Unauthorized imitation is another complication. Traders cannot legally import copies of characters such as Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, the California Raisin and dozens of others--all of them widely available as pinatas in Tijuana--without permission from the holders of the copyright or trademark. It's a constant problem with the plethora of characters produced by pinateros and other artisans south of the border who cater to the tourist crowd, and who are more than willing to reproduce any image for a price, the more kitschy the better.
"In plaster of Paris, Spuds McKenzie has been a big problem," Cassidy said. "He's copyrighted, he's protected, and Customs enforces that. But people keep trying to bring him across the border."
Such happenings are a very recent occurrence in the lengthy history of pinatas, which are believed to have been brought to Mexico by the Spaniards four centuries ago, although the custom's exact origins are obscure. One apocryphal theory holds that Marco Polo discovered the idea in China and brought it back to Italy, whence it made its way to Spain. (The word pinata is said to have derived from a Spanish word for a cluster of flowers or fruits.)
At first, according to some accounts, pinatas were reserved for Lent. The smashing of the figure was said to represent Christian faith destroying Satan. Another theory is that the Spaniards used pinatas as a kind of "classic come-along," in the words of one pinata dealer, to attract Indians to the church.
Birthday Party Custom
Whatever its genesis, the practice has long been well-established in Mexico, where pinatas are customary at birthday parties and other celebrations, including the so-called \o7 posadas \f7 on the nights before Christmas.
Traditionally, pinatas were in the shape of five-pointed stars. A papier-mache mold encased a clay pot, which held the candies, cookies, nuts, trinkets and other gifts. The mold was decorated with colorful paper.
Today, obviously, the variety of pinatas has greatly expanded. And clay pots have been largely replaced with cardboard interiors--a safer, albeit less attractive evolution. (Some Guatemalan versions utilize bamboo.)
The process of actually constructing pinatas has changed little, although staplers are in wide use and an assembly-line style and pace predominates. It is a laborious and monotonous trade, reserved for some of the city's poorest residents, often recent migrants from the Mexican interior who have few alternatives. The state prison here was contemplating beginning a pinata-producing industry for inmates some years ago, but the idea was shelved.
There is little time, or inclination, for creativity in pinata-manufacturing. Competition is intense among pinateros, who quickly rip off the new figures that do well in the numerous street sales. All merchants here are extremely secretive about the names of their U. S. customers.
"If there's work and you're fast, you can earn a decent salary," says Marcos Zarate, a 27-year-old who was found on a recent afternoon, fashioning pinata stars in a back yard near downtown, as scrawny chickens walked amid the debris of half-finished figures. He says the workshop owner pays him 25 cents a figure; he is capable of producing up to 50 a day, for daily earnings of $12.50--a respectable salary here, but one totally dependent on the highly seasonal U. S. market.
In the workshop behind Catalino Cristobal's shop in Tijuana, as elsewhere, the pinateros begin with cardboard boxes, which are cut into shapes to fit specific pinatas. Once the cardboard forms are shaped and stapled, newsprint is applied for stiffening, using a simple paste made with flour. Strips of colored crepe are then pasted on the exterior, usually by women. Wholesale purchasers pay about $1.50 each; the figures may retail for up to $8 or more in the United States.
"This is the only work we could find," explains Seferino Aparicio, a 40-year-old father of 10 who was shaping pinatas along with many of his children in the dusky amber light of the workshop. "We have to do something," he adds with a shrug, explaining that he has only been in Tijuana six months and hopes to return soon to his island home on Lake Patzcuaro. "I miss it there," he says, returning to his labor.