Piñata follows Mexican American architect, Carmen Sanchez, and her two daughters, Izel and Luna, who accompany their mother to her hometown of Tulancingo on a job. Carmen has been tasked with turning an old, disused missionary into a hotel and utilizes the opportunity to show her daughters where she grew up. As is often the case with missions, the place has a dark history. When the trio discovers a hidden room, that dark history is brought into the present. The gods of ancient, pre-invasion Mexico, long buried beneath the churches and missionaries of the land, find a way back through Carmen's family. As they return to New York and attempt to forget the incident, they come to find the histories of where we come from aren’t shaken so easily. And that’s as far as we’ll go without really spoiling much!
Piñata author Leopoldo Gout joined us to talk about the inspiration behind his new novel, and the Mexican influence within the pages.
Since childhood, as a Mexican, you are always very aware of the incredible layered bloody history of Mexico… For example, the center of Mexico City actually lies on top of ancient pyramids -so it’s so shocking when you are a kid and you experience this underground city within your city. You can go down into the Templo Mayor and it’s under our government buildings and mayor cathedral. It’s a surreal journey filled with those extraordinary Aztec sculptures that etches in your minds eye.
In fact, in some areas near the Zocalo, (downtown Mexico) they literally have Aztec faces breaking up from the pavement. Trying to escape their tragic past. So not only did we experience this, and the incredible powerful art of many different indigenous cultures, but we lived amongst that power. When you are a sensitive young artist this haunts you forever.
My late mother, Andrea Valeria, used to host indigenous families in our home and foster deep connections and friendships with them. One of the greatest and most fascinating differences between our cultures that I gleaned from those days was the attribution of value. We might appraise the value of a mask by the intricacy of its design, how much labor it would have taken, the vibrance and skillful application of paint, or the simple beauty of them. They, however attributed value to each mask only by how “danced” they were, quite literally how much one had been worn during the act of dancing determined its value. It was a value determined by the amount of energy which had been poured into an object after its creation, how much life the empty eyes of the mask had seen.
I was absolutely over the moon when, as a child, we discovered that my father was actually descendent from a Zapotec woman far up his family tree. I had this real, blood connection to the history of my country, if only by one distant drop.
My curiosity never wavered, and I do a lot of research now. After writing my first horror novel GHOST RADIO I found some images where the Catholic frays who came during the conquest of Mexico introduced piñatas as a kind of liturgy which simultaneously served as a perversion of existing Nahua traditions around breaking open clay pots as offerings. Catholic friars would paint the Nahua’s gods on the piñatas and force children to violently break them. Then to eat the flesh and guts of those gods represented in the food they would hide inside.
Piñata stemmed from this image of hungry children, taken from their family, their culture and forced to destroy the image of their gods if they were to get the food within. The image and idea were so extraordinarily horrific I didn’t sleep for days thinking about it. I wrote the beginning story right away and felt transported, like I had been a witness to such horror.
Piñata is a story about a deep fear and anger at having one’s culture, language, home, family, art, and history taken. I wanted to explore that horror from the first pages as it is the context that the novel takes place, as much as it is the context of indigenous history in Mexico.
This layer was added to a deep exploration and confrontation with the fears I got during these past years about my own kids. Raising my daughter in NYC and thinking both the good parts and also the missing parts of living in Mexico amongst some of its magic and depth. It made me reflect on so many things that triggered Piñata.
Piñata is now available from all you favorite book sellers, but you can read an exclusive excerpt right here. Before we dive into this exclusive sneak peek, Gout is going to set the scene for us a bit.
In the 16th century: a group of young Nahua are being abusively evangelized in a Spanish mission forced to shatter the ritual objects of their ancestors. Ketzali grabs one and runs away. She hides it in the mission before making her escape. More than 500 hundred years later Carmen a New York Mexican American architect brings Luna and Izel her two teenage daughters to Mexico with her on a job renovating an old mission in Tulancingo.
There is a lot of my own fears about raising kids in New York City, and elements of the things I built here and the things I’ve lost. The excerpt you will read is when the family is in Mexico, and how the two daughters are taking in this world in very different ways. I love the horror genre and its generosity to writers for playing with all your demons, your dreams and your nightmares.