No one really knows where the cascarón came from or who started the tradition of smashing colorful eggs stuffed with confetti on the heads of unsuspecting victims. Some historians trace its origins to China, reporting that it was explorer Marco Polo who introduced it — not to mention gunpowder, spaghetti, and paper money — to the West.
Who knows for sure? But back in the 1840s — that brief glimmer of time when California had cast itself happily adrift from the colonial tethers of Spain and Mexico and had yet to be swallowed up by the Yankee invasion — the cascarón was an instrument of divine flirtation in Santa Barbara. Back then, it was part of every major celebration, especially during Carnival and at all the big weddings. Young men and women armed themselves with painted eggshells filled with confetti, cologne, water, or in some instances, finely cut gold leaf. Sneaking up on their “favored one,” they’d lightly break an egg — just one — over his or her head. The effect, according to letters written at the time, was breathtaking. “As the ladies generally wore their hair floating unconfined,” wrote one observer, “the spangled glittering among their raven tresses as they swept through the dance had a very pretty effect.”
How the cascarón managed to hibernate and reemerge in the 1920s, with the civic invention of Fiesta, has not sparked much curiosity from historians who normally track all things “Ye Olde” and Spanish. But Santa Barbara’s Fiesta, an exaltation of California’s “Rancho period,” has become the global epicenter of the cascarón, the only place on the planet where the tradition is expressed with such extravagance, enthusiasm, and absolute volume. In parts of Texas, it appears, cascarones are sold in stores as part of Halloween, but there’s nothing like Santa Barbara’s vast, subterranean, ethnically originated cottage industry that churns these eggs out by the hundreds of thousands every year.
Every year and all year long, hundreds of Santa Barbara families — almost entirely Latino and many immigrant — lard away massive stockpiles of blown-out eggshells, taking surgical care to extract the yolks and whites from small openings painstakingly gouged from the shell. Can you get the yolks out without breaking them? Are cascarón makers consigned to a lifetime of eating nothing but scrambled eggs? “It’s tricky; it’s tough,” said Jessica Trombly, who had a cascarón business as a child. “But you can definitely get the whole egg out without breaking it. You just have to be careful.”
Trombly grew up on the Westside by La Cumbre Junior High; she got into the egg business in 1997 at age 6, along with a younger brother and cousin, almost by accident. Relatives saved the shells, but by April or May, she and her crew would be spending a couple of hours a night coloring the shells, stuffing them with confetti, then papering over the hole and gluing it shut. Trombly recalled packing up about 900 eggs in a wagon and walking down State Street from Sola to Cabrillo selling cascarones. At Cabrillo, she and her brother and cousin would park themselves in front of the Veterans’ Memorial Building and wait for customers. It was hard work, but the payoff was good. They each made $100, a ton of money for kids that age. It was also fun. “The whole thing about cascarones, you smash someone on the head but hopefully not so hard that you make them bleed.”
Trombly said she got out of the business in 2004 when city officials told her she was operating without a permit. That would cost, she recalled, $80. Over the years, however, City Hall has sought to deal with the cascarón vendors mostly by leaving them alone. As one police official noted with sarcastic understatement, “We have other enforcement priorities.”
Mary Louise Days, one of Santa Barbara’s preeminent local historians, has learned the “proper” art of deploying the cascarón, at least as prescribed by Daughters of the Golden West. “You’re supposed to squeeze it over the person’s head, so that the confetti falls gently out,” Days explained. “You do not assault them with the egg.” Fortunately for her, she did not know about this etiquette when she was a child “I loved it,” she gushed. “Goofing off, smashing eggs on the heads of anyone I knew.”
The cascarón is part art, part whoopee cushion, part misdemeanor, part drunken kiss. Though some cascarón makers merely aim their spray paint cans at the shells and push the button, others create gorgeous art. “You can’t imagine smashing some of these,” exclaimed Susan Gantz, who has been collecting cascarones for the past 15 years. She now has about 60 of the little gems. “It’s crazy,” she said. “For just 25 cents, you can get something that’s unbelievably finely wrought and then go break it over someone’s head. They’re so beautiful. They’re little pieces of fine art.”
Eastside resident Rosalva Mazo is a genuine folk artist who jumped into the cascarón business at age 50, about 15 years ago. Warm, generous, and utterly engaging, Mazo buys her eggshells from a nearby bakery, five boxes at a time, each containing 180 shells for $11 a box. In her backyard studio, she hunkers down with eggs, paints, confetti, glue, paper patches — and many sketchpads of ideas. She never went to art school, but her images of Michael Jackson, Homer Simpson, and Little Nemo are immediately recognizable. No two cascarones are identical, and each is imbued with a twinkle of emotional expression. “I make everything that I see,” she said.
Mazo likes showing kids how they can make some money and stay out of trouble by getting into the cascarón business — a business that is booming in her neighborhood. Across the street, someone seems to be cranking out cascarones by the thousand, while around the corner, another neighbor is creating something more akin to cascarón sculpture — glossy black skunks with big, bushy tails and little ladybugs in colorful splashes of red and black.
A number of cascarón makers expressed reservations about being interviewed for this story. According to Adrian Gutierrez, the Santa Barbara Police beat coordinator for the city’s Eastside — where he grew up — people are especially nervous about Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Mazo, Gutierrez said, is not.
Indeed she isn’t. In fact, for the second year in a row, Mazo is featuring Donald Trump cascarones — angry orange hair, open mouth, and red tie. Of course, Mazo is an American citizen who has nothing to worry about. She moved to Santa Barbara at age 8 from Phoenix to live with her aunt because of her health. Last year, she said, she knew Trump was going to win, so she began sketching him. “I knew it, and I knew he would cheat to get there,” she said.
Gantz has yet to see any of Mazo’s Donald Trump cascarones. But she’ll definitely be looking for them. And Gantz — no fan of Trump — said she’d be departing from her usual practice of protecting her cascarones. “This one,” she said, “I will derive a great deal of pleasure from smashing it.”