Smashing it: Colombian-born Piñata maker brings joy to French children

Her unique studio lights up central Paris with a Latin American tradition 

Elena Farah next to a piñata in the shape of a mushroom
Elena Farah was born in Colombia and built up her Paris-based business after making a piñata for her son’s school
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La Piñata is hard to miss on the Rue des Vinaigriers, a street in the 10th arrondissement of Paris leading towards the Canal Saint-Martin.

The shop’s name is painted in green on a floral background and its red front door is adorned with balloons. The inside is similarly vibrant, with all sorts of animals and fictional characters hanging from the ceiling.

As you might expect, the shop sells piñatas – papier-mâché containers smashed by children during celebrations to release sweets and treats.

“I believe I am the only registered piñata boutique in Europe,” Elena Farah, the Colombian-born piñatera, told The Connexion in her workshop at the shop.

Elephants and stars

There are unusual objects wherever you look: an elephant stands patiently in a corner while a star dries quietly in another.

“My job is about making children happy. I sell joy,” Ms Farah said, as she added glue to newspaper pages to stick the paper-mâché onto her latest creation, a hen.

“Its head looks too small compared to the body,” she said, glancing at what then looked more like a round ball than a domestic fowl. “What do you think?” she asked.

While the origins of the piñata are subject to debate among historians, it was in Spain where the tradition established itself in popular culture and Spaniards then introduced it to Latin America through colonisation.

The form of piñata most well-known to Westerners is the Mexican version – a seven-pointed star representing the seven deadly sins and broke open during Christmas celebrations.

School party

Ms Farah started her piñata business from her flat in 1986. Her first was a strawberry, made for a party hosted at her son's primary school.

She graduated from art school in Bogotá, Colombia before studying at Goldsmiths, University of London, specialising in printmaking. There, she fell in love with a Frenchman and moved to Paris in 1978.

Struggling to make ends meet and looking for a way to earn a living, she started making piñatas almost by accident. 

The dragon she had made for her son caught the attention of an English parent at the school, who became her first client. 

Her customer base grew very slowly until she was offered a stand at the entrance of an exhibition centred on Mexican culture at the Printemps Haussmann in 1992. 

This led to a massive spike in new customers and she was finally able to open her shop in 2002, thanks to a grant from a Paris entrepreneur initiative.

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Three stages

Piñata-crafting is a three-stage process:

Ms Farah blows up a balloon. Then, she covers it with pages of glued newspaper and lets it dry.

Her newspaper of choice is Le Monde, thanks to an arrangement with a woman from a nearby building who gives her used copies. However, she kindly agreed to make The Connexion a piñata too, using pages from the latest edition. 

Finally, she covers the paper-mâché with fringed, coloured paper and any necessary details, a process which takes around four hours.

She keeps photos of past piñatas in a scrapbook. It is filled with images of animals, stars, fruits and vegetables, as well as movie and video-game characters.

She refuses to craft ones depicting politicians, with Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron being her two most commonly requested figures.

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Disneyland Paris

Ms Farah has been hired by various firms including Disneyland Paris, which ordered 150 pumpkins for Halloween, Nokia, which requested 50 Nokia phones for a company party, the Galeries Lafayette and the fashion design company Sonia Rykiel. 

However, she is most proud of her 15-year partnership with French prisons. 

Ms Farah set up piñata workshops and has worked with inmates of La Santé, Fleury-Mérogis and Poissy prisons in the Ile-de-France region, hailing it “the most interesting and enriching human experience I have ever known” on her website.

In 2013, the Colombian news show 100 Colombianos dicen, toured the world profiling 100 Colombian expatriates and filmed Ms Farah. Her dedication captured the hearts of Colombians and it was voted the show’s best episode.

A final question cannot go unasked.

How does it feel to know that her work is systematically destroyed by children? 

“I never think about it,” she said. “Do you think about how long the chef has spent preparing your food at a restaurant or do you just enjoy the dish? I focus on the joy it brings the children instead.”

“It is a nice job, right? ‘What did you do today?’ I made a hen.”