The two men browsing in Benjamin Santoyo's downtown Los Angeles produce store acted like many of his customers, not so much interested in fruit and vegetables as in the enormous pinatas of Winnie the Pooh, The Incredibles, and an orange fish named Nemo, all bobbing from a string tied to the ceiling.
But theirs was an undercover visit on behalf of Disney Enterprises Inc. and four other entertainment industry giants aiming to stop the sale of counterfeit pinatas just as the bust-it-up party activity has become about as mainstream at Southland kids parties as cake, streamers and tortilla chips.
Disney and the other companies, in what experts said was an understandable move to protect their popular cartoon and character properties, filed copyright and trademark infringement lawsuits against Santoyo and another nearby shop owner for allegedly selling the counterfeit pinatas.
Although Santoyo settled last month for an undisclosed sum, word of the legal action against these two small Los Angeles vendors -- who peddle their wares in an informal pinata district centered along Olympic Boulevard and Central Avenue -- has reverberated through the garages, backyards and warehouses of pinata makers as far away as Santa Ana, who worry that they too will be targeted.
But will they stop making the images of Cinderella and Dora?
"Without that, we don't have much of a business," said South Los Angeles pinata maker Marta Garcia. "We need to be careful, but it's hard because the demand is for the characters on television and in the theaters."
Although pinatas in Southern California have become a popular, crossover game at kids parties regardless of ethnicity, for many Latino parents, especially those with Mexican roots, bringing home a bulging, larger-than-life pinata is a joyful tradition and the whimsical centerpiece of a family party.
"This reminds me of when I was a child and we would go to the market to look for pinatas for parties," said Leti Ramirez, 34, a mother of two and native of Ensenada who was looking for the largest Winnie the Pooh pinata she could find on a recent weekday. "I would not want to buy them any other way."
A cottage industry of pinata makers, known as pinateros, works to satisfy this specialized local demand. They produce renditions of cartoon characters that are primarily sold in markets and other small shops in heavily Latino neighborhoods.
The work of the pinateros bears little resemblance to the smaller, lightweight pinatas that are typically found in suburban chain stores and sell for about $20 or less. One party-goods industry expert estimated that about 10 million pinatas are sold annually throughout the country.
Many pinateros operate largely outside the measurable industry, selling pinatas by the thousands to neighborhood vendors for about $8 or $9 each. Vendors typically sell to the public for $12 to $15. But many of the pinatas sold by Santoyo were illegal because they resembled licensed characters and were sold without the owner's permission, according to the Disney lawsuit that also included plaintiffs Sanrio Co., Cartoon Network, Viacom International Inc. and Hanna-Barbera Productions.
"Our characters and our brands are the lifeblood of our business and we are vigilant about protecting our intellectual property against illegal usage," said Julia Phelps, spokeswoman for Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, the channel where "Dora the Explorer" and other characters appear.
Disney declined to comment on the pinata lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in February and April. But the company has long been a staunch protector of its trademarked properties. It once sued a Florida day-care center that displayed paintings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy on the outside walls of the school. The school took the images down.
Copyright and trademark experts said that although the handmade pinata industry is small compared to the sales of the large entertainment companies, the holder of a copyright or trademark must constantly protect its position. The suit against pinata vendors is typical of the ongoing battles to protect valuable properties.
"It doesn't seem like a fair fight," said John Palfrey, a Harvard lecturer who focuses on intellectual property. Heads of major corporations must say, "We see a lot of infringement and we have to pick on somewhere to try to stop it.... The reality is [Disney] has to do it."
The lawsuit against Santoyo was the second time the vendor had been sued by Disney for alleged copyright infringement. In 1998, Santoyo said, he paid a $5,000 out-of-court settlement to Disney and agreed to stop selling Disney-character pinatas.
Disney emissaries who returned to his shop in February alleged in court documents that they bought or saw for sale a variety of party supplies, including pinatas, plates and goody boxes, that illegally used images of protected properties.
Disney once again asked for monetary relief for damages and for Santoyo to stop selling the goods. Santoyo and his El Cora store "brazenly disregarded the authority of ... Disney's known and admitted rights," the suit stated.
