Birthday Parties

Birthday cake face (photo: Dwight Wayne Coop)

Birthday cake face (photo: Dwight Wayne Coop)

My sons are still in their cavity-prone years, so I attended 19 birthday parties last year—three for my boys and 16 for their playmates. Each had its odd turn or twist. To avoid the charge of ethnocentrism, I’ll admit here that Central Americans do no worse a job of honoring their birthday boys and girls than do parents in the United States. So the observations that follow are offered in a spirit of fascination, not contempt.

One defense of Central American birthday parties is that the piñata industry would wither without them. Provincial Panajachel has three full-time piñata wrights, and Guatemala City has entire neighborhoods of them. The industry is also recession-proof, since kids keep having birthdays and because, to date, China hasn’t found a way to undersell local piñata makers. Whereas Guatemalan piñatas succumb after about 40 or so blows, the theoretical Chinese version crumbles with the one-percent increase of barometric pressure it experiences when pulled from the shopping bag.

So with all this going for local, handmade piñatas, who are we to, um, knock them? In fact, with the diaspora of Central Americans into the United States, parents there are finding they can substitute piñatas for balloon-sculpting clowns, which cost more and tend to complain if little Joey kicks them because he didn’t get a Buzz Lightyear.

Now although piñatas have migrated abroad, their handmaiden, the sorpresa (surprise), has not. Here is how sorpresas work: bigger, faster kids do better in the piñata scramble, so afterwards everybody gets a little goodie bag. The piñata itself is stuffed with cheapo candy and, sometimes, peanuts. Sorpresas, contrarily, are doles of little toys and the kind of candy you want on the coffee table when your fiancee’s parents visit. Sorpresas, then, are the great equalizer at birthday parties.

There is also an equalizing principle in the area of gifts. Unlike in the United States, the birthday child normally waits until everyone leaves before opening the presents, which lack a “To Pepito from …” tag. This protects the anonymity of guests who spent little on the gift, which is nice for those of limited means. However, it seems understood that if you are conspicuously affluent, relative to the other guests, then your gift must be accordingly conspicuous.

The climax of the party seems to be the rostrazo that precedes rounds of Happy boorday to joo! and Ya queremos pastel! Just after Little Pepito blows out the candles, which is not always done, somebody nudges Pepito’s face into the cake. This rite is always attempted if the child is under about 7 or otherwise unwary of the ritual. Perhaps he forgot last year’s indignity.

For those of you new to Central America, I am not making this up. Anyone who has attended birthday parties in these cold tropics can confirm this. The surprise is not the inevitability of the action, but the victim’s reaction or, if he is wise to it, his resistance. No two occurrences are exactly alike.

Now, reader, one has to wonder. Are exemptions made whenever the kid has visible symptoms of, say, a head cold? I mean, really! If not, then can you imagine yourself angling for a slice remote from the crash site? If it took place at the top right corner of Sponge Bob’s head, then perhaps the lower left corner of the “square pants” is potentially more appetizing.

As far as candles are concerned, Central Americans do us one better and make up for the graceless rostrazo. Instead of several little candles, a wax numeral is often all that is there. Many times I have seen the child remove this and extinguish it with a sanitary whiff. This beats the lung wringing that accompanies the gusting of a handful of candles straggling all over Sponge Bob. I remember how, at the age of 10, I made a birthday cake for my 4-year-old sister. She wound up spitting more than blowing. Hmm. Maybe I will take my chance with a caked marred by a rostrazo.

Sponge Bob’s presence as a cake motif is also revealing. Go to enough parties and, sooner or later, you encounter Dora the Explorer, Homer Simpson and “Espaiderman.” The observation? That globalism has penetrated even the waifish recess of birthday celebration. But outsiders advance globalism by their presence; every party with non-natives present is an affirmation that uniformity breeds expectation.

My friends Grant and Sue, from Australia and Austria, respectively, recently invited us to celebrate their daughter’s fourth birthday. Among the guests, I counted people from no less than 13 countries and five continents. And I did what I have found is the best thing you can do, if you don’t want to spend money on toys that self-destruct within 48 hours, and if you want to relieve the harried parents. It is this: Be available, cash in hand, for last-minute errands to buy more hot dog buns or punch, then sweep up the piñata detritus. Reader, you should try this; the parents, after all, do most of the remembering.

And indeed, these parties are more for parents than parents may want to admit. I know two Guatemalan families that had multiple miscarriages before they had a live baby. Both spared no expense on that first birthday party. I imagine that parents in other countries, even mine, would do the same. And I imagine 1-year-old Pepito crying while it plays out and then taking a long nap after the fuss ends.

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