Paper, Paste and Celebration: Mexican Cartonería – Chapter 3 Types of traditional cartonería products

This is a series of chapters from a book I cannot seem to get published despite nothing on the market like it and these artisans´still increasing importance to Mexico’s festival calendar. Introduction here Paper, Paste and Celebration: Mexican Cartonería – Chapter 2 History and Definition through the 20th centuryand Chapter 2 here.



Today, the making of cartonería items is strongly associated with certain celebrations, with most items made seasonally depending on the holiday that is approaching.


Girl striking a piñata in California in 1961 (George Louis)

The best known cultural object both in Mexico and abroad is the piñata. Its importance in the country is underlined by the appearance of these in works done by many Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera, who painted a mural dedicated to it in 1953. They have also appeared in numerous Mexican movies and television shows and even some American ones. Despite being strongly associated with Mexico, their origin is a bit complicated. The Aztecs did have a tradition of breaking an old pot in covered in feathers to celebrate the birthday of the god Huitzilopochtli in December. However, the modern version has its origins in China, where the breaking of a decorated pot with treats was associated with the New Year. This idea migrated to Europe, where it was associated with Lent. The Spanish introduced this version of the piñata, specifically at the monastery in Acolman just north of Mexico City, but reinterpreted it in order to replace the older Huitzilopochtli tradition. The breaking of the piñata was moved to December, and the piñata redesigned to be used as an evangelization tool. Seven points added to the decorated pot to symbolize the Seven Deadly Sins and the treats inside, released when the pot was broken, then symbolized the reward for overcoming sin.

While there are still piñatas made in Mexico using ceramic pots as a base, the vast majority of those sold today are made completely with paper and paste, but the resulting figure is not as hard as other cartonería items as it needs to be broken relatively easily. The most traditional piñatas are still those made for the Christmas season, especially for the weeks prior when families participate in “posadas,” reenactments of the search of Joseph and Mary for a place to stay before the birth of Jesus. Come December, traditional markets all over the country fill with these.  They are round in shape but the number of points varies from five to nine, with nine now being the most common.  The colors of these piñatas comes from the use of crepe paper, which is cut and glued to both the sphere and the points. The end of the points often have tassels, which can be of fine strips of crepe paper  or other materials. The most traditional treats include jicama, guava fruit, pieces of sugar cane, peanuts and other fruits of the season, but store-bought candy is now more common.

Their popularity with children is such that piñatas have become staples of birthday parties as well. However, these piñatas are not of the traditional star shape, but rather take on a wide variety of motifs including, princesses, sports figures, cartoon characters (almost always made without permission of the copyright owner), animals and much more. These are most often achieved with the use of molds, with the dried figures painted in bright colors. Whether a traditional Christmas piñata or not, the process of breaking one is the same. The piñata is suspended in the air in such a way that someone on the ground can move it around, making it harder to hit. A child is blindfolded, spun then sent to hit the pinata, receiving verbal help from spectators to locate it. The time the child has to break it is determined by singing a song for this purpose. When the song ends, so does the turn.

Unlike other traditional cartonería products, piñatas have not generally transformed into artistic pieces or collectors’ items. They are still made to be broken. However, one exception to this is an annual piñata making competition held by the Folk Art Museum in Mexico City. Piñata themes generally do not run into political or social commentary, but in 2015, Tampico artisan Dalton Javier Avalos Ramirez created a piñata of Donald Trump to sell to fellow Mexicans, after the Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigration. In this case, it was not for filling with candy, but rather for the simple pleasure of hitting it.

Piñatas as a road side stand in Tabasco. (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

Most piñatas are made by families and small businesses that specialize in making and selling them. Piñata making can be found all over Mexico, not limited to certain regions most other forms are. In the State of Mexico, two towns are particularly noted for this activity, Temascalcingo, where many are still made with ceramic pots, and San Agustín Acolman, where they originated. Acolman holds a fair dedicated to piñatas for a week or so before Christmas. Noted piñata makers from here include Romana Zacarías Camacho, who can make up to thirty in one day, and a younger member of the same family, María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarias.