Oscar Toscano, the lawyer for defendant Santoyo, said his client reached an out-of-court settlement in the recent suit, "acknowledged some violations" and paid monetary damages, a sum he declined to disclose.
A similar copyright and trademark infringement suit brought by the same four entertainment companies was filed in April against Victor Saavedra and his store, Saavedra Produce, a pinata district shop. Saavedra said he has not filed a legal response but wonders why he has been targeted when others in the area are also selling character products.
The legal actions appear to have done little more than put the close-knit vendors on guard. Most don't understand why a common practice in Mexico is of concern here. Also, some wondered why only two vendors were targeted.
"Why is it that other people can sell these pinatas and we can't?" asked Elia Santoyo, Benjamin's wife. "People want what they see on television and the movies. It's Disney characters that sell the most."
"The problem," said Antonio Tapio, owner of a store adjacent to Santoyo's that also sells pinatas, party supplies and produce, "is that we can't not do this. If we don't sell pinatas that look like a character everyone knows, how can we sell pinatas?"
It was easy for Disney investigators to find Santoyos' pinatas -- they hang in the streets for all to see. But the pinateros work quietly, often in backyards and garages.
Denise Esparza and her husband produce about 200 pinatas a week in their South Los Angeles backyard, among cackling hens. She works surrounded by thousands of pounds of cardboard strips and tissue paper, while caring for her two toddler children and giving directions to about a half dozen employees who help to make the likes of Shrek, Elmo, SpongeBob, Nemo and Snow White.
Esparza begins by making the skeleton of the character from cardboard strips. Then she covers the strips with newspaper dipped in a mixture of flour and water. The newspaper is then covered with tissue paper. Small pinatas sell for as little as $5. She takes special orders for the more complex forms such as R2D2 from "Star Wars," which can fetch more than $25.
They have established clients at Olympic and Central and they have met other pinata sellers at the intersection who now buy directly from them.
"To me, this is an art," said Esparza, who dropped out of school at age 14. "It's something I really enjoy doing. It's something that I can do well and it gives me pleasure to know I was part of a celebration or a party."
Pinatas originated in Italy during Renaissance times when undecorated pots were filled with trinkets, jewelry and candies.
The custom spread to Spain, where the pots were decorated. The game was brought to the Americas by the Spanish explorers and adopted by Mexicans. Although paper-decorated clay pots are still common, paper pinatas are increasingly popular, particularly in Baja California.
Esparza learned the art from her mother, who moved to Tijuana from their native Jalisco state, where clay pots were more widely used. Her mother, Marta Garcia, who is especially talented in paper flowers, taught the trade to her daughter.
Six years ago, Garcia and her daughter decided to come to Los Angeles, hoping to make more money. Garcia works seven days a week, 11 hours a day in a $300-a-month rented carport across the street from Esparza. Alone, she makes 150 pinatas each week.
Only a few large companies have purchased the rights to make and sell pinatas of licensed characters, said Debbie Beer, marketing director of Unique Industries, a Philadelphia-based party supply manufacturer. The firm makes and sells 2 million to 5 million pinatas annually, about half of the national supply. Beer estimated that the large companies control about 70% of pinata sales in the United States, although in Southern California, the percentage is lower.
"The cottage industry is not putting us out of business, but it is certainly a concern. The biggest problem we have ... is in California," she said. "It's certainly because of the large Mexican immigration. They are very skilled and this is part of their culture."
Unique sells 170 kinds of pinatas and has paid fees to craft many licensed characters. The product is always the same size and has the same proportion. But pinateros argue it's the homemade quality of their work that keeps consumers coming back.
Martin and Delfina Villafan of Garden Grove bought a Santa Ana pinata shop for $12,000 three years ago.
They imagine nothing but growth for their nascent business, which specializes in large, custom-made pinatas. Just as a dance needs music, most kids' parties need a pinata, they say.
They know about the lawsuits against the sellers in Los Angeles and do not make character replicas, although they sometimes staple party plates of characters to their pinatas. Instead, the Villafans specialize in jumbo generic figures such as stars, trains and fruit.
What the couple appreciate is the chance to be together, instead of rushing to hourly-wage jobs. Their business generates about $50,000 a year.
"If we have to change something about the way we are making pinatas, we will do that," said Martin Villafan. "But I don't think there will be a way to put us out of business."