In 15th Century Mexico, bashing open a piñata with a decorated stick was a religious rite. "Traditionally, piñatas were shaped like seven-pointed stars to represent the seven deadly sins," said Denver piñatero Jose Nolasco. "The bright colors symbolized temptation. Breaking the piñata was believed to liberate us from temptation."
These days, the spiritual overtones have largely been abandoned in favor of cartoon characters like Elmo, Sponge Bob, Mickey Mouse, Batman, Spider-man, and cars, trucks, and flowers, all of which Nolasco makes at Pinateria Yasmin, his crowded workshop and piñata store at 38th and Federal. But it's in the creation of custom designed piñatas that he really shines.
"I've been asked to make a lot of weird things," he said, "like a boy on a surf board, or brides and grooms, or caricatures of people's girl friends." Last year he created a replica of the heart sculpture that hangs in front of Denver's Museum of Modern Art. He was also hired to fashion a one hundred dollar bill the size of a mattress that the customer hauled away on the roof of his car. "That was the biggest and weirdest thing I ever made," he said. Except, of course, for the porn; outsized penises and boobs mainly, and some x-rated unmentionables he was commissioned to make for this year's Pride Fest.
Born in Mexico, Nolasco moved to El Paso with his family when he was 5. "In middle school, I learned papier-mâché in art class," he said. "The first piñata I ever made was a boom box. After that, I really took to it."
In 1992, he came to Denver for a cooking course at Community College, and ended up staying on to work as a chef at Off Bellevue Grill out at the Tech Center. "I chefed for 18 years," he said, "long enough to save up the money to open my own piñata business."
Which might never have happened had fate not intervened. On a trip home to visit family in 2004, Nolasco ran into a grizzled old character named Ismail Rodriguez who was selling piñatas on the streets of El Paso. "Rodriguez taught me the basics," Nolasco said. "Joining forces with Ismail, I realized I could make a living at it. I worked with him for the next two years and then split off and started my own piñata business. One thing I realized was that the further away you get from a border town, the more demand there is, simply because there are fewer people doing it."
Which would have been incentive enough had fate not had something else in store for the Nolasco family. In 2003, his six year old son was diagnosed with Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, and Nolasco became his primary care giver. "I ramped up the business around the fact that I could both work and give more time to my son," he said. "That was a big part of my motivation."
These days, the piñata business is booming, and Nolasco finds himself in the enviable position of piñata supplier to some of the big Mercado and Save-a-Lot chain stores around town. On a good month he can sell as many as five or six hundred units at anywhere from $25 to $100 a pop. Working alone, he can knock out around 50 piñatas a week, which means that in order to meet the demand he must travel to El Paso every month to pick up a load of 300 ready-mades. Which is fine by Nolasco, since this allows him to concentrate on creating the one-of-a-kind specialty items that have become his trademark.
"I enjoy putting out something that nobody thought I could do," he said. "And having my own business means liberty. There's nobody bothering you. It's not an 8-hour punch-in, punch-out grind. Plus you can be with your family, which is really nice."
For more info:
Pinateria Yasmin is at 3840 N. Federal Blvd.
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