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He Has a Hit on His Hands

One tradition that's meant to be broken: these works of art by an ex-baker who found his calling six years ago as 'the pinata king.'

May 07, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Antonio R. Dominguez this semi-calm stretch is merely the eye of the hurricane.

It's two days after the city's mega Cinco de Mayo event--Fiesta Broadway in Downtown L.A.--and two days before the actual holiday launches a weekend of concerts and celebrations for which he provides "ambience." His tiny studio, Quality Pinata y Arte Calidad, does indeed look like it's been hit by one furious storm, its fanciful papier-ma^che visions--a sneering sun, oversized guitars--spilling onto the sidewalk of Indiana Street in East L.A.

As a handful of neighborhood teens roam in and out, putting finishing touches on papier-ma^che cactuses, a duo unloads from a pickup truck freshly fireproofed giant puppet pieces for the weekend's Beck and Cafe Tacuba concerts at the Greek Theatre. Dominguez, in paint-spattered khakis and white T-shirt and work boots, a black baseball cap resting precariously at the back of his head, oversees all as he climbs over suns and moons to answer the constantly bleating phone.

"Quality Pinatas. This is Tony," Dominguez shouts into the receiver as he directs one of his workers to begin layering a piece, another to move completed segments to make room for the new ones.

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What started as a traditional pinata and papier-ma^che art studio six years ago has grown into a brisk, high-profile, wholesale business (with clients that include Fiesta Broadway and Nederlander concert events). The studio produces more than 100 pinatas a week and the mojigangas (papier-ma^che puppets that range from 1 foot to 20 feet high) that have become its signature and specialty.

Dominguez and his young crew stay swamped year-round filling orders for events and festivals celebrating everything from Christmas posadas and Dia de los Muertos (Nov. 1 and 2) to Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) and, of course, Cinco de Mayo.

Dominguez's goal is not only to push traditional images such as stars and cows and donkeys to another level (slouching skeletons and Hanukkah menorahs) but to use the growing profile that his unique designs have afforded him to benefit his neighborhood.

"I see it as a community-based business," says Dominguez, 31, who was born and raised in East L.A. "The kids walk by and see all this going on right here in the neighborhood and want to get involved. I've got about 12 to 18 kids all together. We hire them, we train them, and they learn to become master craftsmen for stage props and design work. All the kids who were writing on walls, I pulled them in here and give them a place to channel their artistic energies."

Dominguez knows the sense of frustration that forces you to shout your existence out on walls, or throw it up as high as a freeway overpass. For the kids who show up on his doorstep, curious and ready, he knows it comes from a deep sense of invisibility, one he knows well. "For a long time I didn't understand my calling. I worked 12 years in a bakery, but I knew I had something else inside me to express," says Dominguez whose friends now call him "the pinata king."

"I'd been ignored--my talents, who I was in mainstream America. I had one skill, one thing I could do well. And so I became the best at what I can do--then you can't be ignored."

He has run the storefront studio with the help of his family--brother David's sweat and brawn, grandmother Armida Marquez's kindness and finances (she pays the rent on this space he's quickly outgrowing). But, he figures, maybe the cramped quarters are a gift, since they've forced him to take his revolution to the street.

"We're the only company in the U.S. that's doing it on this scale . . . leading this papier-ma^che revolution," he says.

Dominguez learned to make his first pinatas from a neighbor. "When I was a little kid, a woman who used to baby-sit used to teach us crafts . . . and that's where I made my first pinatas."

Something--or everything--about the process stuck. "I think it was the beginning, middle and end of it. The fact that it was part of an old and respected tradition that connected me to my past. And my family's past. Because pinatas were so much a part of everybody's lives, celebrations, it is a tradition that cannot be ignored. We're trying to keep [it] alive."

(The origins of the pinata are colorful but inconclusive. Some say that the Spanish conquistadors brought the pinata to Mexico in the 16th century, after it was introduced to Spain from China via Italy. In celebrations or ceremonies, the pinata is always filled with treats, then broken apart.)

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Dominguez and his staff have found themselves so busy as the premier papier-ma^che art and pinata makers in L.A. (and maybe the country) that they have had to move away from making customized pinatas for retail customers and focus on big festivals and cultural events. No matter how busy he gets, Dominguez is committed to offering classes and on-site workshops--especially for the art of papier-ma^che, which involves layering strips of newspaper with paste over intricately designed frames.

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