The precarious position of San Pablito and its amate paper

Sometimes success can be your own worst enemy.


If you have browsed the handcrafts for sale in the tourist areas of Mexico, you may have seen amate paper, quite likely as a brown background to intricate paintings in bright colors as seen the image above.

If you are looking at the genuine article, the painting is done by Nahua people in Guerrero state. The paper is made by Otomi people in the north of the state of Puebla. While it may look old and traditional, its actually a recent marriage brought about by chance and the need to make money from Mexico’s tourist trade. Both the painting style and the paper separately have long tradtions. The painting style is derived from that of Guerrero Nahua pottery (although this has been modified to foreign tastes) and the paper is a kind of bark paper made since the pre Hispanic period.

The marriage of the two came in the 1970s, when Nahua vendors and Otomi vendors began selling their respective products in Mexico City markets. As pottery is heavy and difficult to transport to tourist venues such as Acapulco, the Nahuas began buying Otomi paper and painting it with pottery designs. This was quite sucessful as it is not only easier for the Nahuas, but for tourists to bring home as well.

Amate paper drying in San Pablito (by Luis Fernando Orozco Madero)

As for the Otomi, they are one of very few communities who have made amate paper since the Spanish Conquest, as colonial authorities banned its manufacture because of it ritual uses. Indeed, until the latter 20th century, all amate made in the San Pablito region was for ritual uses, as the area’s extremely rugged terrain made enforcing Mexico City edicts mostly impossible.

San Pablito is a small town located on the side of a steep ravine in a region known as the Sierra Norte de Puebla, about 3 hours northeast of Mexico City. The steepness of the terrain is not just due to the mountains, but also the climate, which is very humid as moisture from the Gulf of Mexico crashes against the mountains and falls as rain. This means that the almost-constantly moist soil has has numerous springs and subject to frequent landslides. Driving in the area can be quite hazardous, as frequent fog can obscure often washed out or fallen roads cut into the sides of the mountains and valleys. It does not matter if said road is paved or not, and often it is not. San Pablito is part of the municipality  headed by the nearby larger town of Pahuatlan, which is relatively easy to get to, but to get from there to San Pablito, one must drive cautiously to the bottom of a large steep ravine, cross the San Marcos River, then wind their way up again halfway up the other side, hope that enough road width remains for the vehicle.

Otomi cutouts at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Traditionally, the paper was made here for cut out figures used for pre Hispanic rituals which have survived to the present day. Catholicsm is practiced by the people here, but it is highly mixed with veneration to good and evil entities, conducted by shamans. The cut outs generally are representations of these entities. While there are other places that still make amate for similar purposes, San Pablito is the only community which has shifted to creating the paper commercially. This is necessity for a region where most men have migrated out to Mexico City or the United States to work, leaving women and children behind to depend on these crafts.

Wall hanging at the Gallery Museum in San Pablito

Although the Otomi have work to commercialize the paper themselves, making wall hangings, note books and other items for market, most of the production is still sold wholesale to the Nahuas. However, the success of this venture has taken a significant environmental toll. The money that has come in has gone into building solid and heavy cinderblock homes and other buildings, which are problematic due to the steep terrain and unstable soil. The large scale production of the paper has taken a toll on the surrounding forest, as artisans still depend on bard collected from a kind of fig (genus Ficus) tree in the wild around the town, instead of through cultivation. Those who provide this bark must now venture further to find the material. The demands of the tourist market are for lighter shades of paper and often with bright colors. This means the use of strong industrial bleaches and dyes to obtain these colors, which find their way down into the San Marcus River and beyond.

This is not a sustainable system, and interesting that it still continues as the tree species grows in a number of zones in central Mexico and cultivating the tree is relatively easy, with trees needing only six or seven years to reach sufficient maturity to shed the necessary bark. Of course the problem with this is getting such bark to San Pablito, so it remains to be seen if the town will remain the main amate paper producer in the future.

(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia. unless otherwise indicated)




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