Paper Mache as an urban folk art form

Amuzgo women spinning cotton thread

When most people, even Mexican handcraft/folk art collectors, think of the subject, our visions are mostly of rural Mexico, of places like Oaxaca and Chiapas, wth adobe houses, nature and often indigenous people teaching the craft through generations.  This is not without reason as the Mexican handcraft tradition has been buoyed by the tourism industry, which promotes handcrafts as “authentic” Mexico, reinforcing an idea of rural, pre-industrial Mexico though images and types of products that are promoted.

However, not all Mexican handcrafts and folk art are concentrated in rural and indigenous areas. Fine metals such as gold and especially silver, are almost exclusively worked in towns and cities such as Iguala, Taxco, Mexico City and Guadalajara. Tlaquepaque and Tonala, part of the Guadalajara metro area, are known for their fine pottery, including much of the country’s high-fire wares and industrial ceramic production.

Dancing Colima dogs alebrije style by Gerardo Gomez Manjaras

However, one thing that is similar between this production and that of rural Mexico is that artisans work with materials that are readily available in their locations. Another handcraft/folk art which can be argued as urban is paper mache, or better called by its Mexican Spanish name cartonería, because of its cultural and historic significance.

The best known family in cartonería by far is the Linares, based in Mexico City. It is interesting to note that the family began with the craft part-time with the famous Pedro Linares’ grandfather in the 19th century. The family has always lived east of what is now the historic center of Mexico City. In the 19th century, this area was farmland, and the Linares worked the land. But as it became better connected with, and eventually overrun, by this urban center, the Linares made the shift from rural to urban, mostly over only 3 generations. Cartoneria has been done by the family for five generations, but for half that time, it was part-time seasonal work, making copies of traditional items.

Pedro Linares on rooftop of home with son, circa 1970s (credit Gallina X)

However, this changed during Pedro Linares’ lifetime, which spans the 20th century.  Pedro’s contributions to cartonería and popular culture coincides with the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the mid 20th century.The growth of Mexico City not only gave the Linares more and more diverse markets for their cartoneria, it also provided new ideas and influences. Today, their most important products, skeletal figures doing activities of the living and alebrijes (colorful monsters with parts of various creatures) are connected to modern and more urban influences, and are still evolving to new trends.

Pedro Linares bird alebrije, courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Linares’ fortune is tied to having been “discovered” by an anthropologist who saw a group of very early alebrijes (really modified Judas Iscariot figures) which had been taken to a trendy area near Mexico’s Angel of Independence. This began a familial relationship with Mexico’s artist and intellectual community, which has since expanded internationally. The Linares have not been the only “cartoneros” to benefit from this tie. Carmen Caballeros Sevilla’s Judas figures were compared to Salvador Dali’s work by Diego Rivera, and the craft’s growing popularity among the upper classes attracted non-craftsperson people such as Susana Buyo to make their own works and teach others.

Skeletal figure cooking at the Megaofrenda at UNAM (credit Guillerminargp)

In general, Mexican folk art suffers from a dearth of younger people willing to follow prior generations into the various traditions. One reason is certainly the lack of economic opportunities, but we should also consider the relative lack of innovation. In Mexico City, cartoneria has been attracting younger generations, whether it is to work it as a hobby, an art form or as a means of earning income. Classes cartoneria are popular in the various cultural centers and schools teaching trades in the city. The best-known handcrafts event in Mexico City is the Monumental Alebrijes Parade, which poses few limits to participating persons or pieces, which has led to experiments in the the materials used, especially in the decoration.

Dragon head “alma” (lit soul)  of PET plastic and tape. Paper and paste to be applied over.

However, like other handcrafts/folk art, cartonería is based on what is available. Granted, paper can be bought just about anywhere in Mexico, but large quantities of new and recycled paper is more easily obtained in urban areas, along with other supplies such as paints, decorative items and more. Urban areas lack primary materials from nature such as clay, reeds, wood, etc, but paper and wire and materials to make molds are not directly from nature. They are made in urban areas for sale mostly to urban areas. This is the case for those making their creations from recycled materials, as urban areas produce large quantities of waste. In Mexico City, they have began working with PET bottles and other plastics in addition to paper for both shape and decoration. However, those who produced large quantities of cartoneria need urban infrastructure to obtain large quantities of new and more varied paper and other materials.

KISS figure by Daniel Barrera Manriquez

Although cartonería can be found in urban areas such as Celaya, San Miguel de Allende, Patzcuaro and the city of Oaxaca, by far the most  and the most varied is produced in Mexico City. Some folk art enthusiasts criticize the lack of continuity of modern cartoneros with the ideas and practices of the past. Pieces by Linares family members still command higher prices for the continued use of family connections, but the fame of the Linares family came from innovation by Pedro Linares, not by keeping traditional cartonería techniques.

Javier Bautista with marionette of cartonería

Almost all of the cartoneros under age 35 in Mexico City are those who have learned it in a class or informally through others, reflecting urban reality, where knowledge and traditions are not passed down through family or small community but rather through institutions and wider social connections. Their interest is not in copying Linares’ or other works, per se, but to create their own takes on their pieces and even more traditional pieces such as toys and mojigangas. So although lacking in familial bonds, these cartoneros are inheriting the tradition, not just by using paper and paste, but incorporating modern influences of their generation.


Photos by the author unless otherwise specified




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