BY AWAKE! WRITER IN MEXICO
THE Mexican people have a rich and fascinating history. Among the valuable cultural treasures rescued from the past are “testimonies”—pictographic manuscripts, or codices. By means of these codices, it is possible to delve into many fields of knowledge—history, science, religion, and chronology—and into the daily life of developed civilizations in Mesoamerica, including the Aztecs and the Maya. Tlacuilos, or scribes, of surprising ability captured their history on various materials.
Although some codices were made of strips of cloth, deerskin, or maguey paper, the principal material used was amate. The name amate is taken from the Nahuatl word amatl, which means paper. Amate was obtained from the bark of a ficus, or fig tree, from the Moraceae family. According to the Enciclopedia de México, “the many species of the Ficus are difficult to tell apart unless a detailed examination of the trunk, leaves, flowers, and fruit is made.” The ficus can be white amate, white woodland amate, or dark-brown amate.
With the conquest by the Spanish in the 16th century, efforts were made to interrupt the activity of manufacturing amate. Why? In the conquerors’ view, amate was closely related to pre-Hispanic religious rites, which were condemned by the Catholic Church. In his work Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme (History of the New Spain Indies and Terra Firma Islands), Spanish friar Diego Durán pointed out that the natives “composed very extensive histories of their forefathers. These would have given us more than a little light if ignorant zeal had not destroyed them for us. Because there were some ignorant ones who, thinking that they were idols, had them burned up, when actually they were histories worth remembering.”
However, attempts to eradicate the tradition of amate papermaking were not successful, and fortunately it has endured down to this day. In the north Sierra mountains of the state of Puebla, paper is still made in such places as San Pablito, Pahuatlán municipality. Quoting information recorded by King Philip II’s royal physician, Francisco Hernández, the magazine Arqueología Mexicana (Mexican Archaeology) says that “papermakers cut only the thick branches of the trees, leaving the shoots. Then the branches were left to soften in nearby rivers or streams during the night. The next day, the bark was pulled off the branch and the outer bark was separated from the inner, saving only the latter.” After the bark was cleaned, the segments of fiber were spread out on a flat surface and were pounded with a stone hammer.
Nowadays, to soften the fibers and, at the same time, to eliminate certain substances from them, the fibers are cooked in large kettles to which ash and lime are added. The cooking process can last up to six hours. Then the fibers are rinsed and left in water. Craftsmen place strands of fibers one by one on a flat wooden surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Later, using a stone hammer, they pound the fibers with regular blows until these are interwoven and form a sheet of paper. Lastly, the borders of the paper are folded to the inside to reinforce the edges, and then the paper is left to dry in the sun.
There are several colors of amate. Brown is traditional, but it also comes in white or ivory, in mottled brown and white, and in such colors as yellow, blue, rose, and green.
Its Modern Use
Beautiful Mexican handicrafts are created with amate. Although some paintings on this paper have a religious significance, others are representations of different stylized animals as well as festivals and scenes reflecting the happy life of the Mexican people. In addition to beautiful multicolored pictures, there are also cards, bookmarks, and other handicrafts made using amate. Such crafts fascinate both the native-born and foreigners, who buy them as decorations. This art has spread beyond the borders of Mexico, being exported to several parts of the world. Replicas have been made of the ancient codices. How interesting it must have been for the Spanish to observe this art for the first time! In fact, Diego Durán, the Dominican monk mentioned earlier, commented that the natives “had everything written down and painted in books and on long pieces of paper, with calculations of the years, months, and days on which they occurred. Their laws and ordinances, their census lists, etc., were written down in these paintings, all with much order and accord.”
How fine it is that the tradition of making amate has survived down to our time and with it the beauty of the Mexican heritage. Just like the tlacuilos, or scribes, of antiquity, simple modern-day craftsmen enjoy the marvel of amate, which may well be called the papyrus of Mexico.
[Picture on page 26]
Pounding the fibers