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Papel Picado: Origins Of The Colorful Paper That Adorns Day Of The Dead

Por: Jesùs Cruz Lòpez28 de octubre de 2021

Though Halloween is also celebrated in Mexico, Day of the Dead is the star, and it wouldn't be as colorful without the papel picado.

If there is something that stands out in every Mexican celebration, whether it is the national holidays, Christmas, or carnivals, it is the color that fills the houses and streets of the country. So much so, that it has become a crucial element of these festivities; and if it is about color, there is a celebration that stands out above all.

We are talking about the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, a celebration recognized worldwide where every family remembers and honors those who have passed away. This celebration would not be so emblematic without its graphic elements, and among them stands the papel picado, a Mexican handicraft extremely important for our culture.

Where does papel picado come from?

We can find the origin of papel picado in China where, centuries ago, this delicate tissue paper was used. It was in the 16th century that this paper reached the European continent. Once here, it was only a matter of time before it arrived on the American continent since, during the colonial period, many materials were exported from Europe to America and vice versa. Thus, the papel picado would leap over the great puddle in the 19th century.

The material arrived when the haciendas were booming and was put on sale in the Tiendas de Raya, which were shops where hacienda workers bought everything. They were the first ones to begin to use this tissue paper from China.

The pioneers of papel picado

Although tissue paper reached most Mexican haciendas, it was in San Salvador Huixcolotla, a town in Puebla, where it began to be used as we know it today. Here, people worked the paper during their breaks while they worked in the fields during the day. With practice and transmission of the techniques passed from generation to generation, San Salvador Huixcolotla created this tradition that, little by little, spread throughout Mexico and the world.

It was in the 1930s that the practice spread to the rest of Puebla and parts of Tlaxcala. During the 60s it reached Mexico City, where it began to be recognized internationally, and by 1998 it was declared Cultural Heritage of the state of Puebla.

Day of the Dead

Whenever we think of papel picado, it is impossible not to associate it with the Day of the Dead, the country's most emblematic celebration. But its role in the celebration is not merely decorative: it has a deeper meaning.

To begin with, paper, in general, was already used in religious ceremonies or rituals during the times of Mesoamerican civilizations, so the tradition of decorating altars with papel picado comes from our ancestors of the Mexica empire.

What is the meaning of papel picado?

Likewise, each color of paper serves a different function: orange represents mourning, blue is linked to the deceased who drowned or died in the water, red represents fallen warriors or women who died in childbirth, purple is related to Catholicism, green is for youth, white for adults, yellow for the elderly, and black represents the underworld.

Undoubtedly, these creations are more than a simple decoration, and it is no surprise that people from all over the world come to experience the Day of the Dead.

Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards

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