A traditional Mexican decoration, Papel Picado is a staple for the holidays. If you’ve ever traveled through Mexico, you’ve no doubt seen colorful banners made of cut paper strung up across streets. They are seen in endless rows between buildings, spanning courtyards, suspended from ceilings, or anywhere else some bright embellishment is needed. In English, the translation of Papel Picado is cut or punched paper. So, what is Papel Picado? Take a journey to the beginning and find out how it came to be.
How Papel Picado Was Born
In the pre-Columbian era of Mexico, which ended around 1800, the local people started the tradition of Papel Picado. They were making paper in the region for hundreds of years and would use it in their everyday life. They would take tree bark and pound and stretch it thin until it resembled paper. Next, they drew or cut protective talismans on the paper to protect them from the evils that were plaguing their life. Each symbol or talisman protected against a bad harvest, drought, mother-in-law, or famine. That early Papel Picado would be part of the family shrine and protect the household.
Once the Spanish colonists and Catholic church showed up around the 19th century, Mexico became a stop on the famed Silk Road trading route. Ships would set sail from China and make several stops on the way to collect more goods and dock at Acapulco’s port in Mexico. The goods they brought were sold and traded for and made their way inland into Mexico City. The goods from China were wrapped in very fine rice paper to protect them during the journey. People would take their things home and keep the paper. Not being wasteful people, they cut out the markings left on the paper from whatever goods they bought, making a stencil—thus, Papel Picado was born. Because of the origins, to this day tissue paper is still known as Papel de China in Mexico.
In the beginning, the stencils were cut one at a time with scissors because no other means were available. As the world developed, technology developed as well, and the stencils were cut in batches of 50 or so. An artisan would make a design and use a hammer and punches on a lead plate to cut many at the same time. Because lead is soft, the steel punches would dent the plate over time, making it less flat. It would then have to be melted down and reformed.
Today, like all consumer goods, Papel Picado is mass-produced in every color and shape imaginable. Making them tissue paper is falling out of fashion because the paper isn’t as durable. Now, they’re often made from thin plastic because it holds up better to the rain and wind.