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International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists Magazine (IAPMA), Autumn, 2006

Traditional Papermaking Techniques in Central Mexico

By Beverly Sky

Papermaking is an ancient craft in Mexico. From pre-Columbian times the use of deerskin, tree bark, agave (aloe) and maguey fibers as well as other grasses and plants were fashioned into paper and used for painting 'Codices' (pictorial manuscripts), ceremonial clothing, banners, fans, bags or for religious or historical purposes.

These papemaking skills are still practiced today and are used to create folk art paintings and other craft objects as well as in healing rituals. The most popular of these papers is called amate and it is made from the bark of mulberry and fig trees. Men from the villages where paper is made peel the bark from the trees, but women actually make the paper.

The bark, taken from a layer of inner bark or bast, usually in the early spring, preferably when the moon is new, as this facilitates the work and does less harm to the trees. This bark is washed, boiled in a large pot for several hours with ashes or lime water derived from the boiling of the corn from which tortillas are made, The remaining fiber is rinsed and laid in lines on a wooden board. The fibers are then beaten with a stone until they fuse together into paper and then are left to dry in the sun. In the end it retains much of the original structure of the bark. Technically, amate is not considered to be a 'true' paper. To make paper, the bark or bast must be boiled and then beaten to a pulp, loosing it's natural structure. It is then re-formed into sheets, drained and dried on a board or screen. The high demand for amate paper has resulted in the overstripping of trees and even poaching of the bark.

Much of the original research came from the work of the ethnographer, Fredrick Starr in the early 1900's. He identified papermaking tools used by the Otomi Indians and their neighbors in north-central Mexico. In particular, he described how the women in the papermaking villages made the bark paper and then cut out paper effigies for magical and ceremonial purposes.

The idea that paper has sacred qualities seems strange to people living in Western European societies, where it's manufacture and use is scarcely noticed. Yet, one must consider that anything produced in such quantity, available so widely, and used so extensively must be fundamental to the development and continuance of modern society.

For the Indian peoples of Mexico, paper has long been valued as an important commodity. A substance of dignity and beauty, produced by craftspeople and treated with care. The Aztecs considered paper to be a sacred substance, used as an article of tribute and as a means of keeping tribute records. Followers of Herman Cortes used these records or tribute, known as the Codex Mendoza (c.1568), to send to the Spanish court to show the wealth of the new colony. This Codex names forty-two cities and towns where paper was made and specifies that 480,000 sheets of paper were to be collected each year from just two of the named towns.

These books or codices were made by folding a single long sheet of paper, accordion-style, with decorated slabs of wood or leather glued on each end as covers or binders. Many towns in central Mexico preserve their original Nahuatl names, based on the product for which the area was renowned.

For example the towns of: Amaculi, from the word amatl "paper" and cuiloa, "to paint," Amatitlan-caz - "place of many paper trees," Amayocan - "place where paper is made," Amatzonco - "place of papermaking fibers, Amecameca - " place where they wear paper tunics," Sinaloa - "place of paper sheets." With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the concurrent aggressive conversions to Christianity, all vestiges of the traditional culture of the indigenous peoples was systematically destroyed.

In 1561, the Spanish priest, Diego de Landa was assigned to convert the Mayas to Christianity. After locating a temple filled with a great archive of sacred texts, which he ordered to be destroyed, he wrote: "These people used certain characters or letters with which they wrote in their books concerning ancient things and their sciences. With these figures and certain signs of the same type, they understood their things and taught them. We found a great number of these books and letters and because they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil, we burned them all, which the people felt most deeply and which gave them much sorrow." (Landa 1938 (1566?), p. 207)

In Mexico, as well as in many cultures round the world, paper is inexorably connected to the religious and spiritual practices of the indigenous peoples. Indeed, it is believed that the first paper was created in China by the court official, Ts'ai Lun in A.D. 105 (about 2,500 years ago) for the purpose of compiling and recording Buddhist prayers.

In Mexico, the Nahuatl (modern Aztecs), Otomi and Tepehua Indian shamans cut paper into images of important spirits for use in healing rituals. In Fredrick Starr's research, and subsequently the research of Dard Hunter, who lived among the Otomis in the early 1900's, it was documented that paper was cut by shamans into anthropomorphic and theriomorphic (animal-shaped) images representing certain spirits. These paper images along with small statuettes wen to Although many beliefs and practices among the Nahuatl, Otomis and Tepehuas have been blended or synchretized with Christian religious ideas, their systems remain foreign to people of Western European culture. Modern researchers have just begun to uncover the complex metaphysical and pholosophical bases of the sacred paper images and the spiritual ideas that they are based upon.

The Indians of today practice a religion that has meaning within their agricultural way of life and is derived from the context established by their own history. They continue to use paper to portray and represent their most powerful and sacred concepts. Paper images are the central focus of rituals. Papermaking and papercutting is a method of meditation used for focusing the and energy to effect a particular shift or change of reality. These are symbolic of the spirits and concepts most closely related and connected to vital areas of daily existence for the Nahuatl, Otomi and Tepeuas who are still living traditional lives. The importance of paper as a medium of communication between human and spirit worlds is as great today as it was thousands of years ago.

Following is a sampling of some of the paper cutout images from the various Indian groups and a copy of a Diagram of a Nahuatl Crop Fertility Ritual or Xochitlalia (Flowery Earth) This ritual, according to the research of Alan Sandstrom and Pamela Effrain Sandstrom, lasted about two weeks and took place in March the end of the winter crop season. The village where the ritual took place, had been without rain for two months. The people of the village were greatly concerned because the loss of the winter crop would mean a month of hunger before the summer crop was harvested. The entire village works together to create an altar, and gifts of tobacco, alcohol, various food offerings, incense (copal), candles, sacrificial birds, seeds, money and flowers adorn the sacred area while the shaman cuts the various figures and arranges them in a propitious fashion around the altar which has points of the compass, north, south east and west indicated and also includes, the elements of fire, water, air and earth, all accompanied by constant chanting, dancing and playing of musical instruments by everyone in the village. At the end of the two weeks the entire village prays together at the sacred space. Following this particular ritual, according to the Sandstroms, it rained within two days, saving the crop.

( This travel and research was funded by a grant from the Francis F. Kinnicutt Award, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA)



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