How do you make a better piata?
A Mexican party isn't complete without a piata.
Melesio Vicente Flores and Cecilia Albarran Gonzalez have spent the last 25 years making the papier-mache figures. The figures will later be stuffed with candies. Then they will be broken open with a stick or club.
As they practice the centuries-old tradition of piata-making, the couple caters to a smaller market of consumers. The buyers want higher quality "artistic" figures that pay greater attention to detail. Still, competition is tight. More run-of-the mill piata makers sell their creations more cheaply.
The family lives in a four-story house. It is on the east side of Mexico's sprawling capital. The Vicente-Albarran family fashions cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse for children's birthdays. Or they create caricatures of despised politicians for protests.
Now in their 50s, the couple began making piatas in 1989. Now their business includes their daughter, Elvia Vicente Albarran, and son-in-law, Guillermo Luna Martinez.
On the rooftop of their shared home, Luna covers in newspaper cement molds in the shapes of body parts. Then he lays them out to dry. One story below, mother and daughter cut newspapers into strips. They coat them in glue made from wheat flour. They layer them over gaps left after the shapes are cut from the molds. Vicente assembles the pieces into completed characters.
After drying in the sun, the piatas are brought inside to be painted. Colorful paper and tape create eyes, hair styles and costume details.
It takes about two days to complete a piata during the dry season. It takes twice as long during the rains. With all four people working, the family can make 40 to 60 piatas a week.
"It's hard work and there are lots of things to do. So there is no chance of getting bored. Time flies," Albarran says.
Favorites among the different figures include Spiderman and Buzz Lightyear. Characters from the Disney hit "Frozen" currently appear to be top sellers. Albarran says "princesses never go out of fashion."
Albarran says her family's more elaborate piatas sell wholesale for around $12. They sell about 50 per week.
"We earn just enough to get by," Vicente said.
The family hopes to keep making piatas as long as possible.
"We are not here to make ourselves rich," says Albarran. "We like our job."
Critical thinking challenge: What two things have competitors done to lower prices?