You can't spell "pinata" in English. The little tilde that's supposed to go over the "n" makes it a Mexican word through and through.
And to make them right, you need to be a Mexican person through and through.Like Catalina Reyes.
Born in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Reyes joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a young girl and eventually moved to Utah. She taught culture classes locally and used pinatas as visual props. Eventually she got hooked on them.
"I liked making pinatas when I was a girl in Mexico," she says today. "My father was an artisan. He was always working with flowers, wood and things like that. Then one day the LDS ward I attended had a pinata fiesta every year. Every family donated pinatas and there was always a pinata-making competition. I've been making them since. They're my hobby now."
And they're now part of Utah's folklore as well. The pinatas Reyes puts together are so popular locally, so large and so handsome, children often cry when forced break them. Parents, in fact, are beginning to buy two pinatas from her; a small one to break and large one to hang up in the child's room as a decoration. When one family in Denver ordered a Woody Woodpecker pinata, they were so concerned it might arrive in tatters, they bought a ticket for the thing.
Mr. Pinata, no smoking please.
As one of Reyes' close friends says, "It is a shame to break something so beautiful, but I look at it this way: You lose a pinata, but the child has a memory that will last a lifetime."
Looking back, the history of the pinata is almost as colorful as the decorations themselves. Like much of Mexico's folklore (mariachi bands, All Saints Day), the pinata had its beginnings in Europe. The Italians concocted the pinata some 400 years ago as a parlor game, then took the game with them to Spain to help lighten their lives in that solemn, religious country.
A guest would be blindfolded, given a stick and told to break a clay pot that swung above his head. If he missed, another guest would take a swipe. No one knows what was in the clay pot, but historians feel candy and coins were likely items, as well as exotic things such as secret maps to the castles of princesses and maps to find chests of buried treasure.
The game has remained unchanged for 400 years, though the pinata itself has gone through dozens of refinements.
Pinatas today are made of papier mache (the clay chunks tended to cut people and even knock them out) and many of the traditional forms and figures of the pinata are giving way to upbeat models from modern society.
Reyes, for instance, has sculpted dinosaurs, Mickey Mouse and clown pinatas recently.
"The hard ones are the Disney characters," she says, "Though most of my orders are still for the traditional star-shaped pinatas."
It takes Salt Lake's Pinata Lady about a week to round one out. The hardest part is getting the form right, the most time-consuming aspect is putting the frilly paper around the outside. Reyes gets so involved in her work, in fact, and feels so attached to her creations she says she can't stay around after a delivery and watch them get broken.
As more and more Hispanic customs become both prominent and popular in the United States, more and more pinatas are showing up in Salt Lake City. A couple of outlets have set up business here, and restaurants - such as the Mercado and La Frontera - feature them as either decorations or items for sale.
What's more, breaking pinatas is beginning to be a birthday custom locally, which means a lot of pinatas are going bust, and that means a lot of good work for pinata people.
As for Catalina Reyes, she hasn't decided if she'll go full time with a shop not. If orders keep pouring in as they have been, the decision will be out of her hands.