Mexican papier mache means a feast on the day of the dead and beyond
In Mexico, it’s hard to go to a party, attend a street festival, or set up a house for a vacation without encountering papier mache. Colorful paper crafts, known as cartonery (from the Spanish word for cardboard) – headlines on skeletons and otherworldly beings during DÃa de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and piÃ±atas on children’s birthdays and Christmas.
(Related: Happy Skeletons & Sugar Skulls: What You Should Know About Day of the Dead.)
Like many Latin American customs, cartonerÃa has its roots in European colonialism and Catholicism. But Mexico’s paper works are teeming with everyday whimsy (life-size skeletons with sly smiles) and dark, timely humor (cut these COVID-19 PiÃ±atas). Here’s how the colorful practice started, and where to see and buy papier mache in all of its temporal splendor.
European and indigenous customs
Unlike shiny talavera Puebla tiles or embroidered blouses from Chiapas, most of the cartonerÃa is ephemeral. Travelers to Mexico City, Oaxaca, and the state of Guanajuato see it as cheap dolls called lupita, skull masks for one posada (procession), or effigies of Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks and dynamited during Lent.
âCartonerÃa is like street art: you spray paint the wall but don’t expect it to be there in five years,â explains Leigh Ann Themadatter, author from Mexico City Mexican cardboard: paper, paste and fiesta. âIt’s about creation, not sustainable art.
Mexicans did not invent papier mache. Neither did the French, who gave it its name, which translates to âpapier macheâ. The earliest known pieces made from wood pulp and glue originate from the Han Dynasty in China (circa 202 BC-220 AD) and include soldier helmets and pot lids. Although paper, also a Chinese innovation, can be thin and soft, when laminated or enriched with a bonding agent (eg, lacquer, flour and water paste), it becomes stiff and durable.
Paper mache spread in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, where it was molded into boxes, trays, toys and even furniture. “CartonerÃa probably arrived in Mexico during colonial times,” says HermÃ¨s Arroyo, a mojigangas (oversized puppet) craftsman in San Miguel de Allende. Similar giant figures of saints and Jesus performed at church services and festivals in Spain and colonial Mexico; modern artisans like Arroyo fashion busty brides and grooms 16 to 20 feet tall, crazy-eyed devils and skeletons of DÃa de los Muertos.
(Related: Why San Miguel de Allende Buzzes For Coffee Lovers.)
Each mojiganga has a brightly painted papier-mÃ¢chÃ© head and torso attached to a costume and cloth arms. Puppeteers activate them by donning wooden shoulder harnesses, then twirl and whirl in parades and demonstrations across the country. Puppets are popular hired guests at San Miguel de Allende weddings. âSan Miguel is creative, original and well known for its artistic community. They fit in perfectly here, âsays Arroyo, who rents 20 married couples.
PiÃ±atas, from pineapples to parties
The piÃ±atas mix disparate influences. During his extended visit to China in the late 13th century, Italian explorer Marco Polo saw locals smash paper-covered clay vessels in the shape of cows and water buffalo, which spilled seeds that the poor could harvest. The practice of breaking clay pots filled with offerings migrated to Italy and Spain in the 14th century. The Spaniards believed that the decorated jars looked like piÃ±as (pineapple) and piÃ±atas get their name.
The Spaniards imported piÃ±atas to Mexico in the 16th century, where they likely merged with the native games of pot-bashing. Among the first piÃ±atas, still in vogue at Christmas: oversized seven-pointed stars scalloped with fringed tissue paper. Historians believe that the dots represented the seven deadly sins; breaking the thing symbolized charity and salvation.
“They started out as something religious, broken to divide the generosity within,” says Tey Marianna Nunn, director of the Hispanic National Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. âPiÃ±atas continue to be about sharing, whether it’s a family event or a kid’s birthday party. “
The NHCC Museum hosted an exhibit of over 150 piÃ±atas in 2017, including rainbow striped burros, fringed stars, and portraits of President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. âThey’ve become a real social barometer now,â says Nunn. “Whatever happens in politics, movies or pop culture, the piÃ±ateros [piÃ±ata makers] are on it.
New life on Day of the Dead
DÃa de los Muertos, celebrated annually from October 31 to November 2, is the busiest time of the year for Mexican papier-mÃ¢chÃ© makers. They are slammed chaining life size calacas (skeletons), paint watermarks on skull masks, and apply shellac to fake loaves of bread and fruit to use as symbolic offerings on altars (ofrendas) to the dead.
“We have an endless number of ways to show skeletons,” says Leonardo of Linares Vargas, a fifth generation Mexico City cartoÃ±ero. “They can be Catrinas, women with fancy hats Diego rivera created, padrecitos de garbanzo [tiny bone figures with chickpea heads], or decorated skulls.
(Related: Can Mexico City Mariachis Survive COVID-19 Pandemic?)
It sounds scary and austere, but DÃas de los Muertos remains a happy celebration of ancestors with bright decorations in cemeteries and homes, and, in normal years, street parties amid Oaxacan or pastel-colored colonial buildings. in the ZÃ³calo de Mexico (main square). Candles, cut paper banners (papel picado), and cartonerÃa skeletons decorate a two-story ofrendas in the over 600,000 square foot center of the capital as locals and tourists alike wearing spooky masks stroll.
Magical animals go wild
In recent years, Mexico City’s Day of the Dead has included outdoor displays of magical animals the size of a compact car called alebrijes. Displayed near the ZÃ³calo, the creatures go exquisitely against nature with multiple disparate parts – for example, eagle talons, butterfly wings, leopard paws, and rabbit ears – merged into one fantastic creature.
âAlebrijes can contain as many animals as our imagination allows,â explains RamÃ³n Espinoza, member of Colectivo Ãltima Hora, which produces them along with Godzilla-scale skeletons for Day of the Dead events, including a virtual one this year.
(Related: On Day of the Dead, Oaxaca Offers This Special Bread.)
Alebrijes are not a centuries-old tradition and not all of them are huge. Like many examples of Mexican cartonerÃa, they evolved from a dash of colonial Catholicism and a heap of Mexican creativity. Leonardo Linares Vargas’ grandfather, Pedro Linares, invented beautiful beasts in the mid-20th century. His Office of Dr Caligari–esque mash-ups have won over collectors, including Mexico City muralist Diego Rivera.
âI could put in the body of a bird and a snake’s neck, then a head with goat’s horns and bulging toad eyes,â says Vargas, who pursues his grandfather’s trade. “Two or four animals get together until you see only one.”
Travelers can see the alebrijes and other cartonerÃas in Mexico City at Folk art museum and the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera. In the United States, Santa Fe’s International folk art museum features masks, alebrijes and skeletons from several cemeteries.
It’s tempting to bring the wacky colors and quirky charm of cartonery to the house. Look for it at the bustling Mercado de ArtesanÃas de San Miguel or in Mexico City Tekitl CartonerÃa.
âBut the best place for cartonerÃa is at festivals and parties,â says Themadatter. âYou are witnessing things in their original context. Do you want to see a piÃ±ata in a museum or at a birthday party? “