The piñata has been familiar to Americans as a symbol of Mexico especially since a scene appeared in Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros featuring one. Its popularity as a crossover item in the United States is traced to only about the 1980s, particularly in the states bordering Mexico. Because of this crossover, with piñatas now made in northern Mexico in the forms of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, large wedding cakes and more which target the U.S. market, generally for supermarkets, stationery stores and speciality boutiques. Their popularity in Latino households is nostalgia, whereas for others their popularity has been fueled by piñatas’ appearances in popular media, such as comics and children’s shows, making them common at birthday parties. This exportation of piñatas has not been without problems, however. There have been cases of piñatas being used to smuggle drugs, copyright issues of piñatas in the forms of images from popular culture and even finding nude images from the paper used to made the piñatas. Even within Mexico, which is more lax about enforcing copyright laws, piñata makers for the domestic market have lost inventory to raids, but continue to make images of cartoon characters and the like because the demand for them is so high.


Judas figures  

Burning a Judas figure at the annual Feria de Cartonería in Mexico City (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The making of Judas Iscariot figures may have been one of the first uses of cartonería in Mexico. These figures and their destruction appear to be an amalgamation of two southern European traditions. Their first is the burning of figure for the Fallas de Valencia, when carpenters made figures of wood for the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Usually these were devils, but they could also be humorous and/or related to current events. The burning of Judas effigies on Holy Saturday can be found in various parts of southern Europe, but in most cases, the effigy is crudely made and truly is destroyed by flames. How it was introduced to Mexico is debated. One story states that it was introduced by Franciscan monks for evangelization purposes. The other asserts that it rose in popularity as a response to the Mexican Inquisition, with cartonería dolls, representing heretics, given to children.

A Judas effigy in the shape of the devil made with cartonería emerged, which represents Judas after the betrayal as a symbol of evil. Over time, these figures became more elaborate and also used as a form of social and political protest. In past, the Judases would be authority figures, which at times invited restrictions and prohibitions. Today, political figures are still a target, but public ire can also extend to celebrities and sports figures. As recently as 20th century, there are stories of the secret police of then president Adolfo Ruiz Cortines checking workshops to make sure no effigies of the president were being made. In an odd twist, sometimes the person the effigy is representing is being honored with the burning. This has happened with well-loved figures such as comic actor Cantinflas and lucha libre wrestler El Santo. It is interesting to note that Judas effigies to be burned never represent women.

Judas figures are usually large, from about fifteen centimeters to three or four meters tall, necessitating the use of a wicker or wire frame to support the cartonería “skin.” This skin is painted often elaborately, but very rarely are other decorative materials used.

Until the mid-20th century, the destruction of Judas Iscariot in effigy was an extremely popular, with thousands made in many parts of Mexico for Holy Saturday, especially in Mexico City, in no small part due the simple burning of the figure giving way to its being torn to pieces with the use of strategically placed firecrackers. In some areas, their popularity was even further enhanced with the addition of coins or candy inside, so that when they exploded, the public was showered with the gifts as a reward for destroying evil. In the San Antonio neighborhood of Celaya, this was taken another step further with sausages from local butchers’ shops.

Judas figures experienced a sudden drop in popularly when a warehouse in La Merced, Mexico City caught fire and exploded in a heavily populated area, causing a number of deaths and injuries. It is still debated exactly what was in that warehouse, fireworks or stronger military explosives, but the result was the ban on the making and sale of almost all fireworks in the capital. The tradition nearly died out in the latter 20th century and many cartoneros left the business as the Judas represented a major part of their income. Outside of Mexico City, their popularity also declined with the more-gradual introduction of fireworks restrictions. Such event can still be found in parts of Mexico City, its suburbs, Guanajuato, Puebla, Zacatecas, Hidalgo, Morelos and the State of Mexico, but most Judases today are burned as community events, which obtain special permission from authorities. In some neighborhoods in Celaya, Judas figures are again simply burned after being doused in gasoline, in order to avoid the fireworks.

Before the ebb in Judas figures, artisan Pedro Linares, and to a lesser extent,Carmen Caballero Sevilla laid the groundwork to assure that Judases would not entirely disappear. Linares had begun experimenting with new shapes for Judases, which attracted the attention of the city’s artist and intellectual community, who began buying his work as cultural and artistic pieces. These would eventually evolve into a new form called alebrijes. Diego Rivera found Caballero’s work in the Abelardo Rodriguez market and had her work for him making her heavily simplified Judas figures, which can still be seen today in the Rivera/Kahlo House and Studio Museum in Mexico City’s San Angel neighborhood.


