Papel picado (‘perforated paper’) is a decorative craft made out of paper cut into elaborate designs. Although it is a Mexican folk art, papel picado is used as a holiday decoration in many countries. The designs are commonly cut from tissue paper using a guide and small chisels, creating as many as forty banners at a time. Common themes includes birds, floral designs, and skeletons.
They are commonly displayed for both secular and religious occasions, such as Easter, Christmas, the Day of the Dead, as well as during weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, and christenings. In Mexico, papel picado is especially incorporated into altars during the Day of the Dead.
Papel picado comes from Chinese paper cutting and was made in Europe during the sixteenth century, although it was called ‘papel cortado’ (‘cut paper’). The two crafts are not exactly the same, as the European version was cut, while the Mexican form is chiseled. In Mexico, during the middle of the nineteenth century, people were forced to buy products from hacienda stores, where they encountered tissue paper.
During the Aztec times, Aztecs used mulberry and fig tree barks to make a rough paper called ‘Amatl.’ When tissue paper became available, artisans usually layer 40 to 50 layers of tissue and punch designs into them using ‘fierritos,’ a type of chisel. San Salvador Huixcolotla is a municipality in the Mexican state of Puebla and is considered the center of papel picado. It is known for having a large community of craftsman who produce high quality papel picado.
In Huixcolotla, papel picado is primarily produced for the celebrations surrounding the Day of the Dead. Over time, the tool used to make papel picado has changed from scissors to chisels because of the greater precision and detailing they allow. Traditionally, the art of making papel picado has been passed from generation to generation. Around 1930, the art spread from Huixcolota to other parts of Mexico such as Puebla and Tlaxcala. Sometime in the 1960’s, papel picado spread to Mexico City and from there to the United States and Europe.