Piñata Theory: On Growth and Masculinity

As a Mexican American poet, tapping into my interior meant breaking through a shell of expectations for men of color

Art by Lisa Max (Oakland School for the Arts student)

Stage One: Body

There’s something distinctly violent about piñatas. How they’re formed from discarded scraps into a beautiful fragility that we publicly destroy — a celebratory smashing at a young age. How they’re colorfully filled with sweets and goods to be grabbed by a hustle of hands once their insides are spilled. How, at parties, we act as both witnesses and participants in this act of playful breakage.

As a first-generation Mexican American, I grew up watching literal piñatas being bashed, and was often the kid most excited to do the actual bashing. But as I’ve grown older and developed a critical consciousness, I’ve also realized that piñatas can be metaphorical.

The “piñata theory” states that those who fall outside of any institutional status quos are more likely to be battered in invisible (and visible) ways. Whether layered with a certain skin tone, a certain citizenship status, a certain education or economic level, or a lack of social access, many of us are covered with exteriors that are more susceptible to predatory stereotypes, rigid gender expectations, or stifling limitations in our society that often prevent us from becoming healthy, successful, and emotionally vulnerable men. It’s no secret that being a young Black or Brown male in this country will introduce you to the realities of struggle sooner than most peers: to be roped or to do the roping, to get hit or to punch back, to take or to be taken — a vicious cycle that repeats until many become fractured and discarded.

I wasn’t sure how to process this at first — this sense of expected aggression, internalized quietness, and male ego that gets placed upon all of us to perform a certain role. Behind my baggy jeans and goofy self, I didn’t care much for anything serious. I knew I wasn’t the person that I felt like I was conditioned to be — a classroom slacker — but I wasn’t sure how to resist the lane I’d felt steered into by friends and even teachers. Early on, I learned that swishing a free throw or outrunning others on the field was far more valuable than turning in a homework assignment, so, for the entirety of my adolescence, I never turned in my school work and just focused on anything except academics.

Every year, I took recovery credits to regain my lost grades, hung out with my older brother and his friends, sat in hot California classrooms with my boys, cracked jokes, took 25-minute bathroom breaks, and sometimes didn’t even show up to classes. I have vivid memories of times we’d walk out in the middle of History, a small pack of unsupervised boys, just to wander around the neighborhood because we were bored that day. I remember my teachers — mostly white and middle-aged — would pass us with Ds so they didn’t have to see us next year. Other times, they would send us out of class. Even rarer, they would actually take us aside and share some humor or affection to get us refocused.

I went to an affluent suburban high school in the South Bay Area, near where I grew up along Highway 101— a school that I shouldn’t have attended but did. My older brother wanted to go there because his best friend who lived on the other side of Mountain View enrolled there, and as the younger sibling, I had no choice but to attend as well. (Ironically, my brother’s best friend at the time — like us, a first-generation Mexican American with immigrant parents — ended up dropping out and working at a local grocery store, but I finished my four years at Los Altos where I didn’t know most people on my first days because it wasn’t the school where most of homies from middle school attended). In retrospect, I recognize the privilege of having had access to this academic experience as a teen. Even when I was failing my classes or placed in remedial courses with other boys in my grade, I can look back and see that there were structures in place for me to succeed in ways that my counterparts attending other schools in the Bay Area didn’t have.

I started to realize that America is one giant piñata in which some of us do the breaking, and some of us get broken.

When I reached community college, I began to understand my privileges. Even though I was the son of Mexican immigrants and lived in a single-parent household, I still had a father who took care of me and my brother financially, and a mom who didn’t live with us but was creatively inspiring in her freeness. Above all, I was a U.S. citizen, something my closest friends growing up were not. I remember going to kick it every day after school — or sometimes during school hours — at my friends’ houses in other cities and seeing what their struggles looked like. That’s the beauty of the Bay Area; you could go all over the place as a teenager, and the diversity gave us numerous windows into other experiences.

I realized that sharing a bedroom with my older brother in an apartment actually wasn’t that bad — some of my homies lived with two or three siblings in their rooms. My best friend — whose family was unfortunately deported back to Mexico years later — used to have waves of cousins, uncles, and aunts regularly coming through and living in his garage. Meanwhile, I had other friends who lived comfortably, in what I considered to be mansions. I started to realize that America is one giant piñata in which some of us do the breaking, and some of us get broken.

Stage Two: Breaking

As I matured, I began to understand I had power as a young Chicanx person. I’d started doing graffiti, going to break dance events, freestyling with my crew at parties, and generally learning about what it meant to be a Latinx Californian. Since I never connected with any of the curricula at my high school — which explains my 2.3 GPA and why I got kicked out of programs like AVID — I started to seek knowledge elsewhere.

I studied the Black Panthers, the Chicano Movement, and the United Farm Workers. I listened to Tupac, E-40, Hieroglyphics, and A Tribe Called Quest. I attended political talks on campus. Soon, I became involved in L.U.C.H.A, a student-run group of immigrant and first-gen students at the community college I attended. We’d meet up, organize political actions, and attend protests from San Jose to San Francisco, teaching each other what it meant to be a positive influence in our communities.

We partied, too, but even the parties felt distinctly purposeful: Luchador masks, hyphy music, and tequila after a night of reading revolutionary literature in someone’s living room or backyard. We were young and idealistic, but those early years shaped my outlook on how much work needed to be done in our eclectic lives to make a change. And the change, as cliche as it sounds, needed to start from within.