Monumental Alebrije namd Bacaanda Huati on display on Avenida Reforma (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

Alebrijes are are an innovation in Mexican cartonería. As mentioned above, they evolved from Judas figures and can be attributed to the work of one man, Pedro Linares (1906-1992). Unlike most other cartonería products, alebrijes are not associated with festivals or celebrations and since their inception have been collectors’ items. Their current place in Mexican culture is due to their acceptance as a kind of folk art by the artist and intellectual communities of Mexico City in the mid 20th century.


Pedro Linares began as a part time cartonero, making many of the same pieces that his father and grandfather did, in the same family homestead, today just east of Mexico City’s historic center. The traditional story of their origin is that Pedro dreamt or hallucinated them during a fever and upon his recovery sought to recreate what he saw. However, Susan N. Masuoka’s book, En Calavera: The Papier-Mache Art of the Linares Family, makes a strong case for their gradual development from Judas figures in the 1950s, mostly likely after the fireworks ban dropped the bottom out of the Judas market in the city. Early Judas figures bear a strong resemblance to Judases and many alebrijes still have animal heads and wings that can be found on Judas figures.

Later in life, Pedro also admitted that the creatures had evolved. The inspirations for this evolution are unclear as well. They have been compared to naguals, fantastic creatures with a pre Hispanic origin, but there is also some evidence that Linares may have been influenced by his contact with the Academy of San Carlos (then Mexico’s national art school), where he did festival decorations in technique, design or both.

The innovative Judas or early alebrijes caught the attention of Mexico City’s artist and intellectual community, leading to patronage for the Linares family. The unlikely connection allowed this poor family to continue with cartonería when many others had to find other work with the demise of Judases. Not only that, the popularity of the alebrijes, along with the La Catrina and skeletal figures mentioned earlier meant that the family could make a living from the activity year round and even specialize in it.

By the 1970s, the Linares alebrijes had brought international attention to Pedro and the family. Third generation alebrije maker Leonardo Linares states that the creatures have been touted as being good luck or scaring bad dreams, but he says that people probably have said this to sell more alebrijes. To him, they are purely decorative.

Judas with demon and animal elements by Alicia Mendez Juarez of Celaya

Alebrijes are classified as a handcraft or folk art, which unfortunately for the Linares, means that their creations do not have the same intellectual property rights as art. Pedro Linares created the name to refer to his “ugly” brightly colored creatures of various real and unreal animal parts in cartonería. His grandson Leonardo Linares obtained a court order stating that the name belongs to the family, and he would rather that any colorful monsters made by others not be called alebrijes. However, he has had very little success in enforcing the court order. Not only is “alebrije” the common name for these figures, no matter who made them, it has since become used to refer to a series of small wood carvings made in Oaxaca. These figures are generally recognizable creatures, painted in bright colors with intricate designs. They are more recognized as “alebrijes” by many outside of Mexico as they have been popularized by tourists visiting Oaxaca.

Cartonería alebrijes can be considered Mexico City’s main, if not only, indigenous handcraft, and its popularity among Mexican cartoneros continues to grow. It has spread in many parts of central Mexico, and where cartonería is spreading and/or growing in popularity, alebrijes are at the forefront. This is in spite of the fact that alebrijes are labor-intensive, done entirely freehand with no molds. Each alebrije is unique and commands higher prices. Each begins with a wire frame, sometimes with unicel or crumpled newspaper to form the head and/or body. Layers of paper cover this, and fine details are made by folding and crumpling newspaper or heavier paper such as craft. The most traditional alebrijes consist only of cartonería and paint although other elements have been added, especially by younger generations of cartoneros.

Skeletal figures for Day of the Dead

Catrina figures reinterpreted by Jalisco artisan Imelda Caren Ortega Alcazar

Today, the making of items related to Day of the Dead is the largest segment of most cartoneros’ business, making the weeks leading up to November 2 the busiest on their calendar.

