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Ethnic City: gotta lotta pinata

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"Attacking a pinata is a lot like attacking life," says Governor Lewis. "You go in blind, and there aren't very many rules. You sort of have to swing at it, and if you hit it just the right way you get all the rewards of life. If you screw up and don't use your instincts, you miss and you die."

"And the next guy gets a chance," says Mary Marquez.

Marquez, Lewis, and a 12-member crew have created the world's largest pinata, and if everything goes as planned, this weekend their 30-foot-6-inch red-and-white papier-mache cake should make it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

"I have been making pinatas for so long," says Marquez. "I thought, wouldn't it be nice to make the biggest pinata there ever was? For this we get published in the book. You know how you feel when you get your name in the paper? That's the feeling."

Marquez, mother of five, and Lewis, father of two, both began making pinatas for their children. "I could not afford to buy those $45 pinatas just so my kids could break them," says Marquez. "I thought I could easily make one of those--and make it better." Soon she was sculpting pinatas for the kids in her neighborhood, and then friends of friends began calling.

Last January she opened Mex-Am Distributors in a rented storefront in Pilsen and began selling her colorful papier-mache sculptures wholesale to grocery stores. She and Lewis also custom design them for people--a turkey pinata at Thanksgiving, a dove for a church celebration. Her shop is festooned with frosted cakes, green and orange dice, guitars, watermelons, dinosaurs, traditional Mexican stars.

"There are very few companies that custom design them," she says, "so it's hard to get exactly what you want. One woman came in and wanted a male for a bachelorette party. She goes, "I want the organs showing.' So I took this superhero I had and transformed him into a masochist with a black mask, boots, and gloves. It was very detailed. She was embarrassed to take him out of the store, so I had to put him in a bag for her."

Marquez didn't think seriously about going for the record books until last March, when she hooked up with Lewis at a festival where she was selling her pinatas. Lewis, a house remodeler and toy maker, was able to tell her exactly how to engineer her cake design. At the time the Guinness record was a 27-foot metal Pepsi cup topped with a sombrero, built in 1990 in Miami. The two set a deadline for the last weekend in July so they could unveil their cake at the Fiesta del Sol celebration in Pilsen.

They worked in the enclosed area behind the storefront, doing marathon shifts through the first deadly heat wave of the summer. "We were real idiots," says Lewis. "It was a hundred and something degrees, and there's this big white thing in the middle reflecting heat all over the place. People were ducking and dodging all around it trying to put it together."

As the deadline approached, the crew was way behind schedule due to the heat and a sudden change in where the pinata was to be unveiled. Finally the sculpture was loaded onto a truck, and the wind blew an eight-foot section onto the road, cracking it. By the time the pinata was reconstructed, delivered, and hoisted by crane above the waiting crowd, the media had moved on, putting the record temporarily out of reach. To become a Guinness record holder an applicant is required to submit two newspaper articles, as well as photos and two letters of confirmation from public officials. But Marquez and Lewis managed to get a high-profile spot at this weekend's "Viva! Chicago" Latin Music Festival in Grant Park, and they got a soft-drink manufacturer to sponsor them.

Because the pinata is so big--Lewis estimates it weighs about 500 pounds--they had to forgo the traditional method of beating the pinata blindfolded to release what's inside. Instead someone will trigger a trapdoor in the base of the cake, dumping more than 250 pounds of candy, and 75 children chosen by lottery will then rush in. "Two hundred fifty pounds of candy is 250 pounds," says Lewis. "We can't have that falling on anyone's head."

The candy will drop at 3 PM on Sunday, August 27, at Grant Park at Jackson and Columbus. For more information call 744-3370.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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