Joaquina Avila, San Pancho’s Piñata-Maker

Joaquina and I enjoyed working together on this blog post. My version is in English and hers is in Spanish.

Joaquina Avila, San Pancho’s postmistress, has artistic ability and an enterprising turn-of-mind, and she saw an untapped market in the town. Lots of kids want piñatas for birthday parties, and adults like them, too, just for decoration, but you couldn’t buy them locally. So she got into the business of making and selling piñatas.

Joaquina’s deafness does not present a problem–she communicates perfectly well with customers through lip-reading. But, she told me somewhat apologetically, she works slowly because she can use only one hand. (Many years ago an injury caused nerve damage, and her left hand is contracted into a fist.) Depending on the design and size, a piñata can take from one to three days to make–painstaking work, even for people with the use of two hands, but has the patience for it.

Clowns are the design that people request most often; SpongeBob SquarePants, Angry Birds, and Frankenstein are popular, too. To make the basic shape, she constructs forms from clay pots, cardboard, or inflated balloons covered with papier-mâché. Then she folds innumerable pieces of colored paper into strips that she cuts into fringe. She pastes the fringed strips to the form and adds finishing touches, like eyes, a nose, a bowtie, and hair. The end product is more like a paper sculpture than the piñatas I see at party stores in the U.S. Prices vary: Large ones cost 150-200 pesos; medium ones 80-100 pesos; and small ones are 50 pesos or less.

As we talked about her designs, Joaquina made sure I understood that each piñata is an original. Yes, she examines the work of other piñata-makers, and she studies manuals and magazines. The end product, though, is uniquely her own. Joaquina values her individuality, and that extends to her piñatas.

During her sixty-seven years Joaquina has had a variety of jobs. As a day laborer she picked beans, tobacco, corn, and vegetables. She has caught fish; worked in restaurants in Sinaloa, Puerto Vallarta, and San Pancho; taken care of houses; served as groundskeeper and janitor in San Pancho’s schools; sold snacks from her roving bicycle-cart; sold her oil paintings; and delivered the mail. She doesn’t shy away from hard work and she’s always ready for a new venture–something that will satisfy both her mind and spirit, she says. Now she is an “artesana en piñatas,” a piñata artisan. I think she has found her niche.

Nancy Brown

Joaquina in front of her post office/store

Joaquina in front of her post office/store

Joaquina Avila G., La Piñatera de San Pancho

Joaquina Avila, la agente de correos de San Pancho, tiene una cierta habilidad artistica y una actitud mental emprendedora, y ella vio en este pueblo un mercado sin explotar en materia de elaboración y venta de piñatas. Muchos niños quieren piñatas para sus fiestas, y incluso algunos adultos las piden para decoración de sus jardines y casas, pero  no era posible encontrar en el pueblo. Por esa razón ella le nació la idea de empezar a fabricarlas e iniciar su comercialización en este lugar.

Ella carece del don del oido ( es sorda).  Más eso no es un problema para ella; pues se comunica con los clientes mediante señas y la lectura de labios. Sin embargo, ella me dijo un poco disculpandose, que ella trabaja despacio debido a su discapacidad (es hemipléjica)—ella  solo usa una mano para trabajar. (Hace 35 años ella sufrió un accidente con arma de fuego y esa herida afectó algunos nervios que le impiden usar la mano izquierda, quedando esta cerrada en un puño). Dependiendo del tamaño o diseño de una piñata, se requieren de uno a tres días para su elaboración. Es este un trabajo muy cuidadoso, pero ella tiene la paciencia suficiente para hacerlas.

Los payasos en diferentes formas y tamaños son los que con más frecuencia piden los clientes; los BobEsponja SquarePants, Pájaros Gruñones, y Frankenstein son muy populares también. Para fabricar la forma básica, se utiliza una olla de barro especial para piñatas o se le da forma al contorno con carton o globo inflado forrado con tiras de papel periódico y pegadas al diseño con una base de engrudo (una pasta hecha con harina de trigo y agua cocida al fuego). Entonces ella dobla y recorta innumerables piezas de papel de china, crepe, lustre, o papel metalico, según se necesite, en los tamaños, colores, y cantidades que el diseño requiera.

