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There's an art exhibit at the Mingei International Museum that's dedicated to the art of something you normally see at children’s birthday parties. The 80 piñatas, from Latinx artists around the country — are works of art. KPBS/Arts producer Julia Dixon Evans gives us a closer look. The Mingei's "Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration" closes at the end of the month. An all-ages drop-in piñata making workshop runs.

Cross-border artist makes piñatas with a message

Piñatas in a museum is an unlikely sight, but you can see 80 of these traditional cardboard and paper constructions in an exhibit at the Mingei International Museum.

"Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration" includes work from Latinx artists from around the country is currently running till the end of April.

This exhibit is one of the first ever collections of piñatas as art — and it originated at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles in 2021. Using the Mingei's spacious second floor, the project was able to expand when it opened in San Diego last October.

Two of Diana Benavídez's piñatas are shown installed at the Mingei on Apr. 10, 2023.
Julia Dixon Evans
Two of Diana Benavídez's piñatas are shown installed at the Mingei on Apr. 10, 2023.

Local, cross-border artist Diana Benavídez has several pieces in this exhibit. Benavídez was originally drawn to the piñata because it's intertwined with her identity.

"Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration" is on view through Apr. 30 at Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park.

Visiting information:

Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Thursday and Friday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

$0-$15 and free every third Thursday (Apr. 18).

"I think it all started when I was around 12 years old. I lived in Tijuana. My first job was at a Mexican candy place where they sold piñatas — they made and sold piñatas," Benavídez said.

"That's when I had my first intro to piñata making, and after learning how much time, effort, materials went into the sculptures that essentially were just meant to be broken — that kind of just made me feel like there's more that we could do with piñatas."

At first glance a piñata may seem like an unlikely vessel for anything except candy and party prizes, but for Benavídez, it's a natural fit for making activism through art more accessible, and encouraging people to think about her messages.

"The piñata by nature is a violent object. There's violence — and joy," Benavídez said. "People associate piñatas in a joyful way, so they're not intimidated to approach the piñata."


Benavídez has a handful of piñatas on view at the Mingei, including some of her motorized vehicles ("border crossers") and a drone. These works comment on the militarization and surveillance at the Tijuana-San Diego border, and Benavídez sees movement as another natural extension of the piñata and her binational roots.

"There's always maybe an uncle pulling the rope while the kids, you know, hit the piñata," she said. "It also pays homage to something that's a big characteristic of our border, long lines of cars, traffic, people commuting for hours from Tijuana to San Diego and vice versa."

Diana Benavidez's "Text Me When You Get Home: Keys" is a 2022 piñata artwork.
Courtesy of Mingei International Museum.
Diana Benavidez's "Text Me When You Get Home: Keys" is a 2022 piñata artwork.

The two works acquired by the Mingei are from her "Text Me When You Get Home" series, a collection of pieces that speak to the rituals women take in order to feel safe.

Oversized sneakers, a rosary and a set of keys represent makeshift self-defense tools and acts of preservation often passed down from mothers to daughters.

"It's intergenerational. My mom taught me how to wear my keys in between my knuckles as a way to protect myself, and that was when I was 14," Benavídez said.

Diana Benavídez's piñata, "Es muy noche para andar sola," is shown in an undated photo. The title (and text across the toes of the shoes) translates to "it's too late to walk alone."
Courtesy of Mingei International Museum
Diana Benavídez's piñata, "Es muy noche para andar sola," is shown in an undated photo. The title (and text across the toes of the shoes) translates to "it's too late to walk alone."

Benevídez recently shared that the Mingei has acquired two of her piñatas for their permanent collection — the sneakers and the rosary.

Traditionally designed to be made using cheap, not-exactly-archival materials and destroyed for fun, a piñata may present conservation challenges to an institution. Following this exhibition, the pieces will "rest" for two years as a preservation protocol.

"I never thought a piñata would ever be part of a museum's permanent collection. But also it's been part of this, like, hilarious dream that I've had since I was 12, where I've wanted to save piñatas. I wanted to find a way to preserve them forever. And this is basically accomplishing that. It's like these two pieces are going to live on forever," Benavídez said.

"But also, as I was researching how many institutions have piñatas, and unfortunately not that many — they have papier-mâché objects, but it's really nice to see that finally, there's going to be representation for piñatas. And I think that traditional piñata makers are gonna feel that sense of honor that their artwork, their craft has been represented through a museum's collection."

Julia Dixon Evans writes the KPBS Arts newsletter, produces and edits the KPBS/Arts Calendar and works with the KPBS team to cover San Diego's diverse arts scene. Previously, Julia wrote the weekly Culture Report for Voice of San Diego and has reported on arts, culture, books, music, television, dining, the outdoors and more for The A.V. Club, Literary Hub and San Diego CityBeat. She studied literature at UCSD (where she was an oboist in the La Jolla Symphony), and is a published novelist and short fiction writer. She is the founder of Last Exit, a local reading series and literary journal, and she won the 2019 National Magazine Award for Fiction. Julia lives with her family in North Park and loves trail running, vegan tacos and live music.
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Matthew Bowler is an award-winning journalist from San Diego. Bowler comes from a long line of San Diego journalists. Both his father and grandfather worked as journalists covering San Diego. He is also a third generation San Diego State University graduate, where he studied art with a specialty in painting and printmaking. Bowler moved to the South of France after graduating from SDSU. While there he participated in many art exhibitions. The newspaper “La Marseillaise” called his work “les oeuvres impossible” or “the impossible works.” After his year in Provence, Bowler returned to San Diego and began to work as a freelance photographer for newspapers and magazines. Some years later, he discovered his passion for reporting the news, for getting at the truth, for impacting lives. Bowler is privileged to have received many San Diego Press Club Awards along with two Emmy's.