Archive for the ‘Public program’ Category

Of Saddles and Horse Fly Blankets

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Festival season is upon us once again. We have a wonderful line-up of craft artists who will be demonstrating at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. This year’s folklife area features individuals whose work has tangible ties to land or sea, for example, market baskets woven from homegrown willow, Native wampum forged from locally harvested quahog shells, and yarn spun from the fleece of grazing sheep. Craft traditions evolve from the human response to utilitarian needs and the quest for beauty. A hand-crafted wooden ship’s wheel with its polished brass hub looks beautiful and feels good in the hand.

In this post, we introduce you to three crafts people whose work is related in some way to horse fittings. Did you ever wonder how leather is formed into lasting saddles that benefit both rider and horse? Do you know how a western saddle differs from an English saddle? And what about keeping flies off of horses?

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Horseback riders in eastern Massachusetts predominantly ride English style, while those in the western part of the state favor western saddles. Lucky for them, they can rely on the craftsmanship of Keith LaRiviere of Orange, Massachusetts, who may be the only western saddle and tack maker in New England. LaRiviere is a parachute rigger by training with 37 years’ experience as a skydiving jump instructor, parachute rigger, and jump pilot. So why saddles? Blame his wife Jane’s need for repair of her horse tack, says Keith. His familiarity with repairing parachuting harnesses led to his slowly accumulating the tools and skills to work on leather horse tack. “I started out small, basically doing repairs and making headstalls and bridles, chaps and chinks.”

Inspired, Keith went on to study saddle making with Colorado saddler Jesse Smith and apprentice with New Hampshire harness maker Russ Bigelow. The apprenticeship was a chance to build a show harness for a draft horse and a replica of an 1859 saddle, the one used by US Cavalry during the Civil War. In addition to the two to three saddles he builds a year, Keith repairs old ones with tender loving care. Beyond saddles, Keith has made or fitted several pieces for Civil War reenactors, created harmonica cases, tool cases, and holsters for modern cowboy mounted shooters.

Tony Cooper of Royalston, Massachusetts has been making, fitting, and repairing saddles since 1984. A native of Dublin, Ireland, he received his training in leatherwork at Cordwainers College, London, where he focused on rural saddlery. Tony completed his saddlery training, was elected to the Guild of Master Craftsmen, and returned to New England and started knocking on barn doors.

A proper saddle gives support to the rider, while distributing the rider’s weight on the horse. If the horse is comfortable under the saddle, it moves more freely, enabling horse and rider to perform optimally as a single unit. “I contour the bottom of the English saddle to fit the horse’s shape.”

In addition to making a saddle from scratch, much of Tony’s time is spent refurbishing, replacing, or rebuilding all parts of a saddle. This can involve re-stuffing panels and converting felt and foam panels to wool; replacing worn seats, skirts, knee rolls, billets and flaps; enlarging panels by adding gussets; and adjusting and repairing trees, the wooden framework of the saddle. Tony likes that there are certain parts of saddle making that must be done by hand. Like sewing – using an awl to punch holes, he sews 12 stitches to the inch, just like a skilled quilter.

Barbara Merry of Wakefield, Rhode Island excels in the maritime tradition of knot tying, fashioning rope into nautical fenders, beckets (decorative rope handles), and other useful marine lines. She recently revived the art of making Victorian-style horse fly blankets, which were once used solely for the purpose of keeping biting flies off horses.

Today, some kind of blanket remains in demand, particularly among discriminating horse owners who choose not to use petroleum-based fly repellent on their animals. Called “swish” blankets and made of nylon, these blankets are woven in two sizes (draft horse and buggy horse). Back in the early 1800s, the material of choice was strips of leather stitched together. In time, the blankets “morphed” into ornate objects, beautifully knotted in natural fiber cordage.

Women excelled at this type of work. It was usually done by wives, sweethearts, and daughters after finishing or repairing nets for their fisherman. It was only natural that these women would turn this skill to the manufacture of horse fly blankets for customers in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston — big cities where there were a lot of flies!

All three craft artists will be demonstrating in the Folklife area of the Lowell Folk Festival this July 29 and 30, 2017.

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at Mass Cultural Council.

