My grandfather, Francis Gestin "Tata" Rafail, passed away last week, just shy of his 93rd birthday. He was a brilliant and difficult man who led a life of the same measure. He sired five children, who in turn gave him sixteen grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren. His wife of 57 years, Jesusa Cervantes Rafail, was my favorite person ever to grace this sad planet. She passed away in 1998 and a couple of us used to joke that it was to get away from his domineering and often downright condescending presence. But in the fractured perspective that loss can bring, I recognize that yes, he was patronizing-- but isn't that what patriarchs do?
When Grandma passed away unexpectedly, we saw a man devastated by the loss of a woman who in no uncertain terms not only tolerated his idiosyncrasies but gracefully permitted him to own the spotlight. He sought out family and friends and community outreach and anything he could to mitigate the grief, until he discovered an unlikely outlet: piñatas.
Grandma had introduced him to the festive tradition four and a half decades prior; being an engineer and a lover of social events, he glommed onto it immediately. His first effort was a notorious (if hilarious) flop: not knowing the correct materials, he used Plaster of Paris over chicken wire, creating an indestructible cartoon head full of candy. Needless to say, his technique improved, and he made us all memorable but ephemeral papier-mâché creatures that virtually all fell from blows from a wiffle-ball bat modified with black electrical tape for strength and heft. (My favorite was an enormous Garfield the Cat that met its fate at a family reunion in Indianapolis, IN.)
The piñatas dwindled some as we, the grandkids, grew up; but when Grandma was no longer around, they came back with an obsessive passion. Suddenly he was making four at a time, then six or eight; he drew inspiration from advertising, cartoons, snippets from magazines. He began incorporating other materials, ranging from recycled applesauce cups to old eggshells, which seemed to him to be perfect bulging eyes. On occasion he would make choices that were questionable, such as gluing frozen fish sticks on for eyebrows or french fries for whiskers, all to be covered in the craft paint he found preferable to his former crepe paper decoration. Most of these folk-art wonders were captured via photography by his closest friend in his latter years, Ron. This patient and caring gentleman took hundreds upon hundreds of photos, gifting me with them a few years back. I had this crazy notion that I should make paintings of them, with the idea that it would be twice-removed from the original but still maintain the sometimes unsettling effect of being stared at with eggshell eyes. Thus, a few months back I finally knocked out some studies of Grandpa's oddities. I'll post them posthaste, in honor of an unconventional and beloved man.
Francis Gestin "Tata" Rafail: Sept. 28, 1921-Sept. 25, 2014