In Search of the Maestros of Mexico: A Visit to a Hidden Village of Paper Artists

A view of San Pablito’s mountain from across the valley

In Search of the Maestros of Mexico:
A Visit to A Hidden Village of Paper Artists

It was thirteen years ago that three friends and I piled into my Dodge Ram Van and set out to spend a few weeks driving into remote parts of Mexico to try to find new artists to attend the Maestros del Arte—a yearly three-day event that was the brainchild of Marianne Carlson and that brings the best indigenous craftspeople from all over Mexico to the shores of Lake Chapala—a sixty-mile long lake about 50 miles from Guadalajara.

We felt as though we were entering Shangri-la as we wound up the misty two-lane mountain road that would eventually take us to San Pablito, a small and remote Otomi village near the border of Hidalgo and Puebla states that is one of few places left in Mexico where the traditional bark paper known as amate is made. This paper, made from the inner bark of four indigenous trees, has been used since pre-Columbian times to record codices (bark paper books) and for religious offerings and health rituals, as well as white and black magic; but modern masters such as Julio Laja Chichicaxtle, whom we are going to see, have brought it into the modern age by creating beautiful art pieces which combine new techniques with the ancient art of bark paper.

In my green van with me were my friends Linda and Pam. We were trying to keep up with Julio, who had driven his pickup down the mountain to guide us back to his house, where he wanted to show us the process he used to make the beautiful decorative amate paper panels that he would be selling at that year’s Maestros del Arte show, an indigenous art fair held each year in Chapala, Jalisco. Accompanying him on this leg of the journey was Marianne Carlson, the director of the Maestros show, who had been traveling with us on this trip to visit both returning and potential new artists for the show.

In two hours, it was late afternoon, and we had still not reached our destination. Our route had taken us in directions north, south, east and west as we wound around the spiral roads that connected all of these mountains. Rarely in that time were we able to move out of second gear. At the one or two places where it was possible to pull off the road (the constant curves of the shoulderless roads made both stopping and parking a danger) we were able to take pictures of the incredible wild scenery.

 Two hours after our initial sighting of San Pablito from across the valley, we were finally able to get a closer view of the village, distinctive due to its pink church spire.

After winding all the way up, around, and down the numerous mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental, we finally arrived in the mainly vertical village of San Pablito, where the houses were built in stair steps up the mountain on streets pitched at steep angles. To walk them placed severe strain on Achilles tendons, and I feared losing my balance and tumbling backward off the steep slopes. Here, long-braided women still dressed in ankle-length white skirts wrapped sari-like and the elaborate embroidered blouses of hundreds of years ago and denied our requests for pictures.

When we arrived, the village was already entering the first stages of twilight, and although earlier we had said we wouldn’t be staying the night, as Julio showed us the three bedrooms they’d prepared for us, we knew we weren’t going to be descending the mountain that night.

After we had been served a hearty meal of mole and a mountain of handmade tortillas by his wife Cirila, Julio climbed a few yards up the mountain above his house, scored a small tree with the blade of an axe, and removed a long strip of bark. Four different types of local trees are used to make the different forms of naturally colored bark paper. The typical coffee color comes from the Jonote tree (ficus family), white from the Xalama Limón, and the silvery beige color from the Mora (mulberry). The Colorado tree, which he has just taken his strip from, produces a greenish-colored paper.

Once a year, each tree grows new bark, but to collect his own supply once a year would be so labor intensive that he prefers to buy it from one of the commercial dealers who grow and harvest trees in such a manner that they can supply sufficient dried amate bark to all of the papermakers of the region. This practice has brought an end to the tradition that it is men who collect the bark and only women who produce the paper.

Julio strips bark from a tree, closely watched by the family rooster, who thoroughly approves of this alternative use of an axe.

Leading us up to his papermaking studio on the roof, Julio showed us the storeroom where a year’s supply of bark was kept dry, awaiting the next step in the process. After soaking it to remove the outer bark, they cook the long strips for four hours in soda ash or lime and water, then rinse the bark strips many times for the white paper, less for the darker. By the end of the hours-long process of preparing the fiber and constructing the piece, the hands of everyone in the family would be involved.

After the rinsing process, Cirila rolled the darker strips into long strands which she wove into what would be the central decorative part of a large wall piece. Her three-year-old daughter Heidi couldn’t resist getting her hands in the act as well.

Using fine-grained stones that have been carved into a rectangular shape and grooved around the sides for good traction, Julio and his brother-in-law beat lighter-colored strips into a pulp to form an outer margin for the art piece. The hands of the family were all busy on the board—Cirila  assisted by their 3-year-old daughter and Julio and Leobardo take turns with the pounding.

