Elizabeth Z. Pineda
Papermaking in Mexico has a rich history. In the Far East, papermaking dates back to China and Egypt. In the Americas, paper originates with the Maya and the Aztecs. Yet, the papers from the two sides of the world were different. True paper, as we know it, was invented by the Chinese, and the Egyptians had papyrus. In Meso America, people made paper out of bark. The Mayans’ called their paper Huun, the Aztec’s Amatl. Amatl is know as Amate or Bark paper.
The uses of the bark paper were varied. It was used for record-keeping, to record stories, for use in healing and spiritual rituals, clothing, and for folded manuscripts to form sacred books. Despite their extensive use of paper, little recorded history remains about these Meso-American narratives. Nearly all of the manuscripts were destroyed by the Spaniards during the conquest. However, a few significant codices from these civilizations remain. Two magnificent examples are the Codex Dresdensis from the Maya and the Codex Mendoza from the Aztecs. An entry in the Codex Mendoza states that 24,000 resmas of (bark) paper were to be provided annually to Tenochtitlan’s ruler Moctezuma II (480,000 sheets) giving insight into how important the material was to these early civilizations.
A spread from the Codex Mendoza
The tradition of bark papermaking nearly disappeared after the conquest. However, the Otomí people in the small town of San Pablito in northern Puebla, México, continued the practice in secret. The Otomí people were one of the producers of paper for the Aztec court. They continued making paper for their use and ritual for several centuries. The Otomí’s Amate paper became known when it was introduced to native artists from Guerrero, a nearby state, in the 1960s by architect Max Kerlow and painter Felipe Ehrenberg. Kerlow and Ehrenberg gifted sheets of Amate to clay artists renowned for their elaborate paintings in pottery. The clay artisans welcomed the new material as they often lost much of their pottery because it broke during transit when they traveled to sell their wares. The intricate paintings they created on the Amate paper were a great success that eventually leads to a bark paper exhibition in Mexico City in 1963, the first of its kind. The demand for bark paper paintings swelled and become one of the most sought-after kinds of folk art from Mexico. The bark paper paintings on Amate are exports to markets in many countries around the world. Initially, the bark paintings were made by artists from Guerrero, but a local painter from Pahuatlán, near San Pablito, Rafael Lechuga, taught the Otomí how to paint on their Amate. A practice they continue to this day. The Otomí of San Pablito remains one of the sole producers of the bark paper.
Bark paper is prepared similarly to other hand-made papers. The difference with Amate paper is that the sheets are not pulled, or formed with water. For this reason, Amatl is sometimes not considered a true paper. When making Amate, the fiber is processed the same way. The fibers are peeled, separated from the bark, cooked, soaked, and bleached or dyed. For the final step, instead of beating the fibers into a pulp and submerging the pulp in water, and pulling or forming it, the bark fibers are separated into strips and pounded with a volcanic stone on a flat surface to form/make the sheets of paper.
Traditionally bark papers are made from the bark of fig trees but the fig groves near San Pablito have been exhausted. Nowadays, their Amate is made from the Jonote tree bark which, due to the great demand and large removal of bark the Jonotes around San Pablito have also died. To produce the necessary quantities of paper in demand the bark is now brought from Jonote groves in neighboring states like Veracruz
In San Pablito, papermaking and bark paintings are a family affair. Everyone contributes to this craft, including the children. Children help carry the bundles of peeled fiber, and they lay out the fibers in the patterns to be pounded. In this way, they learn a sustaining and culturally rich practice, one based on traditions passed on from a long ancestral legacy.
Currently, papermaking practices in Mexico include water-forming methods. Two places that incorporate this practice are Taller Leñateros in Chiapas, and Taller de Arte Papel in Oaxaca. Taller Leñateros is a Maya collective of artists founded by poet Ámbar Past. Taller Leñateros has published several books recounting the history and voices of Maya women. Likewise, Taller Arte de Papel Oaxaca was founded by Artist Francisco Toledo. At the taller, they implement local materials and sustainable practices in their papermaking and art studios. Some of the fibers used in papermaking at Taller Arte de Papel include local plants and fibers from Oaxaca like: Ixtle (Agave or Yucca,) Algodón de Pochote (Pochote cotton,) Algodón de Coyuche (native brown cotton) Majagua, Jonotes, Chichicastle (nettle,) Bagazo de Mezcal (Mezcal pulp waste,) Carrizo (reeds,) and Totomoztle (corn husks - maíz.) Algodón de Coyuche is considered El Oro Blanco (white gold.) Coyuche is a Zapotec word meaning coyote. The cotton is called Coyuche because of its color. Coyuche is also used to make finely crafted garments. At Taller Arte Papel all of the water used in the papermaking process goes back into the environment. For this reason, everything used, the fibers, dyes, and materials, must be safe and environmentally friendly because it goes back into the water table the community uses.
Taller Arte Papel in Oaxaca, Mexico - Plants Used to Make Paper
Regardless of the type of paper made, the inscriptions, motifs, and cultural iconography hold the same values. Paper remains as significant today as it was in Pre-Columbian times. Its history as a sacred material to the Aztecs and its meticulous craft traditions continue to be practiced to this day. The rich legacies and history of the people who humbly keep the tradition alive are indelible and hold as much breath as the early documents made on Amate centuries ago.
Otomí Bark Paper in Mexico: Commercialization of a Pre-Hispanic Technology.
Craft in America: Taller Arte de Papel Oaxaca.
Elaboracion del Papel Amate.
Mexican Bark Paper: Evidence of History of Tree Species Used and Their Fiber Characteristics.
On Otomí Magic and Paper Making.
Paper Ties to Land: Indigenous and Colonial Material Orientations to the Valley of Mexico
Paper: A Sacred Material in Aztec Ritual
An additional video, it's a little longer, but it is great - Sadly, without English captions