If you spend any real time in Mexico, especially around certain holidays and celebrations, you will eventually see small, and even large crepe paper, “flags” or “banners” on which an often intricate design is cut.
If they are large, they usually hang alone, but if small, they often are found in a series of ten or more on a string meaning to be hung over an area where a crowd is to gather.
The making of these banners is called “papel picado,” literally “punched paper,” related to how it is made.
The craft is a relatively recent one, dating back only 200 years or so, to the introducion of crepe paper to Mexico. Here it is called “papel chino” (Chinese paper) referring to the fact that it was introduced as a wrapping for expensive items imported from Asia.
Waste not, want not, techniques from wood working were adapted to making decorative items from this delicate paper.
Although similar to cut out paper in China and the making of paper snowflakes by children in northern areas, papel picado techniques were autonomously developed in Mexico. Instead of using scissors or knives, it is traditionally made with chisels and hammers.
Forty or 50 sheets are layered on top of each other with a stencil made of heavier paper or light cardboard used to trace the design onto the top sheet. Then the paper is cut to make repeating designs.
The use of paper picado has been waning in Mexico. It used to be used for many public and private celebrations but today it is most commonly seen on Day of the Dead, Independence Day (16 Sept) and other festivals which intend to promote traditional Mexican identity.
The use of the paper for artistic purposes originally was reserved for those with the money to spend on such things. Today, however, crepe paper is cheap, and there is an abundance of cheaply made alternatives for decorating. This means that the vast majority of papel picado sold in the country is made industrially, but a few exceptions remain.
One town known for making traditional papel picado is San Salvador Huixcolotla in Puebla and there are a number of workshops still even in Mexico City.
Working on papel picado in Xochimilco, Mexico City
Workshops like these do make pieces with traditional designs, but they survive due to orders for custom work, such as papel picado banners with the name of a girl celebrating her quinceañera or a neighborhood wanting to celebrate a particular local image. The largest papel picado workshop in Mexico City is in the semi-rural borough of Xochimilco, known for having more local celebrations than days of the year. Oddly enough, this workshop, Artesanías de Papel Picado Mexicano, sells far more outside of Xochimilco, to other parts of Mexico City and a number of other areas in Mexico.
They also experiment with other materials and uses for the work, such as other kinds of paper, and various kinds of plastics, which have the advantage of holding up better especially in inclement weather. They make other decorative items such as decorative tablecloths as well.