Paper making in Mexico

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by Dena Falken


            The first printing press in America began in Mexico in 1539, but the first paper, Gaceta de México, was not published until 1722. For six months monthly reports of trade and society circulated. In 1805, Diario de México became the first papers in New Spain. In December 1810, Miguel Hidalgo produced El Despertador Americano in Guadalajara and published nine issues. Soon, despite censorship by the vice royal government, papers such as El Ilustrador Nacional (Sultepec, State of Mexico, 1812), Gazeta Del Gobierno Americano (Guanajuato, 1812) and El Pensador Mexicano José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi appeared. (1812).

            When the country gained independence in 1821, literary works and political factions produced important papers, although euphemisms were almost always used. Some of the first were El Ensayo Literario (Puebla, 1838), El Ateneo Mexicano (1840), and El Liceo Mexicano (1844). Those that enjoyed wide circulation were La Postrella Polar de los Amigos Deseosos de la Ilustración (Guadalajara, 1822), La Concordia Yucateca (1829), La Aurora de la Libertad (1831) and El Federalista (1831).

            By mid-century, the main paperss were either conservative (such as La Espada de D. Simplicio, 1855) or liberal (such as El Republicano, 1855 and El Siglo XIX, which went through four phases between 1841 and 1896). There was great freedom of criticism. Later, paperss appeared that supported workers and socialists. Some, along with publications such as El Diario del Hogar by journalist Filomena Mate, formed significant opposition to Porfirio Diaz. The brothers El Hijo del Ahuizote Flores Magón and later their Regeneración (1900-1916) helped fuel the revolution.

            By the end of the war, several paper companies had been established. El Dictamen, published in Veracruz since 1898, is the oldest papers in the country. El Universal (1916) is the dean of the press in Mexico City. In the first half of the 20th century, the conservative press came into conflict with governments such as Lazar Cárdenen (1934-1940). It was clear that hostilities were coming to an end when President Miguel Alemán inaugurated Media Freedom Day on June 7, 1951, at a reception hosted by José García Valseca, who would become the owner of thirty-seven daily papers.

Paper Production In Mexico

            Paper production in Mexico has a rich history. In the Far East, paper production originates in China and Egypt. In America, paper comes from the Mayans and Aztecs. However, papers on both sides of the world were different. Real paper as we know it was invented by the Chinese and the Egyptians had papyrus. In Mesoamerica, people made paper from tree bark. The Mayans called their paper Huun, the Aztec Amatl. Amatl is known as Amate or Bark paper.      Using cork paper was different. It was used for keeping records, for recording stories, for use in healing and spiritual rituals, for clothing, and for folded manuscripts to make holy books. Despite the widespread use of paper, little history has been recorded of these Mesoamerican tales. The Spaniards destroyed almost all manuscripts during the conquest. However, several important codes of these civilizations remain. Two wonderful examples are the Codex Dresdensis of the Mayans and the Codex Mendoza of the Aztecs. The record in the Mendoza Code states that 24,000 resm (crusts) of paper were given annually to the ruler Tenochtitlan Moctezum II (480,000 sheets), providing insight into the material’s importance to these early civilizations.

            The tradition of making paper from bark had practically disappeared after the conquest. However, the Otomi people in the small town of San Pablito, north of Puebla, Mexico, continue this practice in secret. The Ottomans were one of the paper producers for the Aztec court. For centuries they continued to make paper for their uses and rituals. Otomí’s paper Amate became famous when it was introduced by architect Max Kerlow and painter Felipe Ehrenberg to local artists from the nearby state of Guerrero in the 1960s. Kerlow and Ehrenberg donated Amate sheets to clay artists known for their elaborate ceramic paintings.

            Clay craftsmen welcomed the new material because they often lost much of their pottery because it broke during transport as they traveled to sell their wares. The intricate images they created on Amate paper achieved great success, which eventually led to an exhibition of peeled paper in Mexico City in 1963, the first of its kind. The demand for bark paper paintings grew and became one of the most sought-after folk arts in Mexico. Paper images of amateur bark are exported to markets in many countries around the world. Initially, the characters were created by Guerrero artists, but a local painter from Pahuatlan near San Pablit, Rafael Lechuga, taught Otomie to paint on his Amate. An internship that continues to this day. Otomí de San Pablito remains one of the few producers of cork paper.

