Aztecs were meticulous record keepers and developed their own paper long before the Spanish conquest. Amate paper was banned by the Spanish conquistadors for the simple reason it was used in Aztec religious ceremonies. It was considered by Aztec shamans to have magical properties and the Spanish weren’t interested in finding out why. However someone was smart enough to keep the secrets of amate production and not let the Spaniards completely demolish this beautiful art; it lives on today in many forms.
Amate is made from bark from the fig tree of the same name and the maguey plant, which is, among other things, also the source of tequila. For practical means and purposes, amate was replaced over the centuries by European papers, white smooth, unforgiving… but this beautiful handmade paper eventually made a huge comeback.
When it was discovered that the paintings done on amate paper could bring a fair price at bazaars and flea markets, the production of amate increased. By the mid-twentieth century, detailed and symbolic paintings, created mostly by the Nahua and Otomi indigenous people, were fetching a fair amount of revenue. Production increased and with it, artistic uses.
Amate, with other papers, including recycled newspaper, is used in the construction of cartoneria, often referred to as Mexican papier-mâché. Painted with colorful acrylics, figures take the shape of animals, clowns, imaginative and original creations, and dolls with moveable appendages. In more recent decades, La Calavera Catrina (fancy dressed up skeletons with elaborate clothing, hats, shoes, accessories) has become one of the most sought after souvenirs and though many are ceramic, less expensive ones are being molded with paper. They are light weight, easy to pack and less likely to break in transit.
Amate is also used in the production of ceremonial masks and much easier for the bearer to tote around on their head all night in what usually turn out to be lengthy parades. Piñatas made traditionally have a clay center, resulting in much difficulty to shatter when pounded with a broom handle, but layers of amate or papier-mâché bring shape and life to popular (and in some cases unpopular) characters and create themes for fiestas.
Paper is one of the original arts of Mexico. It is elaborately made, sturdily constructed and perhaps magical.
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