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Learning to Make Amate Paper in San Pablito

A stencil for an Otomí god (who we know is a benevolent spirit because his toes are exposed).The Otomí community of San Pablito has been making papel amate for centuries. Residents of the village, located in a fairly remote region of Puebla’s northwestern mountains, believe that this traditional paper has mystical powers. Their shamans make dolls, or dahi, from it to represent and control spiritual forces, as well as to conduct healings, cleansings, and other ritual ceremonies to protect people. San Pablito is one of the few places in Mexico that continued to make amate paper after the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, and thus its craftspeople have turned the trade to an art. Today their finished works, which often feature intricately woven fibers and detailed paintings, are highly sought-after by connoisseurs of Mexican folk art and artisanal wares.

An elder in the Santos Rojas family wears traditional regional garb and speaks only Otomí.Amate comes from the Nahuatl word amatl, which means “paper,” and it was used by the Aztecs to record the culture’s codices and to decorate shrines, sacred places, and burial sites. The paper is produced from the bark of several trees — wild fig (a ficus), nettle, and mulberry — as well as an aquatic plant (which we suspect is a type of water lily, but the specifics got lost in translation). The different species allow craftspeople to produce varying shades of white and brown papers.

During our visit to San Pablito, members of the Santos Rojas family explained the materials they use, walked us through how to prepare the bark, and then taught us how to make our own amate paper. After squeezing the excess water out of a giant ball of processed bark, we pulled strands of the fibrous white material and laid them in a crosshatch pattern across our own individual squares of plywood. (See photos below.)

We pounded this pulp flat with a pumice-like volcanic stone until it formed a solid sheet. We then squared the edges, tore off any excess bark, and smoothed the paper with the oily side of an orange peel. With stencils and other tools, we added imprints and strips of darker bark (and pounded it into the white background) to achieve the textures and figures of our choosing. After about 24 hours of drying, we had our own finished papel amate designs! —Rebecca Smith Hurd

Soaking tree bark to make amate paperStrands of soaked bark on plywood ready to be pounded into paper.Finishing the edges of a blank canvasMaru and Scott show off their finished artworks.
San Pablito is located about 7 miles from Pahuatlán (when reached via back roads). We recommend that you go with a local Spanish-speaking guide, such as those provided by the tourism office in Pahuatlán. We paid 30 pesos per person for our two-hour tour, and an additional 10 pesos each for the paper workshop. If you need an English-speaking guide, contact Carlos Rivero Tours (and tell him All About Puebla sent you); he can arrange excursions from the Puebla capital.

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