Al final se añaden a la piñata los ultimos detalles como los ojos, nariz, boca, o una corbata de lazo. Al fin el producto es más como una escultura hecha de papel y no como las piñatas que yo veo en tiendas de fiestas en ee.uu. Los precios de las piñatas son variables según el tamaño y forma.  Las grandes cuestan de 150 a 200 pesos; las medianas de 80 a 100 pesos; y las chicas 50 o menos. Todo claro esta se debe tomar en cuenta el material utilizado para su elaboración; pues en las papelerías el material tiene altos precios.

Cuando hablamos sobre sus diseños, Joaquina me aseguró que debó entender que cada piñata es un original. Si,ella examina las obras de otros piñateros, y estudia manuales y revistas sobre el tema, pero el producto final, con ciertas modificaciones, es unica y exclusivamente su inspiración. Joaquina valua mucho su individualidad y eso incluye sus piñatas.

A lo largo de su fructifera vida (67 años) y ante la imperiosa necesidad del diario subsistir, Joaquina ha tenido que desempeñar los más diversos trabajos. Fue jornalera en cosechas de frijol, tabaco, maiz, y  hortalizas. Además empleada en restaurantes en Sinaloa, Puerto Vallarta, y San Pancho; ama de llaves en Puerto Vallarta y San Pancho, jardinera y conserge en escuelas de San Pancho ( Jardin de Niños, Escuela Primaria por espacio de 6 años en ambas); pintora de cuadros; vendedora ambulante;pescadora; agente de correos por hasta hoy 14 años;  y, ahora piñatera. (Joaquina: Uff, que mas me falta desempeñar?)

Ella no se espanta del duro trabajo y está siempre lista para intentar algo nuevo y productivo y que sea satisfactorio a su espiritu e intelecto. Y ahora ella me dice: que es una artesana de piñatas para largo tiempo. Creo ella ha encontrado una hermosa vocación.

Joaquina Avila

Clowns are a popular design

Clowns are a popular design

Joaquina makes special designs on request

Joaquina makes special designs on request

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“It’s the Real Thing . . .”

It’s always exciting driving to Puerto Vallarta from San Pancho. Green hills and snatches of an ocean view are a prelude to busy Bucerias. Here the road opens up to a carnival of shops, taco stands and roadside vendors who will bring cold juice in a plastic bag, fresh flowers, or a juggling act to your car window. Men and women in white uniforms collect money for the hospital, and traffic police (Transito) wave you through the intersections even though the traffic lights are working well.

Last Saturday on the way to  Puerto Vallarta my car was having some issues with the transmission. Every so often I needed to push hard on the accelerator and then let it off quickly in order to change gears (advice given by Tavo, my local mechanic). Just after the SEX SHOP sign I overdid the manoeuver, causing dust to fly up, and the car sped ahead. Through the haze I saw a Transito car and a robust-looking uniformed law officer pointing a radar gun aimed for the temple of my front end. Seconds later sirens shrieked and whistles blew and my heart became a rapper’s beat box. What had I done? What should I do?

I had to pull over. In Mexico you cannot turn directly off the highway. You must first exit to a lateral lane and then you are permitted to make a turn. I was in an outer lane and there was a lot of traffic in the laterals. I checked the rearview mirror and objects did indeed seem closer than viewed as I spied a chubby officer running at quite a pace. I took a breath and charged over two lanes and attempted a smooth stop. The officer was a few blocks behind but relentless in his remarkable pursuit, which had slowed to a jog. Huffing and puffing, he reached my window and asked me, “¿Como esta usted?” “Muy bien, gracias,” I replied, with courtesy and fear. Then he asked me how old I was. This seemed like a non sequitur, but I am told it is actually a normal question recommended at police academy.

