ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Francisco Rodríguez’s piñata business has seen better days.
Casa de Piñatas, like other locally owned businesses along the Lead Avenue corridor near the University of New Mexico, is struggling to survive.
“My best year was a long time ago. A long, long time ago,” said Rodríguez, a piñatero from Ciudad Juárez. “The last three years have killed me, but I try to survive.”
Rodríguez has been at the same location for almost 25 years. A sign outside his window boasts 30 years of experience, but the 55-year-old told the Albuquerque Journal that he has made piñatas for nearly 50 years.
Inside, the walls are lined with a rainbow of piñatas ranging from basketball-sized to some more than 3 feet tall. Some traditional designs such as a burro, star or flower hang from the ceiling and compete for attention against pop culture icons. Among them are some of Rodríguez’s original creations — a hot air balloon, a jet, a sprawling spider.
Rodríguez learned to make piñatas by watching his father and his father’s workers. Back then, he would make them for fun, but at age 14, after emigrating with his family from Juárez to Albuquerque, he had to put his talent to work.
“We had to work so we can eat, so we can pay the rent or pay the bills,” Rodríguez said. “Back in those days (my boss) used to pay me $1.25 per piñata — she sold them for $13.99.”
Filled with candy and beaten until the treats fall out, piñatas are a staple at birthday parties and other celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.
Making a piñata can be as rewarding as the content inside. For Rodríguez, he likes the challenge of starting from scratch, blowing up balloons, laying papier-mâché over it, painting it and decorating it with delicately cut, colorful tissue paper.
One piñata can take about six hours to make and can be a multiperson job, especially if it’s a large custom order for something specific such as an elephant layered with a rainbow of tissue paper frills.
The workload used to be lighter before Rodríguez’s wife, Patricia Estrada, died of cancer in 2009.
“That was the last of the good old days,” Rodríguez said.
Now it’s Rodríguez and his mother who run the shop.
Rodríguez has seen more tough times in the years since. The nearly 24-month Lead-Coal construction project that revamped a 5-mile stretch of road in 2010 almost pushed him out of business. His shop was broken into. Then he suffered a stroke.
Rodríguez’s oldest son looked after the business and helped make piñatas for a while, but later left.
These days, the shop’s wares hang still, waiting to be taken home.
It’s been a tough 12 months for the house of the piñatas.
“Halloween used to be my best holiday, but now I don’t know what happened,” Rodríguez said. “I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.”
In 2006, Rodríguez said, he had a warehouse full of piñatas in addition to what he kept on hand in the shop. Now the ones in the store are all he has.
Many of Rodríguez’s customers are local, but he’s had some who traveled from Gallup and Taos and even from out of state. A few local businesses have provided a lifeline for the piñata shop in recent years.
Michelle Montoya, the community relations director for Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park, has ordered piñatas for Isotopes Park’s mariachi-themed nights for three years.
“We wanted to find someone locally who made traditional piñatas for our decorations,” Montoya said. “(Rodríguez) has been an amazing contribution to making that night fun and like a big fiesta at the ballpark.”
And while Rodríguez worries about his business, he also fears that the piñata-making tradition he has spent almost half a century cultivating is dying.
“All you see is old guys. The young guys don’t want to learn,” Rodriguez said. “It’s hard.”