Teaching Culture Through Art – Mexican Papercrafts

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, let’s explore some colorful and cultural papercrafts from Mexico. These handicrafts show not only the creativity of the Mexican people but serve as a link to the history and culture. You might be inspired to create a few Mexican papercrafts of your own and add a Mexican touch to your holiday decorations!

A Little History of Papercrafts

Papermaking in Mexico goes back to 300 BCE. The original ‘paper’ used by Aztecs was tree bark called amate. It was washed, boiled, beaten with stones, and left to dry in the sun. (We take modern paper for granted, don’t we?!)  The people then inscribed it with images or script and used it as a form of communication.

Indigenous groups in Central Mexico have preserved this tradition. Many artists still make amate paper in the historical way.  The bark is stripped from mulberry, nettle, and wild fig trees.  Since each tree has a different color, bark paper can range from nearly white to deep brown.

Amate has evolved from its early purposes.  Artists now paint on the bark with vegetable pigments or acrylic paints, adding bright images of flowers, birds, landscapes, and community life.  The paintings are admired and collected as art. They’re also a charming piece of Mexican culture that many tourists take home.    

To see more examples of these beautiful paintings, check out the Mexican Folk Art Guide. If you want to make amate paintings at home with your kids (no boiling or beating required), go to KidWorldCitizen.org!

Festive Papel Picado

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they brought European paper as well as brightly colored tissue paper from the Philippines.  The bark paper that had been used for generations was replaced with European paper and the delicate tissue paper known as papel chino in Mexico.

People had already been making art by poking holes into the bark paper with small chisels. This was known as papel picado (“pecked” or “perforated” paper) and it was surely easier to make with tissue paper than with bark! 

To this day, papel picado is a popular Mexican papercraft, made with small chisels and mallets and brightly colored paper.  The tissue paper is stacked together in piles (sometimes up to 50 sheets!) and the designs are cut out using a template.  For a chisel-free, kid-friendly version, try this!  Papel Picado for Kids

After the designs are cut out, the sheets are strung together as banners and used as festive decorations.  Patterns and colors often reflect the occasion and you’ll see white ones at weddings, and brightly colored ones at birthdays, on Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16), Cinco de Mayo, and in Día de los Muertos celebrations. 

child making papel picado
Child making papel picado

Recreating the Beauty of Nature… with Paper!

If you’ve seen the Pixar movie “Coco,” you’ve seen the cultural significance of paper flowers during Día de los Muertos celebrations. For over 200 years, paper flowers have adorned churches, homes, and the tombstones of loved ones.  They also add bright, decorative cheer to festival booths, birthday cakes, and weddings. They represent all kinds of flowers in nature.  Roses, marigolds, poinsettias, calla lilies, and dahlias are some that have special importance in Mexican culture. 

Making these flowers is a skill that is often passed down from grandparents or godparents. You can find easy instructions online for making simple tissue paper flowers (Try this or this).  For extra inspiration, the Mexican Folk Art Guide has some really impressive examples and more history on this art form!

¡Te Toca a Ti!  It’s Your Turn!

Why not try your hand (and your kids’ little hands!) at all three papercrafts? Be sure to check out the links above for amate-style paintings, papel picado, and paper flowers.  Grab some supplies: brown craft paper, tissue paper, scissors, paints, and pipe cleaners!  Turn on some Mexican music!  Let the papercrafting begin!

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