Browsing around the tourist markets of Mexico, one of the items you may see for sale is a rough brown paper on which brightly colored figures and designs are painted, such as that seen in the photo above. If you are looking at the genuine article, this is amate bark paper, a type of paper still made in the centuries-old way by the Otomi people in the northern Puebla town of San Pablito.
The painting is done by Nahua people living in Guerrero state. While it may look old and traditional, it’s actually a recent marriage brought about by chance and the need to make money from Mexico’s tourist trade. Both the painting style and the paper, separately, have long traditions. The painting is derived from Nahua pottery (although this has been modified to foreign tastes) and the paper has been made since the pre- Hispanic period.
The marriage of the two came in the 1970s, when Nahua and Otomi vendors began selling their respective products in Mexico City markets. As pottery is heavy and difficult to transport to tourist venues such as Acapulco, the Nahuas began buying Otomi paper and painting it with pottery designs. This was quite successful as it is not only easier for the Nahuas to transport to market, but for tourists to bring home as well.
As for the Otomi, they are one of very few communities who still make amate paper. After the Spanish Conquest, colonial authorities banned its manufacture because of its ritual uses. In some areas, the making of the paper survived, generally inaccessible mountain areas that made the enforcement from Mexico City nearly impossible. Indeed, until the latter 20th century, all amate made in the San Pablito region was for ritual.
San Pablito is a small town located on the side of a steep ravine in a region known as the Sierra Norte de Puebla, about three hours northeast of Mexico City. The rugged terrain is not just due to the mountains, but also the climate. It is very humid, with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico crashing against the mountains and falling as rain. The area is full of springs and fast-running streams, and is subject to frequent landslides. Driving in the area can be quite hazardous, with fog obscuring often washed-out or fallen roads on the sides of the mountains. It does not matter if the road is paved or not, and often it is not.
San Pablito is part of the municipality headed by the nearby larger town of Pahuatlan, but to get from there to San Pablito, you must drive cautiously to the bottom of a large, steep ravine, cross the San Marcos River, then wind halfway up the other side and hope that enough road width remains for the vehicle.
Traditionally, the paper was made for cut-out figures used for pre-Hispanic rituals, which have survived to the present day. Catholicism is practiced by the people, but it is highly mixed with veneration to good and evil entities conducted by shamans. The cut-outs usually represent these entities. While there are other places that still make amate for similar purposes, San Pablito is the only community that has shifted to creating the paper commercially. This is necessity for a region where most men have migrated to Mexico City or the United States to work, leaving women and children behind to depend on crafts.
Although the Otomi have worked to commercialize the paper themselves, making wall hangings, note books and other items for market, most of the production is still sold wholesale to the Nahuas. However, the success of this venture has taken a significant environmental toll.
The large-scale production of the paper has impacted the surrounding forest, as artisans still depend on bark collected from a kind of fig tree (genus Ficus) in the wild around the town, instead of through cultivation. Those who provide this bark must now venture farther to find the material. There are demands for lighter shades of paper and often with bright colors. This means the use of strong industrial bleaches and dyes, which find their way down into the San Marcus River and beyond.
Also, the money has gone into building solid and heavy cinderblock homes and other buildings, which are problematic due to the steep terrain and unstable soil.
This is not a sustainable system. It is interesting that it still continues as the tree species grows in a number of zones in central Mexico and cultivating the tree is relatively easy, with trees needing only six or seven years to reach sufficient maturity to shed the necessary bark. One probable reason for using local sources is getting the bark to San Pablito. It remains to be seen if the town will remain the main amate paper producer in the future.