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‘No more parties’: Mexican piñata makers severely damaged by pandemic

The piñata industry, dependent on social gatherings, has seen sales plummet. Some artisans, in a creative attempt to survive, have added coronavirus characters to their rosters of superheroes and princesses.

MEXICO CITY – The view is shocking against a backdrop of smog and concrete that marks this part of Mexico City, a tangle of highways and viaducts with old buses rumbling and spitting smoke.

But there, bursting like flowers in the middle of the ashen buildings, they are suspended in rows: piñatas, painted in all colors, from bright fuchsia to midnight blue and Baby Yoda green. On the sidewalk, a Spiderman piñata stands next to Batman, while Mickey Mouse leans against Sonic the Hedgehog.

And included among cartoon characters, superheroes and doe-eyed Disney princesses, a more recent addition to the Mexican piñata repertoire. Painted lime green with a gold crown, spikes erupting in all directions, the coronavirus is watching passers-by.

The pandemic piñata is one of its most popular options, said Ivan Mena Álvarez, who runs one of the oldest stores in the Cuauhtémoc neighborhood known for its piñatas.

Turning a deadly virus into a comical effigy might seem like a risky business decision to some, especially in a country where the death toll from Covid-19 is the third in the world. But Mr Mena said his clients welcomed a chance to replace an opponent who has wreaked havoc on the economy and entire communities devastated.

“We Mexicans even laugh at death,” Mena said. “It just became another monster.”

Piñata makers, often tight-knit families whose businesses depend on social gatherings that largely came to a halt during the pandemic, like much of the country, suffered both financially and personally over the year. elapsed.

Mr Mena said his sales plummeted, putting him in dire economic straits, but personal losses were even worse. Eleven members of his extended family have died from Covid-19, along with more than two dozen others he knows in the industry.

“It’s so difficult for a lot of us,” he said. “It never occurred to you that there would be so many deaths in such a short time.”

Last month the Mexican government has updated its official figures, showing that the virus may have claimed more than 300,000 lives, an astonishing toll for the country of 126 million people.

The effect of the pandemic on the economy has been almost as destructive. Last year, Mexico suffered greatest annual economic recession since the Great Depression, and the financial fallout can push millions of people into poverty.

The piñata trade, a national tradition in Mexico dating back to the 16th century, has been largely slowed down by restrictions on birthday parties and other gatherings, where opening characters filled with treats is a central feature of many celebrations.

The pain was felt across the country.

“You can’t work, there are no more parties, nobody buys from you,” said Dalton Ávalos Ramírez, who directs a piñata store in the town of Reynosa, near the US border. He said he went from selling 20 to 30 piñatas a week before the pandemic, ranging from around $ 15 to $ 125 each, to just one or two weeks.

Mr. Mena, in Mexico City, is the fourth generation piñata maker in a family he says has been in the business for almost a century. His great-grandparents, he said, were among the first to settle in this part of the capital.

“We are the pioneers of the piñata,” he says proudly.

Mr. Mena made his first piñata when he was only 6 years old. On his desk is a photo of him at age 9, when he made some of his first large-scale seven-pointed star piñatas, a central part of Mexico’s Christmas tradition.

“You develop a love for this profession,” he says. “It’s in your blood.

Nothing could prepare Mr. Mena for the devastating effects of the pandemic. When much of the country closed end of March Last year, sales fell 90%, he said. Five workers had to leave Mexico City after being put on leave.

To survive, Mr. Mena began to improvise. With the coronavirus piñata, his store started selling effigies of Susana Distancia, The Mexican social-distancing superhero, as well as Hugo López-Gatell, the country’s coronavirus czar who has been widely criticized for grossly underestimating the pandemic’s toll on Mexico.

People “beat him but because he wasn’t telling the truth,” Mena said of the López-Gatell piñata.

To boost sales, Mr. Ramírez, the owner of the Reynosa store, also decided to diversify the offer of his store. He began to learn to bake cakes, while his sister learned to make arrangements with balloons.

“If we don’t have a job in one thing, well, let’s help by doing something else,” he said.

But despite the ingenuity of these artisans, sales increased little, and the Mexican government donated companies almost nothing in terms of stimulus to get by.

Sitting between a Wonder Woman piñata and a portrait of the Virgin Mary, Mr. Mena wiped away tears as he recalled how things had gotten so desperate last summer that his customers and neighbors started adding food packages. their payments for piñatas to help her and her family. and other piñata makers who supply his business are doing well.

“People already knew us, thank goodness good people,” he said. “They helped us.”

The family had hoped sales would resume around Christmas, usually the busiest season, but in mid-December the capital entered another lockdown and the store was forced to close. Yet far from being bitter towards the authorities, Mena said he understood the need to “sacrifice our gains for the sake of the people”.

The forced slowdown caused by the pandemic also gave him more time to appreciate the art of creating piñatas. “We are going to make them with more patience,” he said. “Go back to creating and teaching and feeling that love for what you are doing.”

In Reynosa, Mr. Ramirez, who recently became a father for the first time, is also experimenting with new types of piñatas, the inspiration of which can often be personal as well as popular culture.

“I’m a dad and I have a daughter, so now I have to make cuter piñatas,” he says.

Although the current situation remains grim, Mr Mena feels more optimistic about the future. With the vaccine rolling out, albeit slowly, he believes his business and the age-old industry he is so proud of will finally start to recover.

“Like a phoenix from the ashes,” he says, “the piñata trade is starting to expand.

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