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Paper plus skill equals ARTE!

How deceptively common and simple the papel picado seems! These lacy banners festoon Mexican restaurants, every fiesta, village streets, and are for sale in any "papelería" in Mexico for a few pesos. Most commonly associated with Day of the Dead and used in the construction of altars, an appreciation for this art form is overdue.

A traditional Michoacán home altar is bordered by
intricate papel picados "of the season".

Paper making in Mexico is both an ancient art and source of great pride. In pre-Hispanic cultures the making of bark paper, known as amate, was well-established (the tree from which the bark is taken is also called amate). With the ability to make amate came communication, art, and the writing of the codices…hallmarks of the great early civilizations of Mexico. In Chiapas where amate-making thrives today, paper is actually used as a ritualistic element in Lacondon communities; the white amate used to evoke good spirits, and the natural brown amate used to evoke evil spirits. But it is probably from the Otomi culture of central Mexico that cut paper art emerged and evolved into today's papel picado, assisted by the arrival of The Conquistadors, that is. With the Spaniards also came the cut paper arts from Europe, reinforcing and influencing the existing paper arts of Mexico.

As evidenced by a very fine Mexican cut paper example in the Museo Franz Mayer (in Mexico City) dated 1833, the humble banners and paper borders had seeped (with time) into Mexico's cultural fabric, and became important to the fiestas of all social classes. The cut-out images at the Museo Franz Mayer are of objects from an aristocratic life, brimming with fruit, flowers, and fountains. In this era, the art form was referred to as both papel picado or papel recortado.

The tools of the papel picado maestro.
LEFT: Even the hammer and favorite cut-tool are decorated.
RIGHT: The many chisels needed to precisely make the intricate patterns.
Notice the decades of cut marks on the wooden surface beneath.

Today in Mexico, it is said that the finest papel picado work is produced in the states of Puebla and Mexico. This past summer in Estado de México, Rick and I sought out Sergio Hernández to learn about his family's famous papel picados firsthand.

We first learned that special chisels, punches and a hammer are the primary tools employed. In this traditional "taller" there are no machines in use. The papers used are "papel de china", tissue paper, and a metallic foil paper backed with white paper. Both come in many brilliant colors.

Now ready to begin work, Sergio demonstrated how the layers of paper are carefully and evenly placed on the cutting surface, enabling up to 50 sheets to be cut at once. In this taller, the cut surface is a heavy wooden board, but sometimes lead plates are also placed beneath the cutting area. Next, a stencil of the desired pattern, made of heavier paper, is placed as a guide on top. All the layers are then secured by a nail at each of the four corners. With skill and precision, the blows commence, perfectly penetrating the 50 sheets. I cannot imagine striking something as delicate as tissue paper with a hammer and chisel without disastrous results!

Sergio stands before shelves filled with stencils,
sheaves of uncut paper, and bits of inspiration
including drawings and color samples. A solid
wall of awards are proudly displayed behind.

Since pre-Hispanic times, the presence of papel picados in indigenous altars evoked the wind, or air, as an essential element. In popular culture, the making of papel picados later evolved as an economical imitation of embroidery and lace made by the poorer classes for decoration. But this "low art" form eventually came into vogue (notably appearing in still life paintings of prominent painters), and was adopted by every class in Mexico as desirable decorations for festivals and celebrations for all occasions, both public and private.

When selling papel picados, the CEILING becomes
the exhibition space!

Sergio's delicate masterpieces as displayed in his taller.
The fine work is most-definitely "suitable for framing".

The evolution of the papel picado continues today, and its future is certain, yet NOT certain, depending on one's point of view. From origins of an indigenous ritual element, to a decoration used by common people, to the art form's full and unlikely acceptance and use by everyone including the elite, two paths lay ahead.

One road leads to the artesan's taller where all is still handmade. Another road leads to the commercial production of plastic imitations touting everything from beer brands to restaurant chains. Both renditions are equally and uniquely Mexican, and definitely ensures the continuation of the traditional image.

Which gives new meaning to the question, "Paper or plastic?"

September 10, 2004
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

Information about pre-Hispanic paper history and uses, and the reference to the papel recortado of 1833 in the Museo Franz Mayer were found in the book, De Cartones, Cardboard and Paper in Mexican Folk Art, Text by Karen Cordero Reiman, Elisa Ramirez Casteñeda, Edurne Iruretagoyena Olalde, Alejandra Lopez de Silanes Vales. Editor-in-Chief, Elena Horz de Sotomayor. Smurfit Cartón Y Papel de México, S.A. de C.V., 2003