Day of the Dead in Mexico is an annual commemoration for those who have died. It has pre-Hispanic roots, when it was believed that once a year, the dead could return to be with family. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, this commemoration was grafted onto All Soul’s and All Saint’s Day. Day of the Dead proper is November 2, but in many communities, observances can extend from October 31 to November 2 and in a few places to November 3. This commemoration is not morbid, but a mixture of respect for one’s own lost loved ones and gentle mockery of death itself.

Commemorations revolve around an temporary altar which is set up specifically for this purpose. How this altar is arranged and decorated vary from region to region, with a number of communities having notable local traditions. However, most of the decorations involved marigolds and seasonal fruits, certain foods related to the holiday such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and foods that deceased loved ones favored in life.

China Poblana by Rodolfo Villena Hernandez of Puebla

Decorations depicting skulls and skeletons have become important element both on and off altars during this time. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditionally skulls and skeletal figures have been made with a variety of materials, including sugar paste, clay wood and more, most likely originating as toys for children. Cartonería skeletal figures are not meant to be scary. Despite the growing influence of Halloween at this time, elements of this foreign holiday have not yet appeared in cartonería.  Instead the figures are most often made to be humorous, dressed as and/or engaging in activities of the living. Sometimes they are made in reference to historical figures or classes of people important in the past, such as the Aztecs. Cartonería skulls are imitations of those made with sugar, heavily decorated but often using bright colors instead of white being dominant. Their popularity have increased such over the years that large and even monumental figures are common in public institutions and common spaces, especially in central Mexico during Day of the Dead. Exhibitions of skeletal figures have even broken the barrier of the holiday. The Linares family was commissioned to make life-sized skeletal figures for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and exhibition that cemented the figures’ role in modern Mexican culture. Their importance was further demonstrated with another Linares creation La Muerta Tembloroso (Death in Tremors), with over fifty life-sized figures representing key elements of the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake including firemen, victims under rubble, soldiers and even a looter with a television set. There are essentially two kinds of skeletal figures. The first is called “La Catrina,” a figure dressed as a late 19th century upper class woman and the rest, which are simply called “calacas.”

The origins of cartonería skeletal figures and their relation to the living is somewhat controversial. A pivotal figure in their development is the graphic art of José Guadalupe Posada. He has been credited with the invention of Catrina and even with inventing the use of skeletal figures for social and political commentary. The use of skeletons in graphic content for the same purposes dates back at least until mid-19th century and probably earlier. The use of skulls and skeleton figures for Day of the Dead extends back even further.

Why his Catrina became famous enough to become a separate entity in itself has to do with Posada’s politics. He lived during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz as a fierce critic, dying in 1913 when the Mexican Revolution was in full swing. The post-Revolution government put significant resources in the arts, particularly those who would promote “revolutionary ideals” and give the new government legitimacy. These include emphasis on Mexico’s indigenous past, it rural and poor, and of course the role of government and arts to improve the country. Posada was idealized for this purpose, and his work, including his skeletons were promoted by the artistic and intellectual elite. One important work in this vein is Diego Rivera’s mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central). It takes Posada’s original image of just a skull wearing a wide 19th century ladies’ hat with large feathers, and completes with figure with a long gown and feather boa, strolling in the park alongside Rivera, depicted as a boy. The promotion of Posada’s work continued into the time of Pedro Linares, patronized by the same elite classes, began to commission skeletal figures based off Posada, especially La Catrina.

The Linares developed the basis of depicting skeletal figures in cartonería which is most commonly in use today. They have not changed radically since those made by Pedro with his sons in the mid-century. The only differences with pieces made today by the Linares and others is that they tend to suggest more movement, and sometimes are depicted with more modern clothing, doing more modern activities, such as skateboarding. Sometimes they may even be dedicated to the memory of the more recently deceased, such a Michael Jackson. Their popularity in Mexico and perhaps the curiosity that Day of the Dead provokes in foreigners have made skeletal figures, especially Catrina, an item that is sold year round in Mexico and abroad, especially in the United States and Europe. Just about all cartoneros have experience in making Catrinas. Large versions for public Day of the Dead altars are becoming more common and larger. The best-known altars that employ them include those at the Mexico City main square (Zocalo), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the plaza of the city of Aguascalientes and the Dolores Olmedo Museum.