At the same time, a bit further down the table, Julio and his brother-in-law Leobardo Espiritu Rocha formed a checkerboard pattern of lighter strips to form the outer frame for the paper. They all worked guided by a pattern Julio has earlier drawn onto his formation board.

Later, as Julio waited for Cirila  to complete her weaving, he carefully separated the cooked bark of the Xalama Limón into strips which looked like shredden mozzarella. The bark is exceptionally white not only due to the characteristic color of the bark, but also because of numerous rinsings.

When Cirila’s woven piece was completed, its ends were trimmed and it was carefully placed in the center of the frame that the two men had constructed. After fastening the woven center in place with strips of amate, the men carefully distributed the shredded bark evenly into the empty space between the central weaving and the outer frame, then pounded to wed the several layers and types of bark paper  to form one unified piece.

By now, darkness had fallen, and their piece completed and left out to dry, the family offered to drive us up to their family gallery a few blocks up the mountain. Linda and I insisted on walking—a decision we regretted as we got hopelessly lost in the warren of steep pathways that wound from house to house. Finally, we arrived at the house of Leobardo, where the rather surprised inhabitants found us chairs. Here we sat in the open courtyard, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive by pickup. After some fifteen minutes, when they still hadn’t arrived, it was finally revealed to us that we had walked to the wrong house—that we were to have gone to the house of Julio’s mother-in-law, not his brother-in-law.  We found our way back to the steep incline of the road to walk another block up the hill to the house of Julio’s in-laws, where everyone had been awaiting our arrival for a good half hour.

Although most of the paper pieces made by Julio and his family were for the tourist and arts trade, historically, papermaking in San Pabito and many towns throughout the region had a very different purpose. Codices (books written on bark paper) from the period between 500 and 700 AD have been preserved, and in one year during the time of Moctezuma II, it is recorded that 480,000 sheets of amate were brought yearly to the emperor to be used as offerings to the gods or for the ornamentation of idols in the temples and palaces on feast days.

In the early 1500’s, there were 42 centers of papermaking in Mexico and two major papermaking cities paid a tribute of 500,000 sheets of amate a year. The colonial period brought many changes to Mexico, among them the importation of paper from Europe, with the result that today San Pablito and the mountains around it are the only major producers of amate paper in Mexico. If you look at a map of Mexico, many of the placenames: Amapala, Amaro, Amatitan, Amacoatiti, Amatitlan, Amatlan and Amatitan (to mention a few) give testiment to the fact that this region was once filled with amate-producing villages.

In San Pablito, it is families like Julio’s and Leobardo’s who have kept papermaking alive by adjusting to the needs of a modern world. Here, over 1000 papermakers create everything from simple sheets of paper of all colors, natural and died, which sell in small galleries, tianges and shops throughout Mexico to the more involved art pieces created by the families we have visited. Much of the simple brown bark paper of the region is sold to artists in Guerrero, who create pictures and bookmarks by painting colorful scenes on it depicting village life.

Bright pigments of Guerrero artists contrast with
the natural colors of this sheet of brown amate.

A papermaker myself, I first became interested in Mexican paper during a trip to Oaxaca in 1992. At that time, the only book I could find about Mexican paper was a book entitled, Witchcraft and Pre-Columbian Paper. The book depicted human and animal figures cut out of bark paper. The figures wearing shoes or sporting animal heads represented the spirits of bad people, those barefooted represented the good. The white paper was used in invoking protection while the dark paper was used in black magic. (This shoe symbolism depicted their representation of the good spirits as indigenous people while the conquering Europeans, who all wore shoes, were the real devils here.) After being used in various rituals, the black magic dolls were destroyed, whereas those used for beneficent purposes were saved.

At the time, I had no idea of the location of the town described in the book, nor had I any illusions that I would ever visit it, but when I returned from San Pablito, I searched through my shelves to find that book, only to discover that the name of the town that was being described was San Pablito!

Although the inhabitants of the town avoided talking about it, some of the pre-Hispanic magical rituals and customs of amate still survive. One is the creation of amate picado (cut paper.) Amate paper is used to cut out human and animal figures representing both spirits and humans. As in the past, dark paper is used to represent devils and bad people, light paper to represent good spirits and worthy human beings. Traditionally, these figures were used in creating not only black magic, but also spells to promote health, love, prosperity, protection and good luck. Special ceremonies involving the amate picado were used to bless new houses and fields.

Whether the elaborate amate picado rituals involving the blood of freshly slain chickens and the binding of a lover’s hair to the paper cutout that depicted him still exist must be left up to the imagination. None there cared to discuss the matter. But women still refused to have their pictures taken, fearing that a picture might be used to bring black magic to the one depicted.

