Mexico City, Mexico – Fernanda Garcia, 18, had to pick her way through the storeroom of her pinata store in Mexico City, but what she was looking for stood out from the cartoon superheroes and villains: that garish shock of yellow crepe paper hair, the brash suit, the pink-orange complexion.
Perhaps this version was not as sophisticated as the more expensive models available in the United States and Mexico’s northern border states, but that hadn’t deterred Fernanda’s customers from paying 420 pesos [$24] to bash other cardboard models like it to smithereens.
“We’re almost sold out: this is the last one,” she said, tugging it out from behind Darth Vader and away from a boxer’s clinch with Batman. “We’ve had 20 orders over the last six months. The demand came out of nowhere: it’s because he started saying racist things about Mexicans. We’ve sold more of him than we did of El Chapo [a Mexican drug lord] or Pena Nieto [the Mexican president] – and they’re big sellers.”
The real Donald Trump has proved to be a political pinata in recent weeks, with Mexico’s current president and his two predecessors all taking swings at the billionaire businessman and reality TV star’s shrill, anti-Mexican rhetoric and proposals to “build a wall” across the 1,800-mile border between the two countries.
“Trump would be an unmitigated disaster for the bilateral relationship,” says Arturo Sarukhan, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013. “Impervious to facts and to reality, his zero-sum view of the relationship harks back to the 19th century, and his jingoism would scupper the strategic relationship built up after NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and 9/11.”
‘Trump’s horrible about Mexicans’
Like many Mexicans, Fernanda reacts with a mixture of hurt and derision when she hears Donald Trump describing migrants from her country to the US as “rapists, murderers, and drug dealers”.
So does Marcos Nieto, 21, who has been making pinatas since he was 12.
“Trump’s horrible about Mexicans,” Marcos tells Al Jazeera. “He says we’re the worst things that could exist. I think people like buying the pinata because we can’t give him a smack in real life,” he adds, smiling bashfully.
‘Americans need immigrants’
Marcos’ and Fernanda’s shops make for a strip of vivid colour against the grey of Mexico’s Chapultepec Avenue, though these are modern takes on the pinata tradition. A tour through 42-year-old pinatero Marcial Garcia’s shop proves that. He’s done 5ft reproductions of the Millennium Falcon, a T.Rex with viciously curved teeth – and even a small Ganesh pinata, for an Indian couple’s wedding
“They never collected poor Ganesh,” he laughs. “He just hangs out here.”
Having lived in California for seven years, where he qualified as a mechanical engineer from UCLA, Marcial’s take on the Trump phenomenon is more nuanced.
“He can say what he wants. It’s his country. I can always tell him not to come here,” he says, shrugging.
“But Americans need immigrants. We do the heaviest work. If our home country can’t give us work, it’s logical we should go there, and be legal, and contribute. So Trump’s wall idea is 100 percent Nazism for me. I find it scary that so many Americans agree with him. It’s not just the Ku Klux Klan who likes him – even Latinos like him, making them racist against their own people.”
Marcial sees pinata-making as a handicraft, an art learned from his father and developed through his extensive reading and love for documentaries, but, according to Mexico City-based conceptual artist Luis A Orozco, 41, cardboard political caricatures like the models made of Donald Trump belong to a different tradition.
The original pinata is a clay star with seven points – one for each of the deadly sins – which arrived with the Catholic traditions of Spain, and was traditionally smashed at pre-Christmas festivals called posadas. As Orozco explains, cardboard effigies parodying political figures – known as cartonería – owe their lineage to the Easter Saturday tradition of burning models of Judas Iscariot.
“As with everything in Mexican folk art, the cardboard model is a syncretic phenomenon, where colonial traditions were revived after the 1910 Revolution and given an ‘authentically Mexican’ twist as part of the construction of a new national identity,” he says.
“The revival of old-style dances and festivals like the Day of the Dead have to be seen in this context. As with the cardboard effigies, these ‘new traditions’ were helped along by the grafica popular engravings of figures such as Guadalupe Posada [a Mexican political print-maker and engraver], newspapers, early Mexican cinema, and – to a lesser degree – murals painted by Diego Rivera, which all glorified the older, colonial imports,” he explains.
“This revival happened in a time when there was a definite working, middle and upper class in Mexican society, and the crossover of the pinata and cartonería across society traces the blurring of these class lines. You can see this reproduced in the popularity of these models with US Chicano and Latino communities. Cardboard models like the Trump ‘pinata’ are stereotypes, really, like cactuses: they exist, and we like them, but we know that there’s more to Mexico than this.”
‘Pinatas are a family thing’
Another pinatero, Gregorio Embarcadero, 54, looks on the trend for making political figures out of cardboard as a cash-in rather than a development in the tradition. His studio – La Vaca Morada or the Purple Cow – in Coyoacan is like a life-sized children’s playroom, with life-size cardboard versions of Lego models and Minecraft characters standing side by side with Iron Man.
Full-scale installations are his big passion, with one of his proudest achievements being a full reconstruction of the inside of the Star Wars Death Star, populated by models of all of the characters. A photo on his iPad shows him with his cardboard creations, recreating George Lucas’ famous pose with the population of his own imaginary universe.
Soft-spoken and serious, Gregorio quietly issues instructions to his two nephews, who are busy painting an Incredible Hulk model with carefully moulded, realistic abdominal muscles.
“I’m too sensitive to make models of Chapo or Pena Nieto or Trump,” he says.
“This is a family business, and pinatas are a family thing. There’s an innocence about making them: it’s like being a grown-up kid. I did knock out a Donald Trump for a client once, but I only spent an hour on it. He was just a hollow cardboard white guy in a suit, with a load of bright yellow hair flopping about on top. The only difficult part was making his chest and shoulders ample enough.”