruits such as apples and oranges, the women said. In the past, pinatas were fashioned around a clay pot, but now a latex balloon provides the shape.

"The clay pots were dangerous," pinata maker Alexandra Gonzalez, 25, says with a laugh. "Pieces of them would hit you on the head."

Her friend and fellow artisan, Alejandra Martinez, 29, says that the Mexican equivalent of "America's Funniest Home Videos" shows clip after clip of pinata accidents — people being whacked with sticks or bonked by falling fruit.

The tradition of striking clay pots filled with treats dates back to pre-Columbian times, according to Aldana and a history of the pinata compiled by George Washington University's Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. The Aztecs would strike the pots as an offering to their gods.

The Europeans had a similar tradition of striking decorated hanging objects, a practice believed to have been imported from China. Spanish missionaries in Mexico merged the two traditions into Catholic holidays.

The pinata, with its bright colors and fluttering tassels, represents the temptations of sin, according to Mexican Catholic tradition, Aldana explains. A traditional pinata has a spherical base adorned with seven horn-shaped points that symbolize the seven deadly sins.

When a person strikes a pinata, he or she is symbolically beating back temptation and freeing the blessings of a righteous life, Aldana says. Like the elaborate mandalas of sand made by Buddhist monks, pinatas are artworks that are meant to be broken.

Vargas learned how to make pinatas from her grandmother more than six decades ago, smoothing colored paper onto the traditional clay bases that the older woman made.

Pinatas are part of her earliest memories, Vargas says, the tassels rustling in the market stalls where she went to buy groceries for her employers. Vargas says she began working at the age of 8, after the death of her father. Her mother, who had four other children and a debilitating injury, could not afford to send her to school. She never learned to read or write.

Vargas worked as a maid, cared for children and sold tacos. And she made pinatas — birds, donkeys and even, she says, that "yellow doll shaped like a square."

"SpongeBob SquarePants," says her daughter, Lillia Torres. She and two of Vargas' other daughters are taking part in the pinata apprenticeship.

Among the women in the pinata program, Vargas is known as "Dona Aurelia," a term of respect. She and Rosa Vasquez Castro, "Dona Rosa," are the master artisans who teach the other women tips and techniques.

Martinez came to the United States when she was 15. She is bilingual and translates for the other pinata makers at a December workshop.

The glue for the pinatas is a paste, made by gradually stirring flour into hot water, she tells a group of about two dozen participants. Some of the women strengthen the glue by adding salt, sugar or vinegar — a topic of heated debate among the artisans

The resulting glue is white and gelatinous, and smells faintly of dough. Participants mash their fingers into it, then spread a thin layer on inflated balloons.

City College sophomores Shawn'drea Thomas and DeMarcus Crawford Jr. puzzle over how to make the strips of paper conform to the shape of the balloon. As students in their school's honors Spanish program, they are eager to practice the language while learning about Mexican culture.

"I never knew the history behind pinatas," Thomas says. "I thought it was just a decoration you filled with candy at birthday parties."

A good pinata is light but strong enough to withstand several whacks from a stick, Martinez tells participants.

She taught herself how to make pinatas last year after watching a video that Creative Alliance staffers made. She quickly became one of the most proficient artisans.

Martinez joined the apprenticeship at the urging of her friend Gonzalez, who also immigrated to this country at the age of 15.

Gonzalez says she has learned from the other women in the circle. She finds a sense of community here, both as an artisan and as a Mexican woman making a new life in Baltimore.

She worked two jobs when she first arrived — cleaning a hotel and busing tables at a restaurant. Now she cares for her two children and makes and sells pinatas to supplement the wages her husband earns as a construction worker. Her 3-year-old daughter, Melissa, likes to help make the pinatas and wants to make her own, she says.

Gonzalez and her husband will portray Mary and Joseph as they re-enact the days leading up to the birth of Jesus in Saturday's posada. The group will leave the Creative Alliance and make two stops, where they will be denied lodging. The third stop — Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church on Conkling Street — will represent the manger where Christians believe Jesus was born.

The group will celebrate Mass and have dinner at the church. Afterward, they will divide up by age, Aldana says.

The youngest children will take the first swings, then older children, teens and adults. The group will sing the traditional pinata song, which begins, "dale, dale, dale," or "go, go, go," Aldana says.

In time, the pinatas will burst open, raining down their sweet offerings.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°