Bride and groom mojigangas at a wedding in San Miguel Allende

The term “mojiganga” originally referred to a kind of comic theatrical piece. In Mexico today, it still can refer to a number of events with comic character, such as the mojiganga in Zacualpan de Amilpas in the state of Morelos in September. These events use cartonería props including masks, elements for floats and large to monumental pieces such as alebrijes and realistic animals which are carried over the parade route. Interestingly enough, they generally do not have the giant puppet figures known by the same name in the rest of the country.

These, usually called mojigangas or “gigantes” (giants), grew out of some mojiganga events in Spain and from there introduced to Latin America. However, their use has not been adopted uniformly in Mexico. Only certain communities have continued with their creation and participation in certain festivities, which have evolved somewhat different based on local customs and local materials.  There are prominent in festivals in parts of Guanajuato, Michoacan and Oaxaca and can appear elsewhere. Towns noted for their use include San Miguel de Allende (and some surrounding communities), Patzcuaro, Oaxaca (city), Santo Tomas Jalieza and Cuilapam de Guerrero. Most mojiganga makers do not do the craft full time, but it is one of several economic activities. For example, in Oaxaca (state), most mojigangas are made by those who also produce fireworks, although the two are not put together.

The forms they take and how they are traditionally used vary from place to place, but can appear in both religious or secular events, most often for processions or parades. Their main purpose is comic relief, as they have a Carnival-like appearance, generally several meters tall, with exaggerated facial features, often in colorful costume and arms which are left to swing loosely, with no control of the dancer supporting the figure.

Depending on the location and occasion, mojiganga can be of buxom blondes in revealing attire, Mexican historical figures, devils, angels, skeletons, brides and grooms. They have also included Aztec priests, Gandhi, Einstein, astronauts, Frida Kahlo and La China Poblana. They play a prominent role in the famous Guelaguetza festival of Oaxaca. Their use in weddings and events in September, celebrating the patron saint of Archangel Michael and Mexico’s Independence Day is a defining characteristic of the local culture of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Other events includes their use in the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s observances for Day of the Dead.

Mona or mojiganga on the street in Oaxaca City (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The puppets can be divided into two halves. The upper half is cartonería, constructed in a similar manner as Judas figures, with frames of wicker or wire. This upper half may be the head and upper torso, as is common in Guanajuato or just the head, more common in Oaxaca. Regardless of preference, the lower part to the legs of the dancer is then made with cloth, which may or may not be over a frame. It functions as both costume and puppet, with a dancer inside who generally carries the figure using integrated straps which rest on the shoulders. Overall height, with dancer, can be between two and six meters tall.

The figures are painted with additions such as hair of some kind of fiber such as yarn or ixtle (from the maguey plant), jewelry, etc. The dress or suit that the mojiganga almost always wears is meant to further conceal the dancer, although the dancer’s legs are the legs of the mojiganga, and may or may not match the character. The dancer sees through a hole placed in the mojiganga, usually at the lower abdomen level. In the past mojigangas weighed up to 30 kilos, but today they can weigh 22 kilos or less. The reed frames and cartonería have been conserved, but heavier plasters have been replaced by lighter more-modern ones. Interestingly enough, there is no indication of replacing the cartonería with lighter materials. This is mostly due to tradition, but also because in some communities, mojigangas are ritually burned after their use.

Toritos and other figures with fireworks

While the Judas is the most important cartonería object made to support fireworks, there are others that need to be mentioned.

“Small” torito begin set off at the  Fiesta de Luces y Musica in Santiago Zapotitlan, Mexico City (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The warehouse fire that has nearly killed the making of Judas figures in Mexico, has also had profound effects on the production of fireworks and related products. The main one is the push of fireworks to outside the Mexico City limits, primarily to the northern suburbs of the capital in the State of Mexico (Estado de México, commonly referred to as Edomex), with some in the Toluca Valley. Today, the city of Tultepec claims to be the fireworks capital of Mexico, and the importance of fireworks has affected the production and use of cartonería products.

Torito on display before the procession of over 300 in the town of Tultepec, State of Mexico

These toritos are almost exclusively made and exploded in relationship to patron saint and some other religious events, rather than secular. They are a kind of offering in appreciation for blessings and protection.