I committed to learn more about others, myself, my culture. I traveled to Mexico and spent summers with my abuelo and family, who to this day still live in Veracruz. Most of them have never even left Mexico to visit us in Cali, but I had the opportunity and blessing to discover a sense of dual-living by visiting them instead. The more I became tuned into these realities outside of my Bay Area bubble, the more I felt like something was missing in my world. I wanted to write about it in an authentic way that I didn’t feel was always represented in the literature I’d been assigned. By then, I had gotten my shit together and attended U.C. Berkeley as a transfer student. With the help of transitional programs and groups like June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, I began to feel a sense of home in my voice and identity in ways I’d never experienced before — especially not in academia.

And that’s when I think I was broken — in a good way — for the first time. Everything I held in began to flow out. All the stories, vibrations, colors; the angers and disappointments; the tranquility and beauties and hopes. A sort of spillage of rainbows just dumped themselves onto the page.

I penned times about driving on dirt roads with my abuelo in the back of his Jeep, and seeing the Mexican military who carried M-16s like we carry grocery bags here in the States. I wrote about how my mom had struggled, moving from city to city, job to job, man to man. She came to the U.S. at 16 and had my brother and me at a young age. She was never able to discover herself in a real way until she did something unorthodox for a Mexican mother by independently pursuing her own lifestyle while trying to balance us at the same time. She never had the privileges I did. I wanted to embrace these truths, from the weirdly personal to the most universal. I wasn’t good at writing poetry, but it felt like a safe place to share my brokenness and have it received tenderly by classmates and professors who kept telling me I had a talent to share.

I’ll never forget when one of my professors — a visually-impaired, white, middle-aged woman who would listen to our assignments from a voice-automated program on her computer— read my story about growing up in California. She simply said, “You will be a voice of your generation.” No one had ever told me things like that before. For me, just some kid who sat in the back row of my classes at Berkeley with other Black, Brown, and over-aged transfer students, I felt like I had been seen by a person who ironically had never even seen what I looked like. I learned that I was an observer, a listener, a witness, as well as a participant, and poetry felt like the most organic way to bring this all to light. I began to invest myself in the act of breaking. If I dug deep enough into my history, I could find more flavors in the form of poems and essays and the revelations they could feed.

Stage Three: Gathering

It wasn’t always pretty, of course. Writing, as it turns out, is horrendously difficult. Much like the brutal act of a piñata being beaten down from a dangled rope, we expose ourselves for public spectacle by figuratively battering our sense of the world to see what comes falling out. Sometimes, it’s bright and tangy and brings an irresistible taste. Other times, it’s spoiled, discolored, or shattered into irrecoverable pieces, and feels like we’ve cheated ourselves and others by wasting our swings against the weightless air.

Again, I like to think of it as a privileged form of self-interrogation — knowing that to get the most authentic material (at least for me), I have to confront uncomfortable topics, discussions, or truths that might be easily avoided in a regular context — and that I have created the space and time to do so. I began to see myself as empowered by my past, rather than discouraged by it. I acknowledge that is a comfort I am allowed by factors like my gender, age, and class, among other various factors, and I didn’t get here on my own. As poets, we seek and create community, and that’s ultimately what opened doors for me.

It’s not about creating some empty spectacle, either. Poets believe that by breaking our sense of form and order in the literal world, we can somehow regather ourselves and what we know in a way that speaks indirectly to some deeper intuition within us. Perhaps we can heighten some vibration that a casual dialogue can’t, simply because our internal meditation requires isolation — a rarity in modern times. Writing poems has become a form of questioning, rather than answering, and that sometimes leads to a discovery of a different self.

As a kid who grew up thinking there was no value or purpose in sharing my words with anyone— unless it had to do with a sports debate or talking shit to my friends while smoking a blunt and playing Madden — I kept a lot to myself. I think a lot of us, particularly boys of color, are conditioned to do this. To withhold and reserve rather than to gift or embrace. To say less rather than overshare. To let the mystery and complexity of ourselves remain a secret not only to others but to our very own consciousness, forever tucked away beneath our fitted caps. But this can be more destructive and toxic than anything else.

Writing poems becomes an act of rebellion against masculine normativity — at least, it feels that way for me, and how I was raised. Often seen as a feminine expression, we get trained to think poetry is traditionally for women, and rap and other forms of verbal hustling is for men. I never once told my boys I was thinking of writing poems. Why would I give them a reason to think of me otherwise?

Piñata Theory. Image: Lisa Max

Some of us hold on to our piñata exteriors until they become who we are. I did it for a long time, until poetry helped me swing back. For decades since, I’ve been trying to break my surfaces in a never-ending process of reshaping who I am, what I think about society, and who I want to be as a future father, educator, and mentor for others I relate to or who relate with me. There is still much work to be done, but looking back on who I used to be — not better, not worse, but a different version of myself — it’s almost unbelievable how much I have been able to peel back, and how much there is still to learn about myself, and I know I’m not alone as a poet who has felt this.

I recently published my second poetry collection, Piñata Theory, after many years of collecting these pieces around me. I even attended graduate school for my MFA, and stuffed it all into this book. The work required me to leave my job and focus on my writing, giving myself the time and space I felt I deserved — another taboo for men — but it was worth it, since Piñata Theory has become my celebration and my tragedy, my song and my silence, my brokenness and my wholeness.

If nothing else, I hope some young person gets their hands on this book, or any other book of poems they can see themselves in, and decides that they are okay with being broken, too. If that moment happens for them, then this has all been worth it. Until then, I’ll continue to write about the tiny piñatas inside me that still need filling, breaking, and regathering.

Bay Area writer, blogger, teacher. Books: Piñata Theory (2020); This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019). Twitter + IG: @alan_chazaro

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