“I could make this!” Her eyes lit up when she saw it. He shook his head and said, “You’re crazy!” Crazy or not, that day in June 2018 changed Esther Ortiz’s life. She had traveled to Colorado with her husband and children for a family member’s wedding, and visiting the piñata shop there sparked Esther’s interest enough for her to create a business out of the art form.
Esther is one of nine girls born into her family in Fresnillo Zacatecaz, Mexico. Her family moved to Sepulveda, California when she was eight months old. In January 1994, when she was fifteen, an earthquake shook their hometown and her parents decided to move the family to Erie, PA. Esther completed 10th grade, and in 2008 she earned her GED. She has moved to other states since then, but she has always gravitated back to Erie.
She is the wife of Jose Ortiz and the mother of three children, Blanca, Jose Jr., and Juan. Last Summer, when the family went to Colorado, Esther decided to pursue piñata making. When she returned to York, PA where she was living at the time, she started making piñatas while working full-time.
Eventually, piñatas became her full-time job. She quit her day job and stayed home to pursue her creative passion at while her husband worked away from home. “My house is a piñata house,” she says. “There’s not one spot where there isn’t a piñata.”
Erie Arts & Culture recently invited Esther to teach piñata making classes, combining her original dream job with her current passion. She taught a couple of classes this Summer at the MLK Center, and will be teaching more at Gannon later this month.
I had the privilege of talking with Esther about the origins of piñatas and what they mean to her.
What can you tell me about the cultural history of piñatas in Mexico?
They were originally created for Christmas. They had seven cones, representing the seven deadly sins. When the children would beat the piñata, it represented their promise to not commit the sins, and the candy was a reward for that promise.
Over time the tradition changed, and they incorporated animals and other things as they started using them to celebrate birthdays.
What goes into the process of making a piñata?
In Mexico, they originally started making them with clay pots, which, as you can imagine, was dangerous, so they eventually moved to paper mache. To make the traditional piñata, you first blow up a balloon and then cover it in several layers of newspaper and glue. I use six to seven, but traditionally you would use ten to fifteen. Next, you pop the balloon. Then you make the cones and stick them to the center, adding the points with hot glue. In order to make sure they stay on securely, you want to go around the piñata with rope, weaving it through. Lastly, you decorate it with tissue paper, which is called China paper in Mexico.
Did you always have an interest in piñatas?
No. I have always been a crafty person. My sisters and I were always doing creative things growing up since we didn’t have a lot of money, and that creativity carried over into adulthood. As a mother, I have always liked to go above and beyond for my kids’ birthdays. I was unhappy with my job, and ever since that day in the piñata shop in Colorado, I have been teaching myself and refining my methods as I go. I sometimes go to pinterest for ideas.
What kind of art were you exposed to when you were younger?
I was one of nine girls. We weren’t really exposed to a lot of art classes early on, but we had classes in our building and we decorated, made bracelets, T-shirts etc. In Mexico, there is a lot of clay, so we would make pots, pans, plates, mugs, etc.
My sisters are very talented and creative, especially the older ones. The younger ones were more privileged than us, because our parents had more money by that time. We older sisters had to be more creative to pass the time, and I’m thankful for that. One of my sisters designed her own prom dress, another decorates furniture, and another draws.
As a child, did you see yourself owning a business?
I always wanted to be a teacher, actually. I will be teaching kids to make piñatas soon though, since Patrick, from Erie Arts & Culture, reached out to me for that purpose. So in a way I came full circle.
How does being a mother influence your art, especially given piñatas are generally for children?
I can see my kids are proud of me, and so is my husband. My younger son has Asperger’s syndrome and doesn’t seem to quite understand it. Sometimes I wish he would get excited about it like the others do.
Surprisingly, it’s mostly adults that like the piñatas. I thought that more people were going to make fun of me for doing this, but not many have. When they do, my kids encourage me to not take in the negativity. I welcome the positivity, because it can be hard to put yourself out there.
How do you balance your business and family life?
I have a hard time doing that. I want to make piñatas all the time. It’s hard for me to know when to stop. My husband is out of town a lot and he wants to spend time with me when he is home, but sometimes I want to finish a piñata first. I try to take Sundays off from creating piñatas. I think it’ll be easier when I move my business to the garage, because then I can walk away from it.
Do you have a signature model that you have designed?
The avocados. They are the most requested piñata model I make, people love them. I also love making sugar skulls, because you can be extra creative with colors, designs, flowers, etc.
My favorite thing is making the traditional piñatas. They are what started my business, before people started asking for ice cream cones, hearts, and other things. The traditional piñata is different and you’re not going to find it at Walmart or Party City.
What are some misconceptions people have about piñatas?
That they’re only for kids. That they come with candy and have to be filled completely. Also, candy isn’t the only thing you can put in, and a lot of people think it is. We put little alcohol bottles in one for my sister’s birthday. People also think they have to break easily, and they always ask me if one of mine will. No, they aren’t supposed to break easily. You have to work for it.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your business?
The expression on peoples’ faces when I make them a piñata and they can’t believe I made it for them. The pure joy and knowing I caused it by doing what I love.
Thank you, Esther, for taking the time to talk with me. Check her out on Instagram, and keep your eyes peeled for upcoming classes.