In times past, this modern day amate picado would be used as an offering to the spirits. In this case, it depicts the spirit of the pineapple. The human head and toes show that it is a white magic offering.

After a wonderful hour spent talking to Cirila’s family and stocking up on amate picado and bark paintings, we returned to our comfortable beds in the new house that Julio confided to us was built in a large part with his proceeds from sales at the Maestros del Arte. His maneuvering to insure that we visited him was due to his gratitude toward Marianne for directing the development of a show that has had a huge impact on the lives of artisans throughout Mexico.

Time and again, we were told by artisans that the Maestros was their main source of income for the year.

The next morning, we awakened to the rhythm of the pounding of hundreds of stone hammers. We could hear them above us, below us and on either side. When we had arrived the afternoon before and asked the name of the mountain, I was told that it had no name. When I had asked the name of the river that wound its way through the mountain pass far below, I was told it had no name. Only the village of San Pablito seemed to have a name, and so it is this name that sticks unaccompanied in my mind.

It is a town which is a living testimony to customs and practices which stretch back a thousand years and more. In this town, I know only the names of a few, but the music of the hundreds of amate-pounders that awakened me remind me that it is a town of a thousand paper makers, of which our host, Julio, his wife Cirilio and his wife’s entire family are only a few.

This modern family seems to have no fear of cameras. (Left to Right: Julio – aka Cjocjocaxtle, Cirila Trejo Gonzales (holding Heidi Laja Trejo), Leobardo’s daughter and wife, and Leobardo. Not pictured is Andy Laja Trejo, Julio’s son.

HERE are some of the paper I made for the mixed media lamps I made with my husband Bob.

21 thoughts on “In Search of the Maestros of Mexico: A Visit to a Hidden Village of Paper Artists


    Oh wow that is so interesting Judy, thanks so much for shearing it with us~! Have you been back in recent years~? I so hope that they have kept the traditions~! It sounds like they stick to the típico and have not turned to machines.


    1. lifelessons Post author

      This family is still doing the Maestros show although it hasn’t been held for the past two years thanks to Covid. We did a modified version with fewer artists and doing just one genre at a time and the artists not there. Usually the Maestros committee pays for their transportation and shipping and gives them a place to stay and meals. It is a juried show totally free for the craftspeople. There are hundreds of volunteers who run the show. Covid made a show on that order impossible. Hopefully one of these years it will be possible again. You can see information by Googling Maestros del Arte.


      1. SAM VOELKER

        Thanks, sounds great~! I am too out of practice on my crafts but it would be interesting.. We have a similar thing here twice a year and I really enjoy seeing the craftsmen, but it is limited only to Texas artiest. The area where I live is an artiest enclave, as you may know due to “South by SouthWest”….


        1. lifelessons Post author

          Yes.. in Austin, right? I was going to go there once..was nearly set and then we veered off and did Route 66 from St. Louis to Santa Monica instead. It was when I first met Forgottenman. I lose track of how long ago. Ten years?


          1. okcForgottenMan

            June 9 – July 12, 2011. St Louis > Carlsbad Caverns > Grand Canyon > Blue Jay, CA > San Diego > L.A. > Ben Lomond > Berkeley > Tonopah (Clown Motel!) > Southern Utah National Parks > Denver > Cheyenne > Murdo SD > Sheridan WY > Black Hills > Hannibal MO > SE Missouri! 7300+ miles.


    1. lifelessons Post author

      papyrus just takes soaking and overlaying and beating. Some of the same processes that this family used. In the paper I made, the fibers were cooked and then beaten with a rawhide mallet until they separated into tiny fibers that were suspended in formation aid. Screens were then dipped and the water thrown out five times, each time directing the fibers in the opposite direction so although the paper was transparent to a degree, it was still very strong. It was then couched onto vellum and dried on big screens. A very different process.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. lifelessons Post author

      I was a silversmith and papermaker before I came to Mexico. All of the lamps I’ve pictured in the past I made the paper for, although my process was different. I made it by dipping screens and forming layers by the Japanese method.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Books and Paper, Paper and Books (for CFFC) | lifelessons – a blog by Judy Dykstra-Brown

  3. Albatz Travel Adventures

    What a wonderful post, connecting the past with the present spiritually. I love the cut-paper pineapple spirit. I was in Lake Chapala in 2006, which was somewhat rowdy when I was there (Gran Jaripeo, Day of the Revolution), but next time I will try to connect with its more spiritual side which you have so amazingly described.



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