“Hiding in Plain Sight” Concert Brings the World to Rockport

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Despite gale force winds and rain on Mothers’ Day, the show went on. And what a show it was! We were delighted to have the opportunity to showcase a sampling of our state’s traditional artists to perform at one of the country’s most stunning concert halls — the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. Performers were either past or current recipients of an Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship. We’re happy to share some images shot by photographer Brendan Mercure.

No fewer that 20 members of Lawrence’s Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts opened the show by processioning from the back of the hall, down the aisles and up onto the stage.

Mass Cultural Council executive director Anita Walker gave a warm welcome to all in attendance, pointing out the richness of hidden treasures we have in the Commonwealth, many of whom have come here as immigrants.

 

I followed her by introducing our South Indian Carnatic musicians, which included two master artists, Tara Anand Bangalore and Gaurish Chandrashekhar, and three apprentices, Sudarshan Thirumalai, Pratik Bharadwadj, and Kaasinath Balagurunath. A purely musical segment was followed by Bharatanatyam dancer Sridevi Thirumalai.

The second half of the show opened with a beautiful set of Irish music by Joey Abarta, Matt and Shannon Heaton, and sean nos dancer Kieran Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We closed the concert with West African music and dance led by virtuoso balafon player Balla Kouyaté and master drummer/dancer Sidi “Joh” Camara. Both are considered hereditary artists, meaning they were born into the tradition.

  

Joining them on the stage was the next generation — Tiemoko Camara and Jossira and Sekou Balla Kouyaté — all of whom show great promise in carrying the traditions forward.

 

Balla stood up to invite audience members to join them on stage to dance.

Jossira helped by stepping down off the stage and reaching out her hand, encouraging people to join her. It worked – even 18-month old Maiya Camara got into the act.

Then it was time for a final bow. One of the magical things that happens when you bring musicians together from different world traditions is that they soon find common ground. This often happens back stage, behind the scenes. As one of our stage managers Sara Glidden pointed out, “All of you in the audience missed one of the highlights – the Indian musicians in the green room, jamming along to the video/audio feed of the Irish musicians on stage.”

Postscript: This email from leader of the Dominican masqueraders Stelvyn Mirabal gets to the heart of what our work as folklorists is all about. “I was received like a hero at my work on Monday. My Human Resources boss was at the show on Sunday and she didn’t know I was involved in the event until she saw me there. She took some pictures and posted in the company website. Then everyone was congratulating me for the show. She loved it!! Thanks again for thinking of us for your show.”

Talk about “hiding in plain sight”!

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Mass Cultural Council.

 

 

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Folk Masters of Massachusetts Showcase Concert

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

We are excited to announce a May 14  showcase concert featuring the excellence and diversity of music and dance traditions thriving in Massachusetts today. Performers are past or current recipients of an Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, prestigious awards granted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Come experience a Dominican carnival procession led by Stelvyn  Mirabal, then be enthralled by leading exponents of South Indian vocals, violin, and percussion, Irish flute, uilleann pipe and old style step dance, and West African balafon (xylophone), djembe drum, and ceremonial dance. The concert will take place at the stunningly beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sunday May 14 at 5:00 pm.

Carnatic music of South India is one of the oldest music systems in the world. Built upon talas (rhythmic cycles) and ragas (melodic scales), the basic transmission of this venerable South Indian tradition is done via face-to-face lessons in which the guru vocalizes first and then demonstrates the lesson.

  

   

Irish tradition has deep roots in Massachusetts. Tunes once played at crossroad dances traveled the ocean in the hearts, hands, and feet of Irish immigrants. Boston in known for its active scene of pub sessions, concerts, competitions, and classes.

  

  

In parts of Mali, West Africa, dance, music, and song are an integral part of everyday life. Birth, death, initiation rites, and marriage are all marked with specific dances and songs. Many musicians and dancers are hereditary artists, meaning they are born into the tradition.

 

The concert will take place at the stunningly beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sunday May 14 at 5:00 pm.  A perfect outing for Mother’s Day!

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the  Massachusetts Cultural Council.

