The shop used to import their piñatas from Mexico until the Border Patrol became worried about drugs and started busting them open looking for a kind of sugar not usually found at children's birthday parties. Like so many other south-of-the-border traditions, a real piñata is a mix of both secular tradition (hence, the plethora of papier-mâché Minnie Mice and ninjas for sale at Sanchez) and Catholic symbolism.
The seven-pointed star piñata, Sanchez's specialty, is actually a part of the Mexi-Catholic Christmas celebration. The points on the star represent the devil and the seven deadly sins, the goodies inside are blessings El Diablo is hiding, and busting it open releases them. Not into Catholic guilt? Here's another tradition we can all get behind here in the desert: The Aztecs used to fill clay piñatas with water.
We must have been looking in the wrong places, because not long ago, at a joint birthday party for sisters, ages 4 and 6, we spied a super-cute pull piñata out the window, and asked the hostess (a collector of all things vintage, as well as some amazing Day of the Dead art) where she landed the pastel-trimmed piñata, complete with several telltale magenta strings hanging from the bottom.
"Party City," came the blunt reply. "Duh," we thought to ourselves. No need to traipse through Guadalupe when a perfectly good (although not particularly ethnic) pull piñata is right there in a variety of shapes, sizes and characters at one of the Valley's largest party store chains.
"Yeah," said the hostess, laughing, as confetti and candy rained down on the kids, who immediately began brawling over the gummy bears. "They call these the non-aggressive piñatas."
At least no one got whacked in the head with a baseball bat.
The shop has row after row of dresses to choose from, ranging in color from the traditional pink quince dress, to bright blues, to white, another common choice. A seamstress is on-site to provide alterations in case your dream dress doesn't fit exactly how you want it to. And if you're on a budget, layaway is available. The shop can also provide help with floral arrangements and invitations. Bridals by Ofelia also provides tuxedos and less-fancy dresses to make sure all the damas and chambelanes in your quince party look (almost) as good as you do.
But Ch.A.L.E. is more than just an online retailer. An entire community of Phoenix Latinos has sprung up around it especially women. The site's message boards are full of dichos (advice, gringos, advice) for new Chicana mothers, and the small company sponsors events in support of the Mexican and Mexican-American community. Almezaga is one mujer revolucionaria, and we love it.
The Mercado's side yard also holds hundreds of outdoor necessities, from tin fountains to terra cotta planters. Our favorite details are always the small ones, though, which is why we were excited to find a collection of tiny Dia de los Muertos skeletons next to a bin of child-size maracas, and a great selection of those tiny bobblehead turtles that little kids sell on the street in Nogales.
Real treasure-hunters will be excited about the selection of tree bark paintings and authentically painted Casas Grandes pottery, which originated thousands of years ago in the northern Mexico region of Paquime.
Not so at El Pueblito. You can run your hands over the huge pine and mahogany tables here and still feel the grainy imperfection that comes from a piece of furniture that's been carved by hand and shipped over hundreds of miles from Guadalajara to Phoenix. You can find similarly rustic Caballero trunks and unfinished clay pots here, where the pieces reflect the rich mix of Aztec and Spanish craftsmanship that defines Mexican furniture-making. The store is small but literally packed with some of the best and most authentic furniture, not to mention accessories what casa is complete without a carved pine cross to hang over the fireplace? Owners Cesar Serrano and Mario Joya are also willing to accommodate special orders and have the connections south of the border to bring you exactly what you want.
Okay, happy now, Mom?
True story: We were out and about in Scottsdale, doing deep undercover research for this year's "Best of." (Hey, it's a nasty job, but someone's gotta do it.) And we wanted to round out the "La Vida" section with a place that offers Mexican-style furnishings at affordable prices. We racked our brain and listened to that voice in our head: "Go to Razmataz." For years, Mom had been saying it. For years, we'd said, "Yeah, yeah." It's not that Mom doesn't have great taste and a well-appointed home (two, in fact), but well, you know, she's Mom. So we tend to not listen so well. Bad habit carried over from childhood.
But we're trying to be better, in our middle age, so we called the old gal up (she'll love that line) and asked her on a date to her favorite spot. She practically glided through the aisles, gloating all the way, and we had to admit she's right. We managed to leave without anything but a long list of items we'd like for our birthday, Christmas, and Hanukkah like the adorable, rustic, pale green bins, the red dining-room chairs (only $69 each on sale!), the huge black armoire and the gorgeous wrought-iron chandelier. You'd better get over there before Mom goes back and buys us the lot she's that happy to have been proved right.
Actually, as she pointed out, there are several Razmataz outposts throughout the Valley, which makes the bargain-hunting that much more fun. Every store has different inventory, so you can take yourself on a scavenger hunt all over town. And when we're finally done with our "Best of" research, that's just what we intend to do. With Mom in tow.