            Peeling paper is prepared in the same way as other handmade papers. The difference from Amate paper is that the leaves are not pulled out or made up of water. For this reason, Amate is sometimes not considered a real role. In Amatea production, the fiber is processed in the same way. The fibers are peeled, separated from the skin, cooked, soaked and bleached or dyed. In the last step, instead of pulping the fibers and immersing the pulp in water and drawing or shaping the fiber, the shells are separated into strips and crushed with volcanic stone on a flat surface to form sheets of paper.

            Traditionally, bark paper is made from fig tree bark, but figs near San Pablit are not in stock. Today, their Amate is made from the bark of the Jonota tree, which killed Jonota around San Pablit due to high demand and bark removal. To produce the required amount of paper, the bark is now supplied from the Jonota forests in neighboring states, such as Veracruz.

            In San Pablit, paper production and bark painting are a family business. Everyone, including children, contributes to this craft. Children help to load bundles of peeled fibers and insert fibers into hammers. In this way, they learn sustainable and culturally rich practices based on traditions passed down through a long ancestral heritage.

            Currently, the practice of papermaking in Mexico includes methods of making water. The two places that embody this practice are Taller Leñateros in Chiapas and Taller de Arte Papel in Oaxaca. Taller Leñateros is a collective of Mayan artists founded by the poet Ámbar Past. Taller Leñateros has published several books on the history and voices of Mayan women. The Taller Arte de Papel Oaxaca was founded by the artist Francisco Toledo. In their paper and art workshops, they mostly implement local materials and sustainable practices.

            Some of the fibers used in the production of Taller Arte de Papel paper are local Oaxaca plants and fibers, such as: Ixtle (agave or Yucca), Algodón de Pochote (cotton Pochote), Algodón de Coyuche (original brown cotton) Majagua, Jonotes, Chichicastle (nettle,) Bagazo de Mezcal (the rest of the flesh of the mezcal), Carrizo (cane) and Totomoztle (corn husks – corn.) Algodón de Coyuche is considered El Oro Blanco (white gold). Coyuche is a Zapotec word that means coyote. Cotton is called Coyuche because of its color. Coyuche is also used to make finely processed garments. At Taller Arte Papel, all the water used in the papermaking process is returned to the environment.

            So everything that is used, fibers, dyes and materials must be safe and environmentally friendly, because it returns to the groundwater that the community uses. Regardless of the type of paper produced, the inscriptions, motifs and cultural iconography retain the same values. Paper is as important today as it was in pre-Columbian times. Its history as a sacred material for the Aztecs and its careful craftsmanship are still practiced today. The rich heritage and history of people who humbly preserve tradition are indelible and breathtaking, as are the first documents about Amate centuries ago.

Types Of Mexican Papers

Papel Picado

            Papel picado (“perforated paper,” “pecked paper”) is a decorative craft made by cutting intricate patterns into handkerchief sheets. Papel picado is considered Mexican folk art. Designs are usually cut from up to 40-50 colored handkerchiefs stacked on top of each other and using a guide or template, a small hammer and chisel, creating up to fifty banners at a time. Papel picado can also be made by folding a handkerchief and small sharp scissors. Common themes include birds, floral patterns and skeletons.

             Papel picado is often exhibited on secular and religious occasions, such as Easter, Christmas, Day of the Dead, as well as weddings, May, baptisms and christenings. In Mexico, Papel picado is often used on altars (ofrendas) during the Day of the Dead and on the street during the holidays. In the streets of Mexico, shredded paper is often tied together to create a banner that can be hung in the aisles or displayed at home.


            Amate paper was widely produced and used for communications, records, and rituals during the Triple Alliance; however, after the Spanish conquest, its production was largely banned and replaced by European paper. Amate paper production has never completely stopped, as have the related rituals.

            The strongest remained in the remote and rugged mountainous areas of the northern states of Puebla and northern Veracruz. Spiritual leaders in the small village of San Pablito, Puebla, have been described as paper makers with “magical” qualities. Foreign scientists began studying this ritual use of amateurs in the mid-20th century, and the Ottomans in the region began producing paper commercially. Ottoman craftsmen began selling it in cities such as Mexico City, where the paper was revived by Nahua painters in Guerrero to create a “new” indigenous craft, which was then promoted by the Mexican government.

            These and other innovations make amate paper one of the most widespread indigenous Mexican crafts sold at home and abroad. Nahua’s paintings from paper, also known as “amate,” enjoy the most attention, but Otomi’s paper workers paid attention not only to the paper itself, but also to handicrafts made from it, such as elaborate cut-outs.