Toritos appear in other areas in Mexico, but Tultepec is best known for them, especially their appearance during the town’s feast for its patron saint, John of God on March 8. Until the end of the 20th century, all toritos were small enough to be carried on a person’s head or worn around a person’s waist. The wearer danced among the crowds while the fireworks on the torito were set off. This is still the case in most festivals in Mexico, but in Tultepec, they have been eclipsed by monumental bull constructions which require wheels and a team to both build and run the bull in the streets. Because of this, the toritos are paraded around the town in the afternoon, to show off the handiwork before they are set off in the main plaza after dark. In the 2016 festivities for John of God, there were over 300 of these gigantic bulls, which were set off one-by-one until about 3 am.

Tultepec is also noted for making other figures of cartonería, which are made to have movement when they accompanying fireworks are set off. These figures generally depict characters from folk and modern popular culture. Most of the movement is provided by wheels which spin when the fireworks are set off, The wheels have pistons attached to appendages which then move in a specified way. These are also almost always made for and used in conjunction with Mexico’s many religious celebrations, but are festive rather than a kind of offering.

In an interesting return to the roots of alebrijes, those which are made in communities such as Tultepec and Zumpango are not made for sale as folk art, but rather to be exploded at religious and secular events in the same way as their Judas antecedents. However, these figures are not associated with Holy Saturday.

Lupita dolls and other toys

The most common use of cartonería items is the making of paraphernalia for various Mexican festivals, generally to be used once, with the item ending up destroyed or simply thrown away. One exception to this is the creation of toys, which emerged as an industry in Celaya, Guanajuato among certain families in the Tierras Negras, El Zapote and San Juan neighborhoods by the 19th century.

Cartoneria toys and other products at the Feria de Cartoneria in Mexico City (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The origin of cartonería toys is related to the festival of Corpus Christi and some other feast days and some secular holidays such as Independence Day. Parents until the 20th century (and in some places still today), would buy items such as Roman helmets, shields swords, hobby horses etc, with girls traditionally receiving dolls and other items related to traditional roles, such as miniature brooms, dishes and even baskets smaller than a thimble. Another customary item was cartonería dragon called a “tarasco,” with wheels for feet and the tail in the shape of a lance. It is a miniature of a larger such dragon carried in processions for the festival, along with other figures. The toys were a kind of teaching tools, related to the Biblical stories and personajes of the festival, but were not meant to last. Cheap toys, but today of plastic, are still ubiquitously found at popular religious festivals, but most are generic, with the same purpose, to give children a way to participate in the festival.

The toys became used year-round as they represented the a way many poor children could have toys at all. The most important toy is the doll. From the colonial period to the 19th century, the finest dolls were imported from Europe and were had only by the daughters of rich Spanish or criollo families. The most expensive of these has heads of porcelain, with a somewhat cheaper and more common doll called the “Pepona” doll from Spain, which had a body made of cloth and a head, heavily covered in plaster, lacquer or other such substance,  with clothing made to fit. These dolls were still out of reach for poor families.

Lupita on a hobby horse from Celaya at the Amealco Doll Museum (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

“Lupitas” (sometimes called Peponas, Juanitas, Rositas, Mariquitas, Celaya dolls or just cartonería doll, depending on the community) are simply cheaper versions of the Spanish Peponas. The entire body is made of cartonería, which is easier to reproduce via molds. Gone are the heavy coatings to make the doll more durable and clothing is only hinted it through designs painted on the body itself. Their purchase became disconnected from festivals and the ease of production led them to become their first instance of mass toy production in Mexico.

They are always made with molds, and come in sizes from about five centimeters high to up to a meter. The most common sizes are designated such dedal (finger), cacahuetita (from peanut), quinta (fifth), cuarta (fourth), tercera (third), segunda (second), primera (first), extra and jumbo. Most are made with arms and legs that are tied to the body, hence movable, but there is a variation called tabloides, which are completely rigid. There are also some which only the arms are tied, with the legs rigid. The proportions of the dolls are such that  they can be likened to the  “…hefty circus riders on the posters of…” the 1940s. Skin color is somewhat realistic, but generally limited to a dark peach pink, representing Europeans, not the indigenous. Traditional hair colors include black and red, generally tied back. There is more variation on hair color today, and to some extent style, but it is always a fixed part of the doll. The “dress” of the Lupita figure is based off of a style of 19th century bathing suit or that worn by circus performers. The “dress” is often painted with flower patterns, generally to form a diamond-like shape in the center of the torso.The chest of the doll used to also be painted with the name of the child for whom it was intended. Glitter and other elements may be applied to mimic jewelry. The dolls appear in a 1943 painting (Girasoles or Sunflowers) by Diego Rivera.

