Breaking the Mold
Inexpensive custom creations have kept Casa de Piñatas a UNM-area staple for 16 years
Imagine all the medical supplies and food the “Scream” mystery buyer could have provided to Third World countries. Or, at least, imagine every square inch of wall space in his temperature-controlled megacastle—probably constructed of manatee bones and surrounded by endangered white Bengal tigers—filled with outsider art about existential agony.
The weird truth is, if our buyer hadn't shelled out a king's ransom, someone else would have. It’s the nature of the art market, especially when images imbedded in our cultural psyche get put on the auction block.
And while it's not Munch's fault that an artistic symbol of existentialism became one of competitive materialism, I'm drawn to art that's readily available to more than just an elite few. Art that, due to its impermanent nature, will never be affected by the cold exclusivity of the market. Art that's so vibrant, beautiful and full of joy that viewers can't help but smash it to pieces with a broom handle.
I'm speaking, of course, of piñatas. And in Albuquerque, that conversation starts with Francisco Rodriguez. The owner of Casa de Piñatas has been at it for 16 years at his Nob Hill store. And while he’s seen the patchwork of his enterprise crumble at times, his vision has remained whole.
Rodriguez’ family set out from Juárez 30-plus years ago to find a new beginning in the Duke City. Back in Juárez, his father owned a factory that created the confection-filled papier-mâché vessels. When Rodriguez came here at the age of 14, he started constructing them on his own. "I used to make the little ones, piñatas, all the time," he says. "And then I start working just for friends, making for the parties." After graduating from Rio Grande High School with high grades, Rodriguez eventually ended up working at a grocery store, where he became the manager. He sold his piñatas there, as well as in front of a house he shared with family members at Columbia and Coal.
Rodriguez' mother was against him taking up the practice as a career, despite it being her husband’s profession. "In Mexico it was considered to be low paying," says Rodriguez' son, Luis, who now shares duties with his father at the store. "It wasn't considered to be the best job one would have." But Rodriguez had a calling.
In 1996, he opened a little store at the intersection of Lead and Yale with his wife, Patty. Rodriguez handled the crafting, and his wife managed the business side. It's at that same location, 16 years later, that Rodriguez and his son continue the tradition of custom piñatas.
The process starts with cylindrical cones, fashioned mostly from newspaper. These are the structure for the legs, arms and torso, and also places where candy can be stashed. The rest of the bodies are an amalgam of metal wire, crunched up newspaper and wheat-and-water-based paste, with minimal cardboard for structural support. ("People think the whole piñata can be stuffed with candy," says Luis. "It's not. It's impossible.") Ornamentation is provided in the form of papel de china (decorative tissue paper) and paint.
While the Rodriguez' say their most frequent requests come in the form of the current cartoon star or superhero (Dora the Explorer, Spider-Man, etc.), they've received more diverse orders. An ex-teacher of Luis' who lived in Wisconsin flew in and requested a Green Bay Packers piñata. "She actually purchased an airline ticket for the piñata itself," says Luis. "She sent us pictures of people taking pictures of it. People up there loved it." Expanding on the breadth of their customer base, Rodriguez adds, "We have the customers from El Paso to Canada, from San Francisco to New York."
They've also made Freddy Kruegers, replicas of the Titanic and a 6-foot Barney in a graduation cap and gown. It's that creative flexibility that sets Casa de Piñatas apart in the market, most of which consists of mass-production work sold at big box stores. "What they have is the price," says Rodriguez. "But I have the quality." This is, of course, assuming you see $35 for handcrafted art as being pricey.
Still, it hasn't been easygoing. In 2009, Rodriguez' wife got sick and died. "Since then," says Luis, "my dad suffered a stroke, the street shut down; he's hit a lot of bumps on the road." Luis is referring to the Lead and Coal reconstruction project that began in November 2010 [News, “Roads Less Traveled," Feb. 24-March. 2, 2011]. When the streets became diverted or closed, business slowed to a grinding halt. Rodriguez was worried he'd have to shut down at the time (like several area businesses did), but loyal customers enabled him to hang on.
Then about a month ago, Lead reopened and the Rodriguez' had a breakthrough. Luis says it came “that Sunday night they opened Lead. Monday morning I went to class, came back—by the end of Monday we had 25 orders.” This is in stark contrast to the three or four orders a week they were getting while the street was closed.
Rodriguez is modest when reflecting on almost 50 years of artistry, enduring hardships and the future of his business. "We need the money to pay the bills," he says, shrugging. "Same baloney."
2219 Lead SE