PAHUATLAN, Mexico – An ancient paper-making technique still thrives in a small indigenous community in the heart of Mexico.
San Pablito, in the mountainous municipality of Pahuatlan in the central state of Puebla, is home to some 150 indigenous craftsmen who still manufacture “amate” paper using ancient Pre-Columbian methods.
“There are 60 families manufacturing this (type of) paper,” Luidben Perez Santillan, Pahuatlan’s head of culture, told EFE.
A tour of San Pablito allows visitors to see the town dwellers’ home workshops, which feature large rustic pans filled with water, as well as wooden boards and the raw material for the paper: the bark of the red jonote and mulberry trees.
The amate paper production process starts with “jonoteros,” who scout the outskirts of San Pablito for trees five to six years of age and whose bark they proceed to scrape off with a machete.
A red jonote tree can grow to a height of 10 m (32 ft) and yields as many as kg (25 lbs) of bark, which is then sold to craftsmen at 10 pesos ($0.45) a kilo.
To soften the bark, it is boiled for as long as eight hours in a mixture of water, lime and ash, during which time the women – who are usually in charge of this part of the process – must completely remove the material from the water at least three times to keep it from burning.
Then the bark is left to cool for a few hours, resulting in malleable reddish strips of material, which are then rinsed to remove all the resin, also used to color the fibers.
At this stage, the fibers are lightened with chlorine bleach, in which they soak for 12 hours before the papermakers remove the bits of hard bark.
“We select long and flexible strips,” Juan Santos told EFE. “We try for all of them to be of the same width.”
Next, the fibers are placed together on a wooden board and, using a volcanic stone, the craftsman beats them into a thin flat mass in different directions and with various degrees of intensity, until perfect angles and edges are achieved.
The final stage consists of rubbing orange peels against the surface of the pulp, achieving a smooth surface.
The paper is then sun-dried on the board for more than 12 hours.