The popularity of cartonería toys reached at its peak in central Mexico from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th. The technique became used to make a variety of secular toys including clown figures, mamertos (figures of fat Mexican cowboys with large mustaches), horses on wheeled carts (some large enough to hold the weight of an adult), other common animals in miniature, rattles, trumpets, masks, often in animal shapes, soldier’s helmets and swords. By far, the Lupita doll remained the most popular and still is today.

The introduction of mass-produced plastic items decimated the market for cartonería toy. The new versions were not only cheaper, but more durable and by the latter 20th century able to do things the traditional toys never could, such as speak, move on their own and even wet a diaper. As late as the 1990s, Celaya had a Christmas fair to sell locally-made toys, but this has since disappeared.

Wearable horse toy by Alejandro Camacho Barrera of Xochimilco, Mexico City

Few cartoneros make toys today, mostly located in Celaya and in Mexico City. In fact, most of the toy makers in Mexico City, Puebla and other locations have roots in Celaya. Those which are still made are now for collectors or as decorations, with the most popular being Lupita dolls, followed by hobby horses and miniature animals. Far more difficult to find are clowns, charros, figures from Mexican popular culture such as Cantinflas and soldiers’ helmets and swords, which are disappearing. Humorous skeletal figures were made as toys for Day of the Dead in Celaya.

Tradition has a strong effect on the making of toy figures, and the variation of what is made is narrowing, rather than expanding, with little innovation in the forms still made. In 2010, Mexico City artist Carolina Esparragoza initiated a project with the aim of rescuing and promoting the making of Lupita dolls in Mexico City. She recruited artisans and artists from Celaya and Mexico City to found workshops to teach the basics of cartonería as well as encourage participants to create new forms and designs. Most of the production was Lupita dolls with novel and even wild outfits, from 19th century ladies, to those with indigenous appearance and dress to prostitutes and one in honor of 20th century Mexican poet Pita Amor. The project caught the attention of Sokei Academy and Sagio Plaza Gallery in Tokyo, which held an exhibition of the resulting figures. However, the concept ran into difficulty with traditionalists in Mexico, including the use of the English title “Miss” in front of “Lupita” (added to give a pageant-like feel to the project). Not all cartoneros were against the concept, significantly third generation Celaya artisan Carlos Derramadero, who agrees with Espargoza that younger generations have the right to reinterpret traditional objects and designs as they see fit,


Masks are a very important element in traditional Mexican culture and have been made of all kinds of materials with the most popular being from wood, followed by leather. Most are made by indigenous communities for traditional dances and often have religious significance. Masks also appear in mestizo and urban environments as well, as entertainment, in theatre and in celebratory events,especially patron saint days and Carnival in certain parts of the country.

Carnival masks by Carlos Derramadero of Celaya


Cartonería masks do not have the same status in Mexico in for collectors that those made with other materials do. Traditionally they were non-religious items made for children and were one-use items, with little attention paid to their making. For this reason, cartonería masks are classified in Mexico as “toys” (juguetes) rather than cultural items with one important exception. The Cora people in Nayarit create fantastic cartonería masks for dancers participating in Holy Week rights. These, too, made for a single use, then destroyed by dissolving in a river as an act of purification.  Interestingly, these are a relative innovation, dating back no further than the 1930s. Before this, dancers painted their faces.

Unlike masks made of wood, cartonería masks do not have any pre Hispanic links as the technique was introduced fairly late in the colonial period. Most cartonería masks are made in central Mexico, especially Celaya, with some made for cities and towns that hold Carnival celebrations. As late as the 1990s, mask making could be found various parts of Bajio region, including Querétaro, Irapuato, Silao, as well as in Mexico City and Puebla, but today, it is mostly limited to Celaya. There used to be a section of town where mask makers were concentrated, but today masks seem to be part of the inventory of most cartoneros.

