How do you make a better piata?
A Mexican party isn't complete without a piata, and Melesio Vicente Flores and Cecilia Albarran Gonzalez have spent the last 25 years making high-end versions of the papier-mch figures, which will later be stuffed with candies and 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 demanding higher quality "artistic" figures that pay greater attention to detail. Still, competition is tight as more run-of-the mill piata makers sell their creations more cheaply. Three other rooftops full of the drying figures are visible on the hillside below the couple's workshop and home.
At their four-story house, built into a hillside on the east side of Mexico's sprawling capital, the Vicente-Albarran family fashions cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse for children's birthdays, or caricatures of despised politicians for protests.
Now in their 50s, the couple began making piatas in 1989 and later expanded the family business to include their daughter, Elvia Vicente Albarran, and son-in-law, Guillermo Luna Martinez.
On the rooftop of their shared home, Luna covers with newspaper cement molds in the shapes of body parts and lays them out to dry. One story below, mother and daughter cut newspapers into strips, coat them in glue made from wheat flour and layer 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, 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.
Perennial favorites among the different figures include Spiderman and Buzz Lightyear. Characters from the Disney hit "Frozen" currently appear to be top sellers in local markets, and Albarran says "princesses never go out of fashion."
Piata vendors keep the craftsmen apprised of the market. Gerardo Moreno Alejo, who sells piatas at La Merced, one of Mexico City's biggest markets, says university students requested piatas of President Enrique Pena Nieto late last year amid anger over the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers college.
Albarran says more recent entrants to the trade have cut prices and lowered quality, causing many people to leave the business. Her family's more elaborate piatas sell wholesale for around 180 pesos, or $12. Other vendors using cheaper materials sell theirs for several dollars less, a price difference many shoppers can't resist.
"Before if we sold 100, now we sell 50 in a week," says Vicente. "We earn just enough to get by."
Still, they hope 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?