Papel Picado

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Papel picado is the name given to the tissue paper flags chiseled with a variety of patterns and used to decorate buildings, Day of the Dead altars and streets during secular and religious celebrations in Mexico. The pattern used depends on the celebration and can be related to the Day of the Dead, Christmas, Independence Day, a Patron Saint, or a private party.

A kind of tree bark textile called amatl in Nahuatl was used by Pre Hispanic cultures to write their codices on it.

The Aztecs covered this "paper" with melted rubber and painted on it and was used to decorate religious sculptures, shrines, sacrifice places and burials.

The amatl, known as Amate is nowadays used by folk artists from Guerrero as a canvas for their Nahuatl painting.

There is a misconception around the origin of the papel picado that assures that amatl was cut by the Aztecs and then used as a decoration.

There is no evidence to support this argument and anybody that has held an amate paper sheet knows for sure it cannot be cut without affecting its structure as the amate is after all not a paper in the exact sense of the word.

San Salvador Huixcolotla in Puebla State is considered to be the cradle of papel picado. The area was originally inhabited by Nahua and Popoloca people and its name was Huixcolotla which means in Nahuatl a place with abundant thorns.

The town was founded by the Spaniards in 1539 as a little congregation that grew into a small town as pawns of the nearby haciendas built their houses there.

During the Spanish colony Puebla State was in the route of the goodies that came from the Philippines to Acapulco at the Pacific Ocean and then transported by land to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico to continue to Spain.

Among the things that stayed in the area was a thin and colored paper made of silk that was given the name papel de China  (China paper) and the different things that were made of it such as lamps and cut paper ornaments.

It is not known for sure how people from San Salvador began cutting paper flags but by the late 1920's the town crafters were traveling to neighboring towns and later to Mexico City to sell their paper flags. By the 1970's it had become a tradition around central Mexico to decorate Day of the Dead altars, buildings and streets with papel picado flags.

Nowadays the tradition has been extended to the whole country; and even abroad as Mexican immigrants have taken it with them around the world.

Papel picado ornate street

San Salvador Huixcolotla street

Making Process
The tissue paper is cut in the desired shape and size and stacked over a lead plate used as base. The pattern is drawn on a Manila paper sheet and placed over the stack of tissue paper.

Next, the stack is chiseled using the Manila paper drawing as a guide. Many different sizes and shapes of chisels are used to suit the specific needs of the drawing. Once the paper sheets are chiseled, their top is glued to a string forming long chains.

Today is very common to see the same craft made on plastic instead of paper giving the flags durability and resistance to the elements.

Artisanal cut paper flags are made in small workshops in San Salvador Huixcolotla and as people from the area immigrated to other regions of the country and to the USA they took their craft with them and continue the town's traditional art work elsewhere.

Paper and plastic flags are also die cut and therefore mass produced which has endangered the survival of this beautiful folk art style.

On September 22, 1998 the governor of Puebla State proclaimed the artisanal papel picado from San Salvador Huixcolotla a part of the State's cultural heritage.

Papel Picado Patterns
Cut paper flags patterns and colors have been customized for every celebration.

On Mexican Independence Day (September 16th) cut paper flags with the pattern of the country's emblem and the faces of the Independence war heroes are used. The paper flags are green, white and red as the Mexican flag colors.

Papel picado Independence Day

The patterns used on Christmas have Baby Jesus, Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, Angels, Christmas trees, doves and bells.

Chiseled paper Christmas doves

Although at the beginning the cut paper flags used during the Day of the Dead were chiseled with saints' images soon the illustrations created by Jose Guadalupe Posada were adopted in this style and nowadays multicolored paper flags feature skeletons, skulls and the famous Catrina.

Catrina papel picado

Custom designs are made for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and for beer, tobacco and telephone companies for their own celebrations.

Papel picado telcel

An Ephemeral Art Form
Pedro Ortega Lozano from Tlahuac, D.F. has gone beyond the craft and found a way to express himself in the four lines that frame a tissue paper flag; he skillfully and delicately represents not only the regular themes but has become a chronicler of his town, depicting daily life scenes and local myths.

For Pedro, papel picado charm consists in its ephemeral condition, "just as happiness lasts a tiny moment, paper is also a tiny moment"

Born on February 23, 1960 Pedro is a self taught artist that has developed a technique of his own; using embossed aluminum, metallic, tissue and other kinds of paper he creates intricate altars that have become highly appreciated by collectors around the world and have gain him several prizes such as the National Art Prize.

He is also one of the 150 artists selected for inclusion in "The Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art" a foundation sponsored by Banamex.

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Pedro Ortega Lozano
Christmas Retable by Pedro Ortega Lozano

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