Mauricio Vargas Ruiz: Keeping Paper Mache Alive in Puerto Vallarta

While studying college in Leon, Guanajuato, Mauricio Vargas learned that a classmate’s uncle—a puppeteer we’ll refer to as Tio Nacho—was traveling from Mexico City to participate in a book fair. Unfortunately, the suitcases containing his puppets were lost in transit. With only three days to go before his performance, Tio Nacho summoned his nephew’s classmates, including Mauricio, and gave them a crash course in paper mache that allowed him to replace the lost puppets and fulfill his artistic commitment in three days’ time. Little did Mauricio know that this episode would transform his life many years later, as he developed his own paper mache artistry in Puerto Vallarta and fought to claim authorship of his creations in a sticky plagiarism lawsuit involving a local expat. This is his story.

Originally from Morelia, Michoacán, Mauricio had settled in Leon after his college graduation, having specialized in civil engineering, topography and soil mechanics. Work was plentiful and he was gainfully employed. A vacation trip to Puerto Vallarta in the early 2000s opened his eyes to the work-related possibilities in our city’s booming construction industry and decided to relocate with his partner, Alberto Trejo, in 2004. Unfortunately, unlike many other places throughout Mexico, local employment opportunities tend to shift seasonally and decrease during the summer months. Unprepared for this, they relocated to Guadalajara, our state capital.

While in Guadalajara, Mauricio happened to recall the Tio Nacho incident and decided to teach his partner the craft. Alberto had been trained in metal turning and much to their surprise, took to paper mache like fish to water, using wire structures to create designs of his own. Together, they began creating paper mache figurines for fun and gift-giving. Among them, a whimsical, nameless Chihuahua known simply as el perrito came to be.

Some years ago, better prepared to brace themselves against the shifting employment tides, Mauricio decided to give Puerto Vallarta another go. Looking to generate additional income through the paper mache creations they had mastered, they approached several art galleries with much success. However, finding a price point for paper mache is tricky. The creation process is time and labor-intensive, and this is not always reflected on the sale price. In addition, art galleries keep commissions on the sales of works they represent, making the arrangement less than ideal for Mauricio and Alberto, financially speaking. What they needed was a way to connect directly with buyers and sell their creations without intermediaries.

In 2004 they discovered the Old Town Farmers’ Market (subsequently rebranded as the Olas Altas Farmers’ Market), applied to participate and were immediately accepted. The move proved extremely successful for them, as they achieved the personal interaction they very much needed to sell their work, even obtaining useful feedback from buyers who suggested new figurines or different finishes for the ones they were already selling.

One of the galleries they had been associated with was owned by interior designer and actor Mark Patton, who had opened a shop on Basilio Badillo St. “Los perritos are unique pieces made with a wireframe and covered with paper mache, such that no two of them are alike. They were selling quite well at the gallery, but they are very labor-intensive, and we were only able to produce three per week,” explained Mauricio. Dissatisfied with the turnaround and hoping to make a profit, Patton took one of the perritos to Guadalajara, where he had an industrial mold created from which reproductions made of plastic could be subsequently covered with paper mache, decreasing production time. Unfortunately, he did this without seeking authorization from the creators.

Upon learning that their creation had been plagiarized, Mauricio confronted Patton, who went as far as offering a percentage for every reproduction sold, offending the artists even further. They asked him to desist and continued focusing on their farmers’ market sales.

A year later, upon walking past Patton’s shop, they realized that not only did he continue selling the apocryphal perrito, but had molds made of other versions of it, continuing to sell unauthorized reproductions. Clearly, it was time to take matters to the law. Mauricio and Alberto went through Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Derechos de Autor, to legally register el perrito as their own creation, a tedious-but-essential bureaucratic process. With all their registration papers in order, they proceeded to the Ministerio Publico, Mexico’s public prosecution agency, to file an official suit for selling and distributing apocryphal products. “He received his subpoena towards the end of 2015,” Mauricio recalls, “but he must have gotten spooked. In a matter of days, he sold everything, closed his gallery and returned to the United States. He never showed up in court.” Los perritos won their legal battle.

Today, el perrito in all its unique variations continues to thrive along with many other paper mache creations. You can meet these adorable collectibles by contacting the creators through their Facebook page, facebook.com/PapelMache2013 or at the Olas Altas Farmers’ Market when they return for the season on Saturday, November 2.

Editor’s Note: We attempted to contact Mark Patton through his Facebook page. Although he appears to have received our request for comments, he did not respond by the time this edition of Vallarta Tribune went to press.