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On Otomí Magic and Paper Making

October 17, 2016

This post was written by our rare books cataloger, Stephen Dingler.

On Otomí Magic and Paper Making

by Stephen Dingler

Making paper from fibers of the inner bark of certain trees is a craft that has been practiced by Otomí Indians of Mexico since pre-Hