Visiting the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque is always high on my list when I’m in New Mexico. We were in town for our Zuniga Family Reunion over the Fourth of July holiday weekend and the family always builds in time for everyone to do a little exploring. My cousin, Boogie (real name Ophelia), my mother and I set out to check out the Center and found out there was a Piñata exhibit!
An entire exhibit devoted to piñatas??? We were intrigued! I mean, we all know what piñatas are…. papier-mache figures, typically of donkeys that are filled with candy. You are blindfolded, you hit them with a stick until they bust and then everyone scatters for the treats! I still remember a birthday party I went to when I was around 8 years old in Puerto Rico. All the kids were in a circle surrounding the hanging piñata waiting our turn to hit the donkey. We were also close enough to dart for the candy if it got busted! I guess I may have been a little too close, or maybe the stick was just that long. I was standing in just the right spot for the little boy taking his turn to bring that long stick down, miss the donkey, and hit me squarely in the head! I don’t remember if I got any candy after that or not!
While walking through the exhibit, we got a great history of piñatas as we admired the display. The first ones were rather old, including one said to be a vintage China Poblana piñata from the 1930s. This particular piñata was the inspiration to create this exhibit. It’s faded from age and looks so fragile! I guess I didn’t think of these objects of art as being very old but in truth, it’s thought that they originated in China and that Marco Polo was so fascinated by them in the late 1200’s that he took some back to Europe. At the time, piñatas were made by using a clay jar (an “olla”) as the base. They were then covered with paper or reeds and ultimately decorated with things like tissue paper, foil and other festive items.
Something I didn’t know was that piñatas were a religious custom in Spain during Lent in the 14th century. In particular, they were broken on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday which was called “Piñata Sunday!” They were seen as a symbol of temptation and represented evil. Covering the person’s eyes while attempting to hit the piñata represented blind faith and the ability to conquer evil. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico during the 16th century they discovered piñatas already existed in the Indigenous culture to honor Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and the sun. This festivity took place in December which was the god’s birth month.
In current Mexican culture, piñatas are very popular during Christmastime as part of Las Posadas. These are the festivities that happen the nine days before Christmas when people gather to reenact the Virgin Mary and Joseph in a procession, searching for a place to have the birth of Jesus. During the procession, a piñata is carried from house to house and when the last house is reached, there is a piñata party. The traditional style piñata used for the procession is a multi-pointed star representing the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men.
The vintage Zozobra piñatas were rather interesting! This one is extremely popular in northern New Mexico and Santa Fe. The Zozobra is part piñata and part marionette – an effigy – that is burned every year during the Santa Fe Fiestas in September. He’s referred to as Old Man Gloom (OMG) and was introduced in 1926. His burning is done to dispel the hardships and troubles of the past year.
Who knew there was such a rich history surrounding piñatas?! Mom, Boogie and I had a lot of fun exploring the rest of museum afterward, but not before stopping for a photo shoot of us posing with a stick in front of a piñata! If you are in Albuquerque between now and March 31, 2018, stop by the Hispanic National Cultural Center and check out this really unique exhibit.