This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.
If you stroll through Downtown Los Angeles’ Piñata District, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of prismatic, papier-mâchéd structures that run the gamut of every Disney princess imaginable to fire-breathing dragons.
It goes without saying that piñatas have a short lifespan: Once party revelers break them open, they’re tossed into the trash without a second thought. But one Tijuana-based artist collective composed of ceramic artists and media producers, Dignicraft, gives depth to these seemingly ephemeral objects by spotlighting the indigenous Purépecha artisans who make these piñatas — artisans normally invisible to the consumers who purchase their work. Through a series of videos, photos and workshops, Dignicraft also illustrates how piñata-making is an underrated craft that deserves much more attention.
Dignicraft’s ongoing project, “The Collaborative Piñata,” is part of the “Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism in the Americas” installation, which is on view at Otis College of Art and Design through December 10. This exhibit, which is curated by Bill Kelley, Jr. and is connected to the Getty’s "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" initiative, takes a look at social art practices that meld activism, education, community organizing and art in L.A. and Latin America.
“The Collaborative Piñata” fits in perfectly with this exhibit’s theme as it explores the lives of four Purépecha families who are currently residing in Rosarito, Baja California, and make piñatas that get sold across the border in the United States. There are just a handful of the 250 Purépecha families, many of whom are also piñateros, who migrated over 1,500 miles north from their native Janitzio Island in the Mexican state of Michoacán over 20 years ago for a chance at a better life near the border.
“It’s a topic that a lot of people don’t understand or don’t know, that there is a very large group of indigenous communities from Central and South America that made their way up [north] to work near the border selling crafts, or are working in other types of low-paying sort of jobs,” says Kelley, Jr., who is also an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Art History at California State University Bakersfield. “The violence in Mexico has deeply affected their way of life — it’s affected tourism. It’s because of that lack of funding through tourism that these craftspeople aren’t able to make a living [back home].”
Dignicraft’s project, which has been years in the making, is a multi-layered one that not only documents the history of the Purépechas’ migration but also takes a deeper look at the day-to-day life of a piñata artisan. It also opens up discussions about viewing piñatas as art, finding new fair-trade markets for their wares and passing along the artistry of the craft to other generations through workshops.
It’s clear that the four Purépecha families featured in “The Collaborative Piñata” haven’t lost their strong sense of identity in their migration; instead, they’ve brought aspects of their culture to Rosarito. The women still wear traditional Purépecha clothing: colorfully embroidered blouses and aprons, paired with pleated skirts. And many of the families still speak their Purépecha dialect and partake in local celebrations in their community. At the same time, Purépechas, who were fishermen back in their hometown of Janitzio, have adapted to living in Rosarito by learning a new craft, piñata-making, which has become their new source of livelihood.
Piñata-making is more than just income for these artisan families. It’s a craft that they take pride in, and one that they have mastered, passing down their skills and piñata patterns from generation to generation.
“They’re proud of whatever type of piñatas they make because they put so much work and effort in what they do,” Omar Foglio, co-founder of Dignicraft, says. “And once you see these piñatas up close, you’ll notice [their high] quality.”
The majority of Purépecha piñateros tend to work for one client that provides the work. Foglio says that not only is their pay extremely low, they also have to purchase materials to make the piñatas directly from their client. They have to work 12 to14-hour shifts, if not more, and on top of that, they don’t get any benefits like health insurance. “The work is so much work that they don’t really have the time or even the resources to explore something different, to make different piñatas and to find a different market for them,” Foglio says.
The four families featured in “The Collaborative Piñata” are independent from this sole-client model. Foglio says they have to hustle more by doing their own sales and finding clients, not just in the United States, but also in Tijuana and Rosarito. It’s still better for them to sell across the border because they get paid more than in local markets. Overall, they earn more than what other families in the sole-client model are getting, but it’s still not enough to get by. They’re also working equally long shifts, and usually seven days a week, but they get to work at home with their families, which is a blessing for many of them.
When these families make piñatas, their designs usually follow the current trends across the border, like cartoon characters or animals. In the first phase of Dignicraft’s project, they organized a workshop in 2015 that got the four families together to collaborate in making a series of piñatas that were representative of their culture and migratory experience.