 

Connecting Curator and Artist

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

On some days, my job as a folklorist is especially gratifying. This past week I had the pleasure of facilitating a meeting between Cambodian ceramist Yary Livan and Louise Cort, Curator of Ceramics at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer|Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Yary with Louise

It was dreary, cold, and wet on January 18th when I picked up Louise at Boston’s Logan airport. We drove the 30-odd miles north to Western Avenue Studios in Lowell where Yary Livan has studio space. Traveling with Louise was Danny Eijsermans, a Freer|Sackler Curatorial Fellow currently working on a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian art history. With deep respect and knowledge of the Khmer ceramic tradition, both Louise and Danny found an immediate rapport with Yary.

Yary pointing out blue glaze

Yary Livan listening to Louise Sort, while Danny Eijsermans inspects an Apsara in the making

I first met Louise Cort in 2014 at the annual meeting of NCECA in Providence, Rhode Island. I was part of a panel that Middlesex Community College Professor Marge Rack had organized featuring the work of Yary Livan. In addition to Yary’s voice, the panel included the perspectives of a folklorist, art professor, and secondary school art teacher. It was a memorable experience, not only because of the craft of this incredible artist, but because of the stories shared and the emotions triggered by his life story. Those present learned of Yary’s training in Khmer fine arts, his surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide, his resettlement in Lowell where he slowly regained  access to clay, the building and firing of a wood-fired kiln, and his dedication to teaching the next generation.

A year following the NCECA panel, Yary Livan was named a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. He continues to produce a wealth of new work and to mentor students.

Pouring vessel in the form of a caparisoned elephant, with a spout on the shoulder Vessel

Louise and Danny  are preparing an exhibition at the Freer|Sackler titled “The Glazed Elephant: Historical Khmer Ceramics from the 11th-14th century.” The exhibit draws on the museum’s Hauge collection of glazed ceramics from the Angkorian kingdom in Cambodia. It will open April 15, 2017 and run through the first week of July.

In a happy convergence, the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is celebrating its 50th year, will present  “American Folk: Celebrating the NEA National Heritage Fellows.” What perfect timing, to feature National Heritage Fellow Yary Livan, who on July 4-9 will demonstrate the current day practive of Khmer ceramics, a tradition that was nearly lost. His presence on the nation’s National Mall will be a reminder, not only of the value of our national museums as caretakers of art dating back centuries, but of our country’s recognition and support of immigrant artisans who are keepers of tradition.

Multi-colored jar

Our January visit ended with a stopover at the wood fire kiln, which Yary had fired over the weekend. Then it was time for a late lunch at Palin Plaza, where Yary ordered for us, family style.

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Diwali goes Mainstream

Friday, November 4th, 2016

What does it mean when ancient holdidays, grounded in ethnic identity and religious belief and celebrated by cultural insiders for centuries, are brought to mainstream, high profile venues to be shared, celebrated, and interpreted? Who benefits? What is gained and what is lost when a festival moves from private space (a temple, a home) to a public space (a state house, city hall, or museum)?  How is cultural meaning negotiated?

diwali_statehouse

For the last five years, Amit Dixit, the leading light behind the South Asian Arts and Cultural Council, has organized an annual Diwali lighting ceremony at the Massachusetts State House.

diwali_amitdixit

The invitation to attend describes Diwali, popularly known as The Festival of Lights, as  “. . . the most sacred of Indian holidays celebrated by Hindu communities throughout the world, including those in the Indian diaspora together with worshipers of Hinduism in Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. The holiday is the embodiment of the supremacy of divine light over spiritual darkness, of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. Diwali is associated with great optimism, generosity and, most importantly, new hopes for the future.”

Those attending the State House event on October 29, 2016  were a mixture of cultural insiders, government employees, and members of the general public.

diwali_unlit  diwali_lit

An official from The United States Postal Service was present to help unveil the Diwali forever stamp.

diwali_veiledstamp diwali_unveiledstamp

Diwali is celebrated for seven days every autumn. This year Diwali officially began on Sunday, October 30 and ran through Saturday November 5. Mid-way through, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston held its own celebration of  the Festival of Lights. On offer was a splendid variety of South Asian expressive traditions including music, dance, Madhubani and Mithila art making, and a moderated discussion about Diwali in Boston and around the world.

sunanda_holding_bw

family_coloring

Having the MFA celebrate Diwali helps legitimize the expressive traditions of lesser known cultural communities. As Saraswathi Jones (second from left), who grew up in one of the only Bengali families in Grand Rapids, Michigan put it,  “It’s meaningful. It’s validating.”

panel-discussion

In writing about Washington DC’s Latino Festival (1991), Olivia Cadaval says, “The festival transforms physical space into a means to cultural identity. As a temporary center of power, the festival brings together large numbers of Latinos, unifies space, and generates action, during which symbols and traditions are manipulated, cultural forms are given expression, relationships are negotiated, and new social identities are forged.”

