A town of piñata makers—old, young, men, women—sounds like something out of a movie, but San José Buenavista, Mexico, is as close as you’ll get in real life.
Filmmaker Paul Storrie and his partners at Tripod City, Chris Lee and Charlie Kwai, were wrapping up a month-long project in Mexico when they heard from a friend of a friend about a town composed (almost) entirely of piñata makers.
“We wanted to do some work in Mexico because of the kind of stereotypes that seem to be placed upon it,” Storrie said in a phone interview with National Geographic. “We look for that, so we can challenge those stereotypes, create an alternate depiction of that place—show it as it is at street level.” [Discover the color and culture of vibrant Oaxaca.]
Buenavista, about two hours southwest of Mexico City, seemed like the place to do just that. So the team of three hopped into an early-morning Uber and, armed with only a name and an address, went looking for the “piñata king.”
They found Francisco Reyes in the town of about 1,000. “He was so casual, so nice and welcoming,” said Storrie. “I’m not even sure if he knew we were coming. But he went along with it anyway.”
According to Reyes, his parents began the town’s bustling piñata industry, teaching several other families to make the iconic toys and passing the knowledge down to their own children. Reyes's brother and sister each have piñata workshops down the road from his, and his own eldest son “seemed especially keen,” Storrie noted, following his father’s work obsessively.
Though originally made from clay pots decorated with feathers and often carrying religious significance in both pre- and post-Columbian traditions, today’s piñatas are papier-mâché creations that typically depict American movie and cartoon characters. [This rare Aztec map reveals a glimpse of life in 1500s Mexico.]
This has caused some copyright complaints and even seizures of piñatas crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but Reyes continues unfazed. He and the other piñata makers work collectively to help each other sell their crafts throughout the region—especially in cities, where Storrie described “big market shops that always have a sea of piñatas hanging from the ceiling.”
After forming the papier-mâché around reusable fiberglass molds, the piñatas take about a day to dry. From there it’s another day or two to cut them from the mold, tape, and paint them.
The final creations sell for about $20 or $30—the same price as a two-hour Uber ride, and fairly expensive for Mexico. Despite that, piñatas are perennially popular: though most commonly associated with birthdays or the nine-day Las Posadas festival leading up to Christmas, they’re also a centerpiece of casual celebrations and family gatherings.
And as thanks for the experience, Storrie and his partners ended their single day of filming by buying a Dora the Explorer piñata for the children of Reyes's family and friends, who destroyed it with gusto.
“We spend hours and weeks researching,” Storrie said. “But you find out more in just a few days talking to people than you ever would on the Internet. And we can only scratch the surface.” [See surreal photos of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.]