If there is something that characterizes Day of the Dead festivities, it definitely would be the presence of papel picado everywhere
Between sugar skulls, candles, Cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, colors, pan de muerto, food, and more, Mexicans celebrate their dead and honor their lives with color all around in Día de los Muertos. This tradition has become a complete sensation, crossing borders across the world where Día de Muertos gains its recognition as one of Mexico’s most important and authentic traditions. With this, one of the elements that cannot be missing in the traditional ofrendas is the famous papel picado, which has gained great notoriety in recent years and is now used for many different occasions, not only during these celebrations. But where does it come from? Who are the people making it? How is it actually made and why is it considered an artisanal craft? Join us in exploring papel picado’s role in Mexican culture, particularly Day of the Dead traditions, recognizing its importance, history, and the artisans’ hard work in making this artisanal beauty.
Party in Mexico using Papel Picado for Decorations
The magic and splendor behind papel picado originated in the state of Puebla, in central Mexico, where it is considered a cultural heritage. Therefore, for us, there is no better place to learn about the origins of the color of papel picado than right there, in what is known as 'Cuna del papel picado' (papel picado’s birthplace). We talked to the patient and kind Claudia, who is part of the family of artisans who work at Fiesta Mexicana, a workshop that has more than 15 years manufacturing papel picado, this artisanal treasure. She shared with us what the manufacturing process is like, as well as other curiosities of the renowned paper that gives color to the Día de Muertos festivities and other holidays around Mexico.
Where does Papel Picado Come from?
Papel Picado’s significance at the altar is not limited to the colorful and decorative aspects that it provides to the ofrenda. Papel Picado represents wind, one of the four main elements that should be present in the ofrenda. Before the arrival of the Spanish to Mexico, ancient cultures used amate paper cutouts to decorate their rituals and ceremonies. Papel picado continues this tradition, replacing deities with images of death, such as skulls, catrinas, and words indicating the festivity being celebrated.
Before becoming papel picado with its traditional cutting, the base paper used for this work is tissue paper. The actual tissue paper that makes the basis for this craft originated in China (fun fact, tissue paper in Mexico is known as "papel de China") and has been used and worked with in Europe since the sixteenth century. However, it arrived in Mexico in the nineteenth century, when haciendas were thriving and laborers were forced to buy all their essential products in what was known as tiendas de raya, establishments located within the haciendas where workers were able to acquire the necessary products for their survival, sold at inflated prices, making workers become increasingly indebted to their patrons.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Mexican workers and farmers began to work with the Chinese paper to wrap the products that were sold in these stores. From there, the people from San Salvador Huixcolotla, a small community in the center of Puebla, in addition to their field work, started to get creative with this paper and developed the technique and characteristics for cutting figures into the paper. As they dedicated themselves to working this role, until they achieved the Puebla crafts that we know today, they began transmitting their knowledge from generation to generation and began to sell their work to neighboring towns. A few years later, in the 1930s, this technique continued to spread to more towns in Puebla and Tlaxcala. It took some years and it was until the 1960s that the craft of papel picado arrived in Mexico City beginning here its national and international recognition and becoming what we know today as a key piece of Día de Muertos decorations and altars.
Over time, the tradition evolved until it was reflected on papel picado. At the same time, its practices of elaboration changed as well, as kindly explained by Claudia: “An easier technique began to be created to get this work out faster and easier, which is why it is more common and cheaper now. What started from knives and scissors, we now use chisels and hammers or specialized swages for bigger productions... Our great-grandparents did not use chisels, they did it with scissors and a razor, can you imagine?!”.
Personalized design of The Lion King made by Fiesta Mexicana with Chisel and Hammer.
The first step in making papel picado is to have a drawing or design that will be placed on the sheets of China paper and will serve as a guide for cutting. When swages are used, these are pressed with rollers in which leather plates are passed through them with sharp blades that present the outline of the design to be cut. By means of pressure and in a matter of seconds, larger quantities of papel picado are obtained. However, the designs that have a more complex and specialized design are done with the help of chisels and hammers. The artisans work with bundles of approximately 50 sheets that they manipulate. This allows for a personalized design, such as names or figures that people would like to see pressed in these colorful decorations.
Claudia, from Fiesta Mexicana Workshop, Assembling packs of papel picado. Courtesy of Fiesta Mexicana
Claudia shared with us that papel picado has generated such an impact in recent years that they prepare for the Day of the Dead holiday well in advance. “In January we begin to work on September holidays [referring to Mexican Independence Day], we usually finish the work for September by March and we then begin with Día de Muertos, so that in July the work of the two festivities is ready. We are finishing manufacturing everything for Christmas by mid-September, at least that is our goal every year.”
Claudia and her family from Fiesta Mexicana workshop started from nothing with only a dream, she told us: "we started with the desire to make our product, to go out and sell it." From producing a few hundred pieces, now the workshop manages to sell up to 10 thousand packs of papel picado per year, in addition to decorative strips and foldable piñatas.
Here is a small video of the process of chisel and hammer technique being used by Claudia, accompanied by her playful son. Courtesy of Claudia from Fiesta Mexicana:
So, what are your thoughts? Did you learn something new today? Let us know, we love hearing from you and read all of your feedback with love and gratitude! If you are interested in supporting Claudia and her workshop, be sure to check out our Papel Picado Collection Here!
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Thank you so much for the interesting and informative articles about aspects of Mexican culture. I have had many questions about The Virgin of Guadelupe and you answered them all! I also wondered about the Papel Picado. I can’t wait to try the Tortilla soup recipe even though I may not be able to find epozote in my part of the US. I will look for it next time I return to Mexico. Keep up the fascinating writing. Maybe something on tezmacals?