Although it’s a vastly different culture and a different time, I believe Cavadal’s observations still hold true. In addition to introducing cultural outsiders to Diwali, the public acknowledgement of  an ancient holiday rooted in Sanskrit and prayer trumps linguistic, regional, and national differences, creating solidarity among South Asians who make Massachusetts home.

boston-skyline

Things work best when ethnic self-representation and institutionally curated presentations are done collaboratively. It’s a win win.The MFA’s event planners are to be commended for working with cultural insiders to interpret and present expressive traditions that might otherwise be little understood by cultural outsiders.

audience father-and-son

The “whole nine yards” — telling the story of the unstitched garment from South Asia

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Jaya and Lakshmi in their booth at the folk craft area

Guest Blog by Lakshmi Narayan, Auburndale, MA

When Maggie Holtzberg asked me if I would participate in the Lowell Folk Festival, I was excited to be able to share my fascination for the “unstitched garment” with visitors to this unique festival. It has been fifteen years since I moved to Massachusetts from India. While living in India, I had been deeply entrenched in working with hand woven, hand block printed, embroidered fabrics, for close to 15 years. I still continue to stay connected with craft communities in India and keep looking for ways to share my love of South Asian textiles with communities here in the US.

On the day before the festival I pulled out all my favorite saris from my wardrobe — Ikats, Jamdanis, Benaresi, Mysore silks and Kanchipurams. To this collection I added a suitcase full of incredible hand spun, hand woven contemporary saris from “Taan Baan” a label well respected and known for revivals, and all my books on saris including the one I contributed to, Saris: Tradition and Beyond.

South Asian sari textile

I loaded my little Volkswagen beetle on the morning of the festival. On my way to Lowell, I stopped to pick up Jaiya Aiyer, a truly remarkable young girl who was introduced to me a few months earlier as a student of Indian dance. The plan was for us to demonstrate the folding and wrapping of the sari and discuss the ways the unstitched garment could be worn in myriad elegant ways.

Jaiya had worn the sari as a costume for her Bharatanatyam dance recitals in the past and was very familiar with the regular six yard wearing style.

Jaiya in Bharatanatyam costume. Photo by Michael Walz Photography

Jaiya in Bharatanatyam costume. Photo by Michael Walz Photography

When Jaiya got into the car I was thrilled to see her wearing a beautiful traditional “Narayanpet” from Andra Pradesh, which she had borrowed from her mom’s wardrobe.

Jaya wearing a purple sari

As soon as we arrived at the Lowell festival we got busy hanging up the saris and stoles in our tent and putting up the posters I had made. In preparation for meeting festival goers, we continued to chat about saris — their structure and materials, the weavers and printers, the wearers and the community.

Festival goers looking at Lakshmi and Jaya's display

I dressed the mannequin, so kindly lent to us by Lowell National Historical Park, in a white cotton Kerala sari and our first visitors watched with amusement as I wrestled with the mannequin, to turn the skinny blond lady into a traditional South Indian “mohini attam” dancer.

Mannequindressed in a white cotton Kerala sari

It wasn’t long before we overheard friendly chatter coming from the other end of our tent. We soon learned that our tent neighbors were Liberian Rosaline Accam Awadjie who had arrived with brightly colored Dutch wax prints fabrics for African head wraps and Qamaria Amatal-Wadud, a young woman from western Massachusetts with her fine Islamic hijabs.

Roseline Accam Awadjie (left)standing behind a woman she has dressed. Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with her hijabs

We spent two days sharing wonderful stories and experiences with visitors explaining the wearing style they would try on, the materials, the variable textures. The way the sari is worn conveys a wealth of cultural information about an Indian woman- her religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Visitors asked several questions on rituals, customs and culture.

