Every Bookmark Tells a Story

Behind every bookmark is a fascinating story. The bookmark pictured here is no exception. Far from it.

Nestled in the rugged Sierra Norte de Puebla mountainous region of Mexico lies the remote village of San Pablito. The Otomis, forced out by other indigenous groups, migrated to this area as early as 800 AD. Aztecs conquered the area in the late 15th century, but the Otomis managed to maintain much of their culture and traditions.

Initially siding with the Spanish to oust the Aztecs during the Spanish Conquest, the Otomis later rebelled against Spanish rule. Because of the isolation and lack of mineral resources, not many Spanish chose to live here. Plus, enforcing Spanish law in this harsh terrain was difficult. As a result, the Otomis continued their culture and traditions in this part of Old Mexico and do so to this very day.

A tradition of high importance to this and other indigenous groups is the spiritual practise of amate paper making. This handmade paper was considered neutral until shamans used it in religious paper cutting ceremonies. The shaman cut various images into the paper while acting as an intermediary between humans and their gods. Each cut of paper was believed to be increasingly powerful while shamans attempted to communicate with their deities. Banned by the Spanish because the practise was believed to encourage witchcraft, San Pablito, due to its remote location, managed to evade detection when making amate paper.

The process of creating amate paper is in itself fascinating. Bark from wild fig (xalama), nettle (jonote) or mulberry (moral) tree is stripped and boiled in a mixture of water, lime, and ash. All the bark must be removed and cooled several times to avoid over-softening. The bark is then rinsed to remove all residue and meticulously separated in fibrous strands. These strips are sometimes bleached or dyed at this stage. Then the strands are carefully arranged in rectangular shapes on wood boards and pounded down with specially designed volcanic rock. When the correct thickness is achieved, the rectangular pieces are left to dry.

Nowadays, amate paper is not restricted for use by shamans. The process has become commercialized, bringing much needed employment into this small community. Sheets of paper are sent to Nahua artisans for painting, then sold in various markets. The bookmark pictured above was purchased at one such local market in the nearby town of Pahuatlán, where locals dress in traditional clothing on Sundays and walk through the streets in their bare feet.

You can read about my visit to this part of Old Mexico as well as other out of the way places in my upcoming book, An English Teacher in Mexico. Just don’t forget to bookmark this site!

Woman in San Pablito creates amate paper. Photo placed on amate paper book.