It’s a rarity for these hard-working families to get the luxury of spending time with other piñateros. Dignicraft had a small fund to cover costs and the time for these four families to stop working, so they could collaborate on making different kinds of piñatas. In Dignicraft’s short documentary, “Janitzio Its Fishing, Its Piñatas,” one artisan marvels at the experience, saying, “We never take the liberty to be like this, at ease, enjoying the company.” A craftswoman adds, “Throughout the week, we only greet from a distance. Usually, we are locked up at home with work.”
In the workshop, the artisans made piñatas representing a fisherman from Janitzio, a Purépecha woman wearing a traditional dress, and a Day of the Dead altar. The altar was showcased as part of a Day of the Dead celebration at California State University Northridge [CSUN], and these piñatas will be on display at the “Talking to Action” exhibit.
In phase two of “The Collaborative Piñata,” which took place throughout 2016, Dignicraft arranged discussions between the piñata artisans and academics to talk about different designs, learn new ways to market their piñatas, and research and explore new avenues to sell their wares in L.A. In addition, they held piñata-making workshops and events at CSUN and Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights, and brought the artisans to the shops that sold their piñatas.
“In this phase with ‘The Collaborative Piñata,’ when we focused our attention to Los Angeles, we said, ‘Well, let’s serve as a bridge and connect these families with different cultural agents from Los Angeles, [with people who] could help these artisans find answers or information that would be of great use for them,’” says Foglio.
The Purépechas met with Otis College of Art and Design’s faculty and students to brainstorm ideas on design and marketing. The piñateros also had several meetings with Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Project Director at UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, and Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial, Assistant Professor of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University Northridge, in which they learned about how other indigenous communities who have lived in L.A. for decades have been able to organize. In doing so, they brainstormed on how the piñata artisans can work together and continue exporting their work in new ways.
“All these activities add up, and you start building a network, and then this network is key for whatever activities or collaborations we might have [in the future],” Foglio says.
One of the most important aspects of their project was going to the Piñata District and having some of the Purépecha artisans meet the shop owners who carry their work, and get a sense of how the market works.
Dignicraft first got the idea to bring these piñata artisans to the shops that sell their work when they were making “Brilliant Soil,” a 2011 documentary film about artisans trying to get Purépecha potters to stop using toxic, lead-based glazes on their ceramics. Both this documentary and “The Collaborative Piñata” are loosely framed under the umbrella of their bigger “Encuentros/Encounters” project.
“A recurring conversation that we had with some potters was that they always dreamed that they could travel to where their work would go, meaning the United States or even Europe,” Foglio says. “But the artisans didn’t have the resources or didn’t have the opportunity to travel.”
In 2013, Dignicraft organized an artist residency at the Montalvo Arts Center in Northern California, and were able to invite three of the artisans to visit where their work goes. The potters visited the homes of the people who purchased their wares and asked questions that concerned them, effectively doing their own marketing research.
When Dignicraft brought piñata artisans to Piñata Alley last year, one woman who specializes in making miniature piñatas, was heartbroken to find these particular structures broken and faded in a clearance bin. Foglio says that while you can’t really change the fact that piñatas are ephemeral objects, you can start asking questions like, “What about the artisanal qualities of the work?” He says, “Those should be valued, too. So, [our] conversations a lot of times have gone towards how can we take this craft to another market or platform where you can value it as something different.”
These miniature piñatas will also be on display at “Talking to Action.” Kelley, Jr. was most intrigued by Dignicraft’s project because it showed how the Purépechas were able to unpack their migratory experience. “These types of projects happen throughout indigenous communities in the Americas, [with them] consolidating, recuperating memory, changing and not just sustaining themselves in the past, but moving forward as various individual groups in a post-modern world,” Kelley, Jr. says.
The Purépecha family members also attended the opening of the exhibit. Foglio says the families were so excited to be able to make piñatas that represent themselves, and to be given the opportunity to speak about their experiences.
“The artisans are at the center stage,” Foglio says. “It’s not just showing the piñatas; it’s having conversations with [the people] who come up and see the work and having them talk about their story, their history, people and experience having migrated to the northern part of Mexico.
Kelley, Jr. sees potential in this. “Instead of making [a] Mickey Mouse [piñata] for a penny, let’s see if we can develop a market for craftsmanship to create a more sustainable life,” he says. “It’s also a larger question about the relationship between craft and manual labor to create an economy.”
Top Image: The collaborative piñatas from the workshop on display at the CSUN Chicano House for the 2016 Day of the Dead festivities | David Figueroa, courtesy of Dignicraft