By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – The absolute best Ray Maldonado can hope for is that kids will take his carefully crafted creations and whack them to pieces.
“That’s what it’s for, for the kids to have fun,” the 61-year-old Tupelo resident said in Spanish with a translation provided by his daughter, Betty Maldonado.
When he was growing up in central Mexico, Maldonado’s family couldn’t afford luxuries like piñatas, so he doesn’t have memories of happy, aggressive moments with a blindfold, a stick and a colorful victim filled with candy.
Money was an issue again seven years ago, when Christmas was approaching and the family’s holiday budget came up short.
“My mom and dad didn’t have the money to give my niece and nephew a gift, so we thought of making a piñata so they could break it on Christmas day,” said Betty Maldonado, 22.
A good time was had by all, and Maldonado got an idea.
“They looked easy to make,” his son, Rey Maldonado, 29, said. “We didn’t have anybody to make piñatas around here, and there are a lot of Hispanic people around.”
Maldonado came to the United States in 1978 and moved to Tupelo in 2000. He had been a carpenter by trade, but work wasn’t always easy to find.
With the piñatas, he saw a chance to be his own boss. His early days on the job featured plenty of trial and error, and he experimented with different sizes and shapes.
Now, his garage at the corner of Bryan Street and Monument Drive in Tupelo is often a one-man assembly line, where brightly colored spheres and stars come together with images of Winnie-the-Pooh, Tinker Bell, SpongeBob SquarePants and Lightning McQueen.
“It’s going to be a week for 30 to be done,” Betty Maldonado said. “He doesn’t start just one. He does a bunch of them at a time.”
At the shop
A piñata begins its life as a recycled box. He’s been getting them from a liquor store lately.
“He said it’s not in the garbage can,” Betty Maldonado said. “It’s just outside. They’re clean.”
He precuts the cardboard to prepare his assembly line, and his wife, Elisa Maldonado, 53, makes the cones that he applies to the stars and spheres.
His tools are simple. He uses scissors to cut cardboard and a screwdriver to punch a chord through the cardboard so the piñata will hang the right way.
A 10-gallon bucket serves as a frame for the piñata’s body, and once a few cones are applied, the bucket’s opening protects them while Maldonado attaches more cones.
As he’s working, a small radio plays Christian music, and the air smells of hot glue.
“Sometimes the hot glue gun is just too hot,” Rey Maldonado said. “He uses the glove on one hand to press it so it won’t be so hard on his hand.”
During the translation, a smiling Maldonado made a fake grimace and shook his hand to illustrate the point.
He cuts a pie-shaped hole in the top of each piñata. Maldonado didn’t need a translation to explain: “This is for the candies, here. For the candies.”
It takes about 20 minutes to get the body finished. Then a mixture of water and flour is used to stick recycled newspaper all over the piñata.
“It’s really sticky,” Betty Maldonado said.
“That’s what they use in Mexico to put up political signs and stuff, flour and water,” Rey Maldonado said.
When that dries, it’s time to apply the characters. Images of Hello Kitty, Batman and the rest are cut from children’s birthday tablecloths bought from local stores.
Old baby wipe containers hold different colors of tissue paper, and another box is filled with bright, shiny strips.
“We help sometimes,” Betty Maldonado said, referring to herself and her mother. “We come out in the morning. We get through and go in, and he’s still here. He’s still working.”
Her brother added, “He doesn’t pay attention to anybody. He just does his thing. We tell him to go back inside. He sits a little while and goes back to work.”
China vs. Tupelo
Most of the piñatas go to stores that cater to Hispanic customers, and they sell for $20.
“There are some in Tupelo, Corinth, Pontotoc, New Albany and Ripley, all the little towns around here,” Rey Maldonado said. “His biggest buyer is in Memphis.”
Maldonado also does special requests. He’s made donkeys and cakes, and numbers to match a birthday boy or girl’s age.
He doesn’t get many such orders because most people don’t know he’s “Piñatas El Rey,” which translates to “The King of Piñatas.”
“A lot of them around here are made in China and some big stores carry them,” Rey Maldonado said, “but they’re too fragile and small, and the same price as these.”
Just because someone buys a piñata, that doesn’t mean they know how to use it properly. The Maldonado siblings said a song from Mexico accompanies the good-natured bashing of their father’s hard work.
Loosely translated, it goes something like this:
“Hit it. Hit it. Hit it.
“Don’t miss it.
“If you miss it,
“You miss your chance.
“You hit it once.
“You hit is twice.
“Then you hit it three times,
“And your time is up.”
Eventually, all of Maldonado’s creations will become so much trash on the ground, or in the case of a grandchild’s recent birthday, trash on the roof.
Maldonado pointed to the rope that had held the piñata, then toward the roof of his garage assmemly line, where a lone, festive cone rested on its side.
He smiled and shrugged. He’d already made his position clear: The kids had their fun, and that’s what mattered.