These exchanges did not stop with just a greeting — something that I have experienced, having participated as a vendor of Indian hand crafts on several occasions. Here, people were interested in knowing more about the culture and story behind the cloth, the women who wore them, and the weaver who wove printed or painted them. We used the charts I had made to explain the process of hand spinning, weaving and printing.

festival goer dress in red sari

At the end of day, Sunday, a woman who had visited the day before came back with a sari in her hand. She had gotten it as a gift years ago and wanted to know if I knew which part of India it might be woven. “I think Bengal,” I told her, looking at the fine cotton thread work and indeed there was an old label stamped with a shop’s name in Bengal!

Another enthusiast we dressed in a sari wanted photographs of herself after she been dressed with an African headwrap; by combining the two she made a unique fashion statement! Below you see Qamaria taking a photo of this woman walking past a patch of black-eyed Susans.

Lakshmi_Qamaria shooting photo

Both Jaiya and I enjoyed our two days of interactions and were happy to have shared the story of the unstitched garment, literally the “whole nine yards” with visitors to Lowell.

Children posing in unstitched wrapped garments

We are just weeks away from the 2015 Lowell Folk Festival

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

banner of folk craft artists' work

The Lowell Folk Festival is coming right up on July 24-26th. In addition to checking out music and dance performances and sampling some of the best ethnic food served at a festival, consider spending some time in the Folk Craft area located in Lucy Larcom Park. This year we are featuring 13 different textile traditions. From noon until 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, artisans will demonstrate traditional techniques used in the making of textiles: twining, coiling, weaving, quilting, hooking, and lace making. Others will explore how textiles are used in what is called the “unstitched garment,” i.e., wrapping Indian saris, African headwraps, and Islamic headscarves.

You will discover how the pattern of a textile’s weave, its thread count, and the way it is worn can convey religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Come compare quilting traditions from African American and Anglo American quilting guilds. Watch how embellishments such as bobbin lace are created. See how you look in an African head wrap. Try your hand at hooking a rug . . .

Rug hooking detail. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

If you get hungry and tired and want to sit down, the Foodways demonstration area is close by. My colleague and friend Millie Rahn has put together a tasty program on pickling traditions.

Pickles. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

“Pickling is a method of preserving food that is found in many cultures and usually involves brine, vinegar, spices, and fermentation. Vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and nuts are often pickled alone or mixed together in various ways to keep food for out-of-season eating. Traditionally, pickling was a way of ensuring food sources for those working far from the comforts of home on land and sea, no matter the climate. Today, many home cooks in the region use the bounty of their gardens and local markets to pass on favorite recipes and preserve their foodways throughout the year.”

The schedule is below.  As in past years, you will have a chance to ask questions and to taste samples once each demonstration is over.

12pm: Refrigerator Pickles Mill City Grows/UTEC; Lydia Sisson
1pm: Jamaican Pickled Pepper Sauce, Nicola Williams
2pm: Northern Indian Cholay, Yogesh Kumar
3pm: Lithuanian Pickles, Irena Malasaukas
4pm: New England Bread Butter Pickles, Jackie Oak with Tricia & Gerard Marchese

 

 

Musical worlds

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

One of the gratifying things about being a folklorist is being able to connect tradition bearers with potentially influential people, resources, and opportunities. When done well, the folklorist plays the role of being what Malcolm Gladwell called a ” connector” in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Soon after meeting Sushil Gautam, a local Nepalese sarangi player who helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, I had the good fortune to meet Darcy Kuronen, Curator of the Musical Instruments at the Museum of Fine Arts. It turns out that in this collection of over 1,100 musical instruments, there is no Nepalese sarangi. So it was with pleasure that I was able to introduce Sushil and Darcy to one another. Time will tell if something comes of their acquaintance.

The MFA’s Musical Instruments Gallery is a little gem. The intimate sized gallery is filled with musical instruments and sound samples from around the world. For the past dozen years, Darcy has programmed regular gallery talks and demonstrations, engaging in conversation with visiting musicians who bow, pluck, finger, or breathe life into the featured instruments.

