San Diego

Tijuana's Piggy-Banks: Border Pop-Kitsch

Looking out from a window on the second floor of the workshop that Oscar Vásquez built, you can see the rusted sheets of metal. At one time, they were the only thing dividing Mexico from the United States. Now, behind it there is second fence, a mightier division between the two countries standing to prevent any unauthorized movement across the border.

Oscar describes looking through this window when he rests, after long periods of repetitive work on the serialized pieces he fabricates and paints in his workshop. Oscar is a yesero, a plaster worker who has been creating some of the most carefully crafted and detailed souvenir piggy-banks (or alcancias) in the city for over 35 years. In addition to alcancias, his workshop is riddled with exquisitely crafted but unpainted Aztec calendars, fish from a series on local sea life from Baja California, lawn ornaments and other decorative plaster crafts still in their original white color. These pieces will most likely never reach completion, as his attention, like that of many other yeseros around the city, is focused on what customers are demanding and purchasing: American pop cultural icons.

Hanging relief sculpture in Oscar's workshop is a combination of Jesus Helguera Aztec imagery and the Aztec calendar. The dual border fence can be seen in the background. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

In order to compete with Chinese and American knock-off imports in Artisan markets across the city, alcancias, one of the only artisan products still produced in Tijuana, have taken on a unique pop-kitsch aesthetic that speaks volumes about cultural hybridity at the border. In the last two decades they have morphed away from traditional, albeit sometimes stereotypical figures like Aztec couples, donkeys, cutesy little pigs, and Mexicans sleeping next to cactuses, to become mirrors of American popular culture. Today, these small sculptures take on the forms of characters from popular cartoons, video games and Hollywood blockbuster movies--eye-catching testaments to the inability of the border to regulate all transit and to dictate cultural flows.

Containers with plaster and water surround a mound of remnants from broken pieces. The plaster/water mix is poured into molds to create various types of artisan pieces. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

I recently visited a yesero who asked to remain nameless as he was working on an exclusive series of alcancias. In his workshop there are about 1,000 small plaster cast versions of several of the figures from a popular mobile game, in different stages of production. Some have just been cast and bask in the warmth of the sun to dry and harden, some are wrapped in plastic ready to be picked up by one of his major clients, others have only one coat of their primary-color paint, and others sit on his bench ready to be given eyes. As I stood there and marveled at the craftsmanship and details on each figure, he tells me that he is the only one producing these particular characters in the city, that he has orders from clients ranging from candy stores, to artisan vendors in Tijuana, and even some in the United States. He must produce an entire order before delivering them, because once they start being sold, a competing yesero can purchase them and use them to create a mold to fabricate copies and undercut the price: set at about $5 per piggy bank.

Fiber-glass mold tied together with rubber bands. This mold is the one used to produce 'Virgencitas', cartoon versions of the Virgen de Guadalupe. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

This is something yeseros have learned the hard way, and perhaps most poignantly after one particular piggy-bank threw the bi-national market into a frenzy: the Tweety alcancia. One of the yeseros who claims to have produced some of the firsts of these extremely popular piggy-banks explains that he found a sculpture of Tweety with his hands behind his back that would make a great alcancia. He tweaked the original design by giving Tweety a bat to hold in his hands, to not only provide further support to the hollow plaster cast version he would create, but to add a comical and ironic dimension to the seemingly innocent Tweety bird.

This station is where objects are given an antique polish by pouring a gasoline-based mixture over the white plaster pieces. The effect is finished by using a rag to wipe down certain portions of the piece, creating highlights and contrasting tones. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

This sort of modification is common in the production of piggy-banks. Most of the alcancias are designed from original pieces that come from the United States. These originals are often made from somewhat durable materials like steel or plastic, and become the base to produce fiber-glass molds. The hollow molds are designed in segments that can be joined together, filled with liquid plaster, and then disassembled once the plaster has solidified into the desired configuration. The transformation is magical as the gritty fiber-glass amorphous enclosure held together by bands of thick rubber is taken apart, and the pristine white plaster figure is revealed underneath. The plaster cast figure is then set in the sun to dry, where it waits until it is painted with air-brush and detailed by hand.

Image from cognate collective's alcancia archive, 'Mercado Fantasma', which seeks to document the aesthetic evolution of piggy banks in the city of Tijuana.

Image from cognate collective's alcancia archive, 'Mercado Fantasma', which seeks to document the aesthetic evolution of piggy banks in the city of Tijuana.

The pieces which can range from Disney princesses, to Nintendo characters, to faux-antique lawn ornaments, to Catholic religious icons, are then delivered to artisan vendors across the city, including those that sit along the Avenida Revolucion, to be sold to tourists. The one other major point of sale in the city is the Mercado de Artesanía de La Línea, a market composed of about 80 stalls sitting between the left and right lanes of traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The market, which has been in operation in one form or another for almost a century, is in a prime location to sell to people on their way back to the United States. This makes the market a primary hub for the sale of alcancias, displayed both in the stalls of the market, and in between cars in line by ambulant vendors.

The antique polish used to finish pieces like Aztec Calendars and lawn ornaments is created by mixing gasoline and tar. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

As of late, the persisting lack of tourism to the city has drastically depleted the demand for alcancias. Today, a considerable majority of those crossing the border and strolling down the Avenida Revolucion are residents from Tijuana, so the appeal of souvenirs is decreasing. This is forcing yeseros to be increasingly creative with the products they develop, with some looking to seasonally specific alcancias, like a Santa Claus/Homer Simpson hybrid, as a new model of production.

Lawn ornaments, like turtles holding a sign that will say 'Welcome', enjoyed a surge in production last year, but now the demand has diminished. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

In the past decade, artists have also sought to re-envision what the alcancia can be: what forms it can take and what the regional artisan object can represent. Artists like Carmela Castreón, Perry Vasquez, and Omar Pimienta have chosen to re-imagine the alcancia and other plaster objects as more than frivolous souvenirs: as border artifacts with important historical, cultural and aesthetic value. As these and other efforts continue to work with and expand the possibilities of border artisan culture, the evolution of a rich legacy of the pop-kitsch border aesthetic represented in one of its most sublime forms by alcancias will continue to morph and adapt to new realities in the city of Tijuana.

Pieces that stop selling end up in piles around the workshop like these baseball caps that were once decorated with the logos of sports teams. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

One of Oscar's most passionate creations, this series of fish from Baja California was at one time highly demanded by seafood restaurants in Tijuana and farther south into Baja. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

Oscar checking on the progress of <em>alcancias</em> he has set to dry on the roof of his workshop. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

Hello Kitty <em>alcancias</em> being sold at the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

Plethora of <em>alcancias</em>being sold at the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. | Photo: Misael Diaz.

Oscar Vasquez produces a wide assortment of lawn ornaments in his workshop. | Photo: Misael Diaz.


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Top Image: Image from cognate collective's alcancia archive, "Mercado Fantasma", which seeks to document the aesthetic evolution of piggy banks in the city of Tijuana.

About the Author

I was born in LA, grew up in Tijuana and now live in San Diego where I study and teach Visual Arts and Writing at UCSD. I divide my time between San Diego/Tijuana and the Imperial Valley/Mexicali working as part of the bi-national...
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