The masks of Celaya are generally colorful and those who make them have had the designs passed down from generation to generation. Many traditional masks are of animals such as wolves, birds, rabbits, tigers and more, as well as human and humanoid figures such as clowns, devils, characters from popular cultures such as movie stars, historical figures such as Maximilian I and  Victorian ladies. Those made for Day of the Dead are intricately and colorfully painted skulls, often decorated with flowers and crowns which refer to the concept of death in a humorous or satirical way. (The James Bond movie, Spectre, was accurate in the use of skull masks, but inaccurate in the pale-ivory malevolent expression that they had.) Satire is also prominent in masks that are related to politics.

Masks by Fidel Bobadilla at the family home in Tlalpan, Mexico City

Cartonería masks are almost always made from molds, usually made of clay, plaster or wood. They may be only painted or other materials may be added such as paper strips, fur, plant fibers and more. They are not made to be realistic, but rather in unnatural and even wild colors, especially devil’s masks which can be in yellow, purple and red together, with red, white and black striped horns. Lacquered masks resist sweat and last longer, but cost about double those with only paint. The making of masks is still strongly tied to the festival calendar with most made for Carnival, Holy Week, Independence Day and Day of the Dead. Masks are also popular for a number of school-related events.

Cartonería masks are an important part of the mojiganga event at the end of September in Zacualpan de Milpas in Morelos. This tradition began in 1965, when some young men decided to run around the streets on the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary, principally comic relief. Since then the event has become a kind of artistic outlet for the young people of the municipality and even those from other parts of Morelos and Mexico who now participate. Overall, the effect of the masks, costumes, floats and live music is Carnivalesque, with brotherhoods preparing each year for the event, choosing themes from fantasy, history and religion. These mask range from small ones covering part of the face to large helmet-like objects, which create a new head for the dancer.

It is a young tradition with an emphasis on creativity, with cartonería integrated mostly because it is economical. For this reason, the masks and other elements tend to vary widely and are not as attached to tradition than other uses of cartonería. These masks vary from those depicting alebrijes, to realistic animal heads and skulls (especially bulls), to Egyptian gods, devils, European fairy tale creatures, pre-Hispanic and colonial era personages and more. While there are masks that cover only the face, often oversized, most of the masks are helmet-like, covering the entire head. These are made particularly hard and are lined with foam rubber to keep them steady while in use. All masks tend to be in high relief, with prominent facial and cranial features, such as cheekbones, protruding eyebrows, chins and horns. They may be painted in realistic or fantastic colors, with or without added decorative designs or non-cartonería elements. Comparsa Zacualpan Mágico even used the technique one year to make samurai helmets and armor. While costumes, floats and other elements may have themes such as popular modern movies, masks and other cartonería elements tend to avoid this.


Cartonería has also been one of various materials used in the creation of floats for parades, especially for the large carnival celebrations in Veracruz, Mazatlan and Campeche. It has been gaining somewhat in popularity in a number of places both because it is cheaper than some other materials, most notably wood, and is more ecological than fiberglass, plastics and styrofoam. However in most cases, the paper mass is only one of several materials used for the creation of floats and does not replace fiberglass, wood, metal and plastics. It is simply one other option. For example, roughly sculpted styrofoam bases can be created, then covered with paper as this is a cheap, light and quick way to build the large pieces that such floats need. If a frame is used, it is metal, not reed as the latter is not strong enough to withstand the shaking and bumps suffered by the floats during their journey along the parade route.

Helicopter float of cartoneria at the Mojiganga event of Zacualpan, Morelos

Most of these floats (using cartonería or not) are made or sponsored by local brotherhoods called comparsas (like the krews of Mardi Gras in New Orleans). Since the carnival is the focus and not the cartonería per se, themes and styles can widely depart from the more traditional ones found in the center of Mexico City. They can include paper maché tanks, biblical scenes pop culture references and human or animal figures of all kinds. However, the making of floats has provided work for a number of cartonería artisans from the traditional areas, who do bring their influence with them In particular, giant alebrijes have found their way into carnival floats in Mexican coastal cities.


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