Papel amate
Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 9:46AM
[chuck] in Ficus, Mexico, San Pablito, Science, Trema, bark paper

The image above shows freshly made sheets of papel amate, or bark paper, laid out to dry in the Otomi village of San Pablito in northern Puebla, Mexico.  Couple of things of interest here.  First, "amate" in Spanish refers to Ficus trees, and, traditionally, bark from from these trees was used to make papel amate.  With increasing demand for this handicraft and overly intensive bark harvesting (which kills the tree), the papermakers in San Pablito have been forced to use Trema micrantha (Ulmaceae) or "jonote", a fast growing tree of disturbed environments, to make bark paper.  In essence, there is no longer any amate in papel amate.  

Second, much of the jonote bark used to make paper in San Pablito is brought in by middlemen from the state of Veracruz.  The blank sheets of bark paper are then sent to the state of Guerrero where they are painted with colorful scenes of Mexican daily life.  That little square of bark paper that you bought on your trip to Mexico for 50 cents has been through many hands before reaching yours.  The bark was stripped from Trema trees in Veracruz, the paper was made by Otomi communities in Puebla, and the final painting was done in Guerrero.  Things haven gotten pretty complicated since the days of Moctezuma when bark paper was sent in tribute to Tenochtitlán. [NOTE: A more detailed analysis  of the effects of commercialization on Otomi bark paper production can be found here]

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