For many San Antonians, regardless of cultural background, a kid’s birthday party is not complete without a piñata. 

The origins of the tradition of making and smashing piñatas in celebratory ritual are a bit unclear, with some claiming it dates back to the Aztecs and others claiming it was brought to Mexico almost 450 years ago by the Spanish, who adopted the practice after explorer Marco Polo brought it back to Europe from Asia.

In The Magical Piñata, which will finish up its run at The Magik Theatre this weekend, the piñata is viewed through the lens of its importance to Mexican and Mexican American families. The bilingual piece, an original musical with book and lyrics by Karen Zacarias and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, teaches simple yet powerful lessons about sharing, presence, and culture.

For JoJanie Moreno, the Magik Theatre’s education director and the director of The Magical Piñata, this production exemplifies intentional representation in action.

“In a city that celebrates Latino culture and pride, and where we have so many bilingual families, I think it is important for our community to see themselves represented on stage — not just in appearance but also in the stories that are being told,” she said.

“Children’s theatre,” she added, “has an obligation to create stories with messages that teach and inspire kids across all demographic lines.”

The Magik Theatre’s production of The Magical Piñata features music performed by members of Mariachi Azteca de América. Gumecindo “Gino” Rivera, a founding member and director of the group, adapted the music for the production. 

The story starts with Cucha, a selfish and lonely girl in the Mexican town of Zapotoco – played by Molly Martinez-Collins – sulking over her birthday gifts.

Cucha is visited by Señor Cumpleaños, played by Rivera, who offers her a chance to exchange her gifts for a truly great gift that promises further gifts within. She takes the mysterious character up on his offer, only to become further dejected when the gift turns out to be a dusty, old clay pot — the material that formed the base for piñatas before the safer and easier alternative of papier-mâché became the preferred material.

The pot transports Cucha to a mysterious jungle where she meets Burro Burrito, who teaches her to value and learn from the past, Señor Chapulin, who teaches her to live and love in the present, and Parrot Rivera, who teaches her the importance of imagination in envisioning the future. All of these characters, each with their own fantastical and culturally-rooted costumes, are played by Rudy Ramirez.

Rivera, who has led Mariachi Azteca in only one previous stage production of this nature, said that “learning the theater aspect of it helps mariachi players become better performers in general” by challenging their “musical ability and creativity.”

“In order to be a well-rounded musician,” Rivera said, “you have to be willing to explore anything that involves music,” including live theater.

Moreno said that she could not “imagine creating the magic of this production without having the live music component.” 

“While scheduling professional musicians with actors and rehearsal can be tricky,” she said, “I was really fortunate to have such a great team of musicians who were completely committed and went above and beyond to make The Magical Piñata such a vibrant show.” 

Regarding the visual aspects of the production, Moreno said that she and her team knew that they wanted to pay special attention to the visuals surrounding each of the important lessons learned by Cucha.

“Our set designer came up with a beautiful way to focus on those spirit animals and, in our own way, make them a version of the Mexican Alebrijes we celebrate,” Moreno said, referencing the trio of characters that guide Cucha’s journey to understanding.

These spirit animals, or Alebrijes, large wooden versions of which adorn the jungle, add mystical contour to The Magical Piñata and awaken Cucha to the value in the quotidian, to the importance of heritage and tradition, and to the joy of community.

“We live in such a materialistic society,” Moreno said when discussing the thematic aims of the production, “but, I think if we can teach our kids to play again, and put down the electronics, and embrace who they are and where they came from, we can have much more well-rounded kids that are not afraid of learning about each other.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.