Cut out to be gods

After the Conquest, the Spanish introduced many European technologies to what is now Mexico. However, not all were completely new.

Amate paper had been produced in Mesoamerica for centuries and was a very important commodity reserved only for the ruling and priestly castes. For the former, it was used for record keeping, particularly history, and for the latter even the paper itself had supernatural qualities.

Part of the Huexotzinco Codez on amate paper (1531)

This supernatural connection prompted the Spanish worked to get rid of amate, made from the bark four different trees of the Ficus family. This tree is relatively abundant in central Mexico, but today amate paper production is limited to only a few small communities in the rugged mountains of northern Puebla and Veracruz. This is because the Spanish were able to stamp out the paper and the rituals surrounding it everywhere else.

It would be hard to underestimate the inaccesibility of these towns. San Pablito is the best known of these, a tiny community of a couple hundred, poised precariously on a ledge on the side of a mountain. The area receives significant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Road conditions are poor overall and hard to maintain. Landslides are common; roadways are either covered by rocks and dirt or themselves have fallen down ravines.

Amate paper drying in the sun in San Pablito (credit: Luis Fernando Orozco Madero CC-by-SA 3.0)
Images of gods of fruit and the sun on a long wall hanging at the National Museum of Popular Culture in Mexico City

This area is one of several to which the Otomis fled with the rise of the Aztec Empire in Mexico City, and later the arrival of the Spanish. What the area lacked in agricultural capability it made up for with the protection it gave from massive social changes going on elsewhere. It is only here that the making of amate paper for ritual purposes was able to survive until the latter 20th century.

Until the 1960s, the making of the paper was restricted to local shamans, who kept the process secret and used the paper only for the making of cut-out figures of gods and spirits for rituals. At this time, the shamans and their communities came into contact with anthropologists and others, finding out that the outside world had interest in their culture. Economic pressures also necesitated the use of commerical paper (such as tissue paper) for rituals, making it acceptable, and the making of amate was in danger of being lost.

Commercialization of amate paper began sometime in the 1970s, with shamans and others traveling to Mexico City to sell cut outs along with other Otomi handcrafts. This did not devalue the cut outs to the Otomi because the paper had no sacred quality unless the cutting was done as part of a ritual. So the cutting forked, the sacred still reserved for shamans, but now there was an opportunity for others to learn the making of amate paper and cutting the images.


The figures are usually symmetrical as the paper is usually folded before it is cut. There are five different kinds of figures: those that represent kinship ties, those related to fertility of crops, those representing the forces of nature, those that represent elements that are in contrast to the values and beliefs of Otomi culture and intermediary figures (whose who intercede in the spirit worlds on behalf of the people). Amate paper naturally can range from a dark brown to a near white, mostly depending on whether the older outer bark is used or the newer inner bark. Certain figures were traditionally made with certain colors.

Amate as the base of this black and white painting  by Santiago Alejandro Celis from Xalitla, Guerrero

While some ritualistic cutting of amate or other paper still survives in the San Pablito area, it has been overwhelmed by simple commercial production of the paper. Most now is made and sold to Nahua groups in the state of Guerrero, who use it to make folk paintings based on their traditional pottery. Commerically-made Otomi cut outs are usually mounted on a larger sheet of amate paper to be framed and hung, but images of gods and spirits now compete with more mundate and even modern designs.







Amate wall hangings in modern designs at the Gallery Museum in San Pablito.


See also The precarious position of San Pablito and its amate paper



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