Abarta_MFA

On Monday, October 6th, that musician was Joey Abarta, who, coincidentally, was one of the six master artists who was recently awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Joey had brought two of his own Irish uilleann pipes to perform on, since the museum’s set is not in working order. And uilleann pipes are finicky instruments.

The gathered audience was treated to some beautiful playing — an air, a set of jigs, a set of reels — plus some really interesting conversation about the history of the uilleann pipes, renowned makers both historical and living, and the technical challenges of playing, which include manipulating a chanter, drones, and regulators, in addition to the bellows, which are filled by pumping one’s elbow. (Uilleann is the Irish Gaelic word for elbow.)

Darcy asked Joey to let the audience know where they might be able to hear him playing locally. Every Thursday evening, at 7:15, Joey leads an Irish music session at the Canadian American Club in Watertown. Everyone is welcome.

Recycling festival T-shirts to make paper!

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

  Drew Matott with portable Hollander Beater  

Drew Matott had an “aha” moment when he first realized paper could be made from old clothes. He and Margaret Mahan have gone on to bring the transformative experience of hand paper making to people all over the world. In order to pulverize rag into pulp, they use a machine designed and built by papermaking engineer Lee McDonald of Boston. Not only is it portable, it is bicycle powered. Pulling sheets of paper is a fun and messy business. To form a piece of paper, a screen is dipped and submerged in a vat of pulp and pulled through the fibrous water. A thick wet sheet of paper forms as the water drains away. Sheets are stacked, pressed, and hung up to dry.  

In addition to hand paper making and bookbinding, Drew and Margaret founded the Peace Paper Project in 2011. Through paper making workshops, survivors of war and terrorism have been guided to pulp the clothing they associate with their traumatic experience, including military uniforms. The clothing is cut up, beat, and formed into sheets of paper. Working with certified art therapists, participants use the paper to begin the process of adjusting and recovering from their experiences.

At a recent Lowell Folk Festival planning meeting, Millie Rahn and I brought up Drew and Margaret’s request for textiles that could be recycled for making paper at the festival. We talked about approaching a local textile mill but Pat Bowe (of The Lowell Festival Foundation) had the brilliant idea to recycle surplus festival T-shirts from festivals past. Last week, Pat mailed them bundles of brightly colored cotton T-shirts.

Margie Mahan pulping T shirts

Drew wrote to us saying, “We received the t-shirts! We love all the colors! I think it is the perfect amount- Margie and I cut them all up and started processing them into pulp. Over the next three days we will make 12lbs of it into paper to hand out to participants. We will pulp the remainder for use with the bike operated beater and sheet forming during the festival.”

Drew Matott working with beater

Come by to meet paper makers Drew Matott and Margaret Mahan this weekend at the Lowell Folk Festival. You’ll never look at old clothing the same way again.

Mexican Piñatas by Angelica Ortiz

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Pinata by Angelica Ortiz

Perhaps you’ve tried breaking open a piñata at a birthday party, but did you know that this paper mache object has roots in religion? The Spanish brought the tradition of piñatas to Mexico, to help transmit Catholicism.

Angelica Ortiz grew up in Mexico City.  She remembers watching her uncles make piñatas each December. During the nine evenings of Advent, people gathered in the street holding candles to walk and sing songs of Las Posadas. Each night, a different family hosted a party, ending with the breaking of a piñata. 

Breaking pinata in Mexico City  Supplies for making clay pot pinata

Piñata is originally an Italian word meaning clay pot. Traditional piñatas in Mexico are still made with a clay pot interior, rather than a balloon. The piñata is covered in shiny paper and fitted with a seven-peaked star, symbolizing the seven deadly sins. “The idea,” Angelica explains, “was to break it. Or hit is as hard as possible so evil and the bad sins will be gone. In Mexico, they filled them with fruit and nuts, not candy.”

When it’s time to try to break the piñata at children’s parties, Angela sings the song traditionally sung in Mexico. “It’s very important,” she says, laughing. “The lyrics indicate 1-2-3 chances at striking the piñata; once the singing stops, your turn is over.”

Come see Angelica making piñatas in the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival on July 26 and 27, 2014

Owl pinata by Angelica Ortiz


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