Piñata district in L.A. produces hit after hit
With her papier-mache cowhide pants and bright red hat, the piñata replica of cowgirl Jessie from “Toy Story” was nearly perfect. Except it was too small.
The next store didn’t have Jessie’s companion, Woody, so Jovanny Beltran walked out. Despite having only two hours to shop, Beltran wasn’t worried. If there was a place to be picky about piñatas, this was it.
The downtown Los Angeles piñata district, with its menagerie of papier-mached princesses and superheroes, is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Still, hundreds flock every day to the area around East Olympic Boulevard and South Central Avenue in search of the perfect creation to pummel.
Countless versions of Snow White, Spider-Man and Power Rangers line the ceilings of nearly two dozen shops in the kaleidoscopic district, sometimes called Piñata Alley. Christmas piñatas are everywhere lately, particularly the multipoint stars that are an essential part of any Las Posadas celebration. The name means “lodgings” and is celebrated by Latinos in the U.S. for the nine days that precede Christmas.
“I know I’ll find what I want here, and you can’t beat the prices,” said Beltran, 29, who made the trek from North Hills.
Unlike Historic Filipinotown in Echo Park or the Toy District in downtown, whose borders are plastered with signs, the piñata district isn’t officially recognized by the city. But that hasn’t stopped it from developing into a thriving wholesale and retail hub as the Southland becomes increasingly Latino and people from other cultures adopt the piñata as a party staple.
“In one week all of us could easily sell 3,000 piñatas,” said Lorena Robletto owner of Amazing Piñatas. “Everyone has a birthday and every day is a birthday.”
Piñatas are the main draw, but on weekends the half-mile area turns into an informal open-air market attracting food vendors, men renting out ponies for birthdays and panhandlers. Latinos make up the majority, but Asian, black and white families also wander the gritty sidewalks.
In front of swaying piñatas, women with hair in tightly wound buns toss sizzling meat as customers bite into pupusas and huaraches.
“Pásele, pásele” (“Come in, come in”) one woman beckons potential buyers.
They might be looking for traditional shapes, like the multipronged star that resembles a colorful retro satellite. Or popular cartoon characters, perhaps made without permission from the copyright owners.
Shoppers can find piñatas for pretty much any party theme or holiday. Most of the piñatas sell for $12 to $20 at Amazing Piñatas. At Party City, a 20-inch Elmo goes for $20; it’s half the size of what a customer can get in the district for the same price.
Some store owners specialize in custom piñatas, which can cost hundreds of dollars. They build phallic piñatas for bachelorette parties, cardboard replicas of former spouses for divorce parties, and props for film sets. Three full-time employees build custom orders at Robletto’s shop, while she and her nephew oversee requests from corporate clients.
Amazing Piñatas and other shops depend on a cottage industry of piñateros who assemble the cardboard creations in warehouses and homes throughout Southern California. The stores also import piñatas from Mexico.
Robletto said she relies on about 18 piñateros — each with a different style — and pays $10 to $15 per piece.
Francisco Padilla is one of the district’s piñateros, delivering his handiwork out of his Ford Aerostar. Nearly his entire Los Angeles home is devoted to the family business.
Seven days a week, he works alongside his wife and extended family folding, stapling and “giving the figures life.”
On one end of his driveway, Padilla quickly staples together the body of a soon-to-be superhero. The figure takes shape so fast that it’s obvious Padilla has done this thousands of times in his four years as a piñata maker.
“The staples can’t stick out,” Padilla said, stapling a cardboard arm with several rapid snaps, “because kids throw themselves on top of it.”
From there, his wife covers the figure with newspaper dipped in flour and water, smoothing out any wrinkles. Next comes the tissue paper.
“We consider ourselves artists, because not everyone can do what we do,” Padilla said.
The piñatas have to be durable enough to carry pounds of candy and not break too easily.
“Otherwise the other piñateros will tell the shops I deliver to ‘That guy’s piñatas broke after only two hits,’” Padilla said with a laugh.
Most of the shopkeepers agree that the piñata district got its start in the 1990s when produce sellers began to add piñatas to their selection of lettuce and watermelons.
Shant Celikian, vice president of Joker Party Supply, said his father introduced the first party supply store to that stretch of Olympic Boulevard in 1995. Since then he’s seen the area take off.
“The party supply industry keeps growing, especially here in Los Angeles with its growing Latino population,” Celikian said.
Chris Luna’s parents opened their business in the 1980s, importing Mexican food products for their mostly Latino clientele nostalgic for familiar tastes. But seeing a demand for party supplies, they added piñatas.
“This area just naturally became the district where you find party supplies and piñatas,” said Luna, who co-owns Raquel’s Cash N’ Carry with his brothers.
A few years ago, Luna met with representatives from City Councilman Jose Huizar’s office about getting an official designation and signs reading Piñata District. City recognition could help get the area on tourist maps and bring in new customers, Luna said.
But the idea didn’t go anywhere because the area was already sandwiched between two districts, and the required signature drive was too labor-intensive, Luna said.
“A lot of people in L.A. still don’t know about this area,” Luna said. “You see a lot of people who come down from the fashion and flower districts say, ‘Wow, I never knew this was here.’”
Drawing attention has its risks. In 2005, Walt Disney Co. and other toy and media companies filed copyright lawsuits against two merchants.
The lawsuit argued that selling certain piñatas was illegal because they resembled licensed characters and were sold without permission. The piñata sellers settled for an undisclosed sum.
The piñata search turned out well for Beltran, who wanted to make his 3-year-old goddaughter happy on her birthday. He’d been told that the selection and prices would make the drive from the San Fernando Valley worthwhile.
“It’s all word of mouth,” Beltran said. Then he rushed to his car with two piñatas under his arm.
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