The birthday party machine: Artist Justin Favela’s Arkansas fiesta - Las Vegas Weekly

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The birthday party machine: Artist Justin Favela’s Arkansas fiesta

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Kids race to grab fallen candy from a pinata during the performance piece called Family Fiesta on October 19, 2014. It is in conjunction with the State of the Art exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

It’s late afternoon in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Las Vegas artist Justin Favela is starting another birthday party for a passerby outside the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“All right, we’ve got a birthday girl in the house! Mary! Come on over!”

Little Mary, the fresh age of 2 and entirely bewildered, watches Favela slide a full-sheet Walmart cake in front of her. His uncle hoists a piñata and 15 of his family members burst into “Las Mañanitas,” followed by “Happy Birthday (Cha! Cha! Cha!).”

Justin Favela’s ‘Family Fiesta’

Not quite an ambush, but a surprise nonetheless, the kind that provides free cake and joy, saddled in the “come on down!” spirit of The Price Is Right and the confusing antics of Candid Camera.

But little Mary isn’t being punked. She’s walked right into the artist’s “Family Fiesta” performance. It’s an offshoot of the museum’s State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now exhibit. Inside the museum, Favela’s full-scale piñata-inspired ’64 Impala is featured among works by more than 100 artists from across the country. Like the birthday party, the car ties in his Latino background.

“The lowrider is an important Chicano symbol,” he says. “The automobile in general is a symbol of American progress, so for us to really make it our own says a lot. I feel like I associate lowriders with cholos and that kind of thug life because of movies. But in reality it’s about family and tradition. A lot of people who own lowriders will pass them down the family.”

Justin Favela's Lowrider Pinata as part of the State of the Art exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas on October 18, 2014.

Family defines so much of Latino culture that when asked by the museum to present a workshop for one of its “Family Sunday” events, Favela considered his own family’s celebrations. “Then I thought, ‘What if I actually bring my family?’”

So here they are on the third Sunday of October in Arkansas, hanging colored balloons, rigging piñata ropes and setting up the sound system—Favela, his mom, his brother, two grandmothers, aunts and cousins (anyone who could make the trek from Vegas), ages 9 to 78.

The morning began with a brief Favela family meeting in front of the hotel, then it was on to the museum, where they strung ribbons with colored balloons criss-crossing the lawn and set up the sound system. “Turn it up, ahorita,” Favela says to his brother, while 9-year-old nephew Angel breaks into flawless and spontaneous salsa moves. Shortly after noon, the first piñata is raised, kids are lined up and other games are underway, an interactive reenactment of a familiar scene in Sunset Park.

A young girl swings at a pinata while Justin's uncles Rito Favela and Angel Favela hold it up during the performance piece called Family Fiesta on October 19, 2014. It is in conjunction with the State of the Art exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

“My husband said he was going to be extra-nice today, but he could never have done this,” says 63-year-old Debbie Stone from Kansas City, Missouri, eating her surprise birthday cake.

The piñata is raised and lowered, pulled in different directions, and the Favela family sings the piñata song until a breakthrough is made, followed by a mad dash for candy. It’s a process repeated over and over, punctuated with, “Who wants cake?”

And when the piñata rope comes loose from the tree by the creek, the men of the family debate the best way to repair it. Nearly an hour (and plenty of machismo) later, they get it together and work on the other end while the kids stand waiting and parents sit around talking, sometimes offering advice from the party tables.

“This is how it is,” one of the aunts says. “The piñata goes down or something happens and it takes forever.”

“This is totally normal,” Favela adds with a laugh after his Uncle Rito reminds everyone that he has a little girl holding the ladder while they sit around “opening their mouths.” “Everybody’s hungry and it’s time to go.”

Finally, with four Favelas holding the ladder and Uncle Rito operating the new makeshift rigging, the game resumes. The Favela family breaks into song with as much gusto as they had when they started five hours earlier: “Dale, dale, dale. No pierdas el tino …” Vegas is in the house.

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