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Papel Picado:The People's Art

Published Feb 12, 2007 - (Updated Dec 11, 2012)

Papel Picado:The People's Art-Main

Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2007 issue.

Viva la fiesta! This most traditional and egalitarian of folk arts is everywhere in Vallarta, papel picado transforming any occasion into a special event with a distinctly Mexican feel.

Literally translated "perforated paper," papel picado is versatile, decorative, and perhaps most commonly recognized as colorful banners. Swaying in Puerto Vallarta's Pacific breezes, they're a sure sign that a fiesta, festival, family celebration or holiday is in the works.

Strung across streets, commercial courtyards, private patios, and anywhere folks could conceivably gather to celebrate, this art form is not only pretty to look at but often possesses deep religious and cultural significance. And it helps to build community, neighbors traditionally working side by side to decorate their environments with it a week or so ahead of annual celebrations.

Here in Vallarta children are taught how to make it in a rudimentary way at school, by folding rectangles of tissue paper, creating patterns with scissors, then gluing the resulting creations along a string of desired length.

Even the most intricately designed cutouts are surprisingly inexpensive to buy and thus an ideal way to brighten even the most humble casa. A table might boast a cut-tissue tablecloth, festive papel picado placemats, doilies, or a cluster of luminarias (punched candle-lit paper bags) for a dramatic centerpiece — all in occasion-appropriate or decor-enhancing colors.

An historic form of creativity dating back to pre-Columbian times, indigenous peoples used to cut a bark-like paper made from fig and mulberry trees in much the same way, hanging strips of it in courtyards to represent new foliage and win the favor of rain gods. Then, with the French occupation of Mexico, tissue paper was introduced, which proved much easier to cut and dye in a multitude of vibrant colors. Today, the papel picado tradition continues to evolve, metallic paper and plastic cutouts gaining favor because they're relatively impervious to use and weather. Featuring symbolic colors and universal motifs — humans, animals and flowers, as well as latticework, lettering and geometric shapes — their borders may be straight, scalloped, zigzagged or fringed.

One of the most popular usages is during Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations, altars to departed loved ones adorned with purple, orange and black cutouts depicting skeletons engaged in the everyday activities of the living. When it comes to weddings, cutouts are fresh and white. Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is appropriately venerated in red, white and green, while rainbow hues embellish Christmas and non-religious festivities.

The best papel picado craftsmen envisage the use of negative space — when looking at a tree they see the spaces between the leaves as opposed to the leaves themselves, skill judged by the degree of detail and creativity evidenced. Awls, chisels and mallets have traditionally rendered the more elaborate designs, the artist first drawing a pattern on a single piece of tissue paper, placing it atop as many as 50 layers of paper at a time, then making clean perforations to obtain the desired result. Today, X-acto knives and scissors, along with various folding techniques, have largely replaced the more time-consuming old methods.

Lightweight, inexpensive and authentically Mexican, this art form makes the ideal souvenir. What better way to instantly get the romantic feel of Mexico than to string lacy white banners at a bridal shower or wedding reception, as they have done here for centuries?

In Vallarta, the place to buy it and maybe even see it being made is Libreria y Papeleria Limon at Venustiano Carranza 315 in the South Side. While elaborate cutouts and those made of plastic are sold here but not made locally, tissue paper and scissors at every work station let staff make this cheery people's art to order whenever they have a free moment. Expect to pay only about $2 USD for a 27-foot string of it.

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