After we chatted about age, Canada, and marriage, the officer informed me that I was speeding and proceeded to write on a piece of paper. He told me it would cost me 600 pesos to pay a fine at the office  and a lot of inconvenience for me if I chose this route. He scratched his head for at least 30 seconds and then mentioned that I might be able to pay him and leave. Just how much money did I have?  Mmmmm . . . 20 pesos for parking at the airport.  Oh no, he had a look of disgust on his face, conveying both surprise and confusion.  He turned to write up the ticket.  Frantically I emptied my purse and discovered another 5 pesos, which I quickly jiggled in front of him, exclaiming, “Success, more money!” And not only that, I had a full unopened can of Coke. He very reluctantly took the 25 pesos, shrugged his shoulders, dismissed me and the Coke, and began to stride towards the patrol car many blocks behind.  I sat and thought about the cost of a hot and dusty jog in a heavy black uniform  and began to feel entirely guilty that he had not at least made 50 pesos, when I saw him turning around. He seemed taller and less round. He walked with pride of purpose, a slow swagger, and an expression of entitlement on his face. He reached my car as I rolled down the window yet again. He avoided eye contact. He slid his arm through the window opening like a graceful bailarin (dancer) and said in a slightly nasal, almost sexy, tone, “Si, quiero Coca Cola.” With the Coke in hand he flipped the metal tab and a beautiful hissing sound escaped. It was then I heard music from distant memories: “I like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. It’s the real thing—Coke is.”  I wanted to jump up and hug him as we danced away with children from different nations. With due respect I tipped my sunhat to him, slowly adjusted my mirror and window, and drove off with gladness in my heart.

The next day, a friend asked me how I managed to be pulled over on the highway. I was incredulous.  “How did you know?”  “Ah, this is Mexico, we don’t miss anything,” he said. “Many friends of mine passed you on their way back to San Pancho.”  Hmmm,” I commented, wondering if his friends had seen the REAL thing.

Karoul Talaba

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A Walk on the Wild Side

In 2009 Canadian folks were fearful of catching the flu. No one wanted aching muscles, chilling waves of nausea, scratchy throat and fever. No one wanted to miss work  or family outings. No one wanted the inconvenience of suffering.

Arriving in San Pancho, Mexico, that same year, I witnessed queues of anxious people lined up in front of hospitals. Signs with bold red letters announced “Dengue Clinic.” Upon further investigation I learned that dengue is characterized by fever, headache, and muscle and joint pain.

Within two weeks, with my house still unfurnished except for a long wooden table, I developed flu-like symptoms. My head hurt and my temperature was rising quickly. Lucky for me my newly hired  gardener was working outside. I mentioned that I felt ill, my head hurt, and I was feverish, and therefore could not assist him with decisions. “Okeydokey,”  he replied, “but you have dengue.” He proceeded to rush me to his car, a sporty red jeep with one seat and no passenger door. I climbed in to sit on the floor and he rapidly drove me around the corner to the hospital.  “Adios,” he waved cheerfully. Feeling increasingly worse, I fell in line with the others outside. Men and women were laughing, chatting and drinking Coke. After about ten minutes a woman said to me “This just the waiting for friends; you are going inside?”  Ah ha, I was not in line, so I staggered inside where about fifty people were sitting in a waiting room. No one was at reception and I felt close to death.

I gestured frantically to the women beside me, all the while pointing to the front desk.  “Go, go,” she said,  and so I lifted up the counter and went. “Tengo dengue,” I announced to the busy doctors and nurses I found behind the front lines. Suddenly a handsome young doctor said in English, “I will see you right now in here.”

Imagine my surprise as I, feeling on the verge of passing out, was ushered to a wooden chair while he used a manual typewriter to record my history. “Do you have a husband, boyfriend?” “Do you live alone?” “Did you come forever?” “Aren’t you lonely?”  That was it! I put my head down on the desk and began to sob. “YYYYesss,” I stammered, raising my head slightly to accept the anticipated pat. “Do you own your house or rent?” he continued.

I was then given a chance to run (now my fever was confirmed at 105) across the street to the farmacia and buy a pee bottle. With the bottle filled I once again entered the  forbidden zone. “Okeydokey” ( a common expression) said the doctor, “and we will now take your blood.” He continued with authority: “Yes, it’s true you have dengue, and you must not vomit, but you must eat every day so that you don’t become anorexic.”  That stopped me in my tracks. Anyone who knows me would definitely never imagine me thin. “There is no medicine,” he continued, “just come back here every day so that you don’t bleed because that is very fatal.”

I am a brave sort, but given the fact that it was now night,  and I was beginning to
hallucinate, I whimpered slightly. I staggered along the dusty path, no moon to guide my faltering steps, and imagined I saw cougars, boa constrictors, and scorpions. I don’t have night vision, I had no flashlight, and not a soul was wandering with me. I picked my way through wet patches, coconut droppings, and palm leaves until I saw the lights of a house and realized it was my street. Never was I so happy to see my concrete floors and my lone table.

For the next two days I slept on my table, moaning throughout day and night, and tried to keep a tablespoon of yogurt down. I had to chant “not vomiting, not vomiting,” as I swallowed. On the third day there was a knock at my door and there stood the kindly and eccentric recyclables collector, welcoming me to the neighbourhood. When he heard that I had dengue he took pity on me and brought me juice and papaya leaves every day.

I became very familiar with the hospital as I went for daily blood checks, and each time the doctors assured me that they would not let me die. I met my neighbour, and we found we both spoke Spanglish. She was having “De Glasses,” which turned out to be dialysis. I discovered that the walk did not offer any threats, wild animals or human. In fact my neighbours smiled and waved, and welcomed me each day. After six trips my platelets had returned to normal. (I think it was the papaya leaves.)

At the end I asked how much money I owed, and the English-speaking doctor paused,  and with a smile as wide and beautiful as the sunset, said,  “You want to pay for dengue?” “Oh no lady, it is free today and so is the treatment.”

Karoul Talaba

Karoul Talaba is a freelance writer from Canada. Trained in Child Psychology, Karoul has written and published journal articles and children’s stories. In 2009 she relocated to San Pancho, where she continues to work with children.

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A Tale of Many Tails

The roar of the thunder and pounding of the rain were so loud that at first Jim and Linda didn’t hear the pitiful cries of the small kitten on their doorstep. When they finally noticed the meowing and opened the door, they saw a tiny, wet, hungry furball shivering from fear and cold huddled on their doorstep. That was the summer of 2007, my family’s first year as turtle volunteers. Jim and Linda were volunteers with the turtle program too, and they brought the little white and gray kitten to us the next morning and asked us if we could take care of her. That kitten was our first animal rescue. We named her Coco, and we loved her the instant we saw her. Coco was soon joined by Tigger, a skinny tiger-striped kitten who just walked in our door one day and never left. Every year since then we have had many more cats that we have rescued. Their names were Sparky, Zumba, Angel, Big Mouth, Spiderman, Bugeyes, Yoda, Orangey, Zebra, Garfield, Blackula, PopTart, Blackie, LoveBug, Bitey, Fanta, and WildThing.

One of our most recent rescues was three kittens which were found in a trash can in San Pancho. They were only about two weeks old and couldn’t eat solid food yet, so we had to bottle feed them powdered cat formula every four hours. That was a LOT of work and they were very messy, but it was really cute to watch their ears wiggle when they drank milk. It was not so cute to have to wipe their bottoms to make them go to the bathroom, though. Our friends took two of the kittens home with them and we kept one of them, whom we named Bug Eyes. My sister is training him to do circus tricks like jumping through hoops and climbing a ladder.

Cats aren’t the only animals that we have helped. Our friend brought us a pit bull that was very skinny because her owner didn’t take care of her. The first thing we did was give her a bath because she was crawling with fleas. Our landlord wouldn’t let us keep the dog, so we had to find a home for her quickly. That weekend we found a home for her with a nice couple who named her Chiva. She still remembers us though, and whenever we see her on the street, she greets us with happy smiles and lots of licks.

Another time, we saw a girl swinging a baby iguana around by a string tied around its neck. We thought the iguana was dead, but then we saw it move. We asked the girl if we could have the iguana and she gave it to us along with another one that was tied to a chair. The strings were so tight around their necks even a Popsicle stick couldn’t fit underneath. We rushed home and cut the strings off and released the iguanas in the jungle.

Unfortunately, not all of our rescues have had happy endings. Once we saw a very skinny dog on the side of the highway. My mom always has a bag of dog food in the trunk of the car, so we pulled over and gave the dog some food. She tried to eat, but she couldn’t swallow. We couldn’t just leave the dog there like that so we took her to the vet. The vets gave her an IV and we bought her a sweater and a heating pad to keep her warm. They tried very hard to save her life, but she was just too sick to survive. They said that all she had in her stomach was some sticks and gravel. We cried when she died, but at least we know she received a lot of love in her last few days.

Right now we are taking care of four one-month-old kittens whose mother was killed by dogs in Sayulita. They are very scared of people because they were born in an empty lot and have never been around humans before. We play with them a lot and they are getting used to us. In two weeks they will be ready to be spayed and neutered and will need new homes. It is sad when we have to say goodbye to these animals because we fall in love with all of them—but it is really great when we know they are adopted by people who will take good care of them.

We released this iguana in the jungle.

We released this iguana in the jungle.

Starlie adds this information about herself: “My name is Starlie and I am twelve. Every summer since 2007, my mom, my sister, and I have volunteered with the sea turtle conservation project. This year, we decided to stay the whole year. I am in seventh grade and I’m homeschooled.”

We found Sally by the side of the road and took her to the vet.

We found Sally by the side of the road and took her to the vet.

The website for the turtle conservation project is www.project-tortuga.org.

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El Parque la Hermandad, also known as Old Men’s Park

On Avenida Tercer Mundo, the main street of San Pancho, at the intersection with Calle Asia, there is a park shaded with grand old trees that is officially named El Parque la Hermandad, the Park of Brotherhood. The people of San Pancho know it as Old Men’s Park. It got the nickname because every day after work, starting at noon, a group of five to ten old men meet there to play dominoes. At the park there are plastic chairs and tables that the men use to play on, hoping that they don’t collapse under them. In the park are many colorful vendors selling baskets, house supplies, and various types of foods. Also there is the San Pancho skate park where young people go to practice their skateboarding. Sometimes the domino players use the skate park ramps to hide their dominoes. Often when the skaters move the ramps, they will find dominoes underneath.

There are three to four guys who are there every day with other men coming and going throughout the day. They will allow tourists to join, on the condition that they know the game and speak Spanish. They play the game with four people at a time. There is first to fourth place and the person who gets fourth place gets eliminated. The next person in line takes his place (but not always—they constantly change the rules, depending on the game). Sometimes they bet on the game. One person will say, “I bet I will win,” and someone else will say, “No, I will win.” The winner takes the bets of that game. And so on until the sunlight fades away.

Michael Morgan

Michael wrote this about himself: I am fourteen years old and San Pancho has been my home for almost three years.

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Mexican Interlude

Trucks racing
Engines roaring
Donkeys braying . . .
Dogs barking
Roosters crowing
Birds chirping
Sun warming
Colors blazing
Sunset gifting . . .
Tourists cruising
Adults laughing
Children playing.

Lovers kissing
Temperatures rising
Planes soaring
Ocean roaring
Boats sailing
Waves crashing.

Fish jumping
Sand drifting
Clouds floating . . .
Breeze cooling
Trees swaying
Flowers dancing.

Food stinging
Water quenching
Church bells ringing
Voices singing
Words flowing
Music floating.

My eyes seeing
My ears hearing
My soul filling.

–Sue Kutno
Sue Kutno lives in Sarasota, Florida, where she is a writer, glass artist, and owner-operator of Sarasota School of Glass (sarasotaschoolofglass.com).  She wrote this about her poem: “My sister built a winter home in San Pancho a few years ago and I try to visit often. This poem was written after one of my visits. I really love this charming, wonderful place. Of course I don’t live there, so I see it as a visitor, but that’s okay; it’s my perception of life in San Pancho.”

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Invitation to Contribute to the Blog

Since the publication of our book, Viva San Pancho! Views from a Mexican Village, a number of people in San Pancho have expressed interest in writing about this lovable place. In response, we propose to open the process of writing for our blog to the community at-large. The blog would be the perfect place to publish new pieces about life in our village.

Here are the submission guidelines:

  1. Anyone who is interested can contribute a piece for publication on the blog. Children and young people are invited to take part. Parents or teachers might even want to help them write.
  2. Blog pieces should be no more than 1,000 words.
  3. Like the book, pieces should be positive in tone—that’s what readers want. As we suggested in Viva San Pancho!, “Don’t grumble or whine about what’s different.” Keep in mind that if you are not from Mexico, you are a guest here.
  4. Subjects can be whatever might appeal to a general audience–food, cultural differences, music, the natural world, history, whatever strikes your fancy.
  5. Photos that relate to your blog post are encouraged.

We suggest this process: Send your draft to Nancy Brown (nancybrown8@yahoo.com), who will forward it to the other four writers. We will make editorial suggestions, apply a uniform style for punctuation and grammar, and return our comments to you. You make whatever changes you wish, and return your final version to Nancy for posting on http://vivasanpancho.net. Since this is a first-time effort, we don’t know how many pieces to expect; we will use our discretion about scheduling posts for publication.

We hope you will join us in contributing to the blog.

 Nancy Brown, Channing Enders, Ellen Greene, Carolyn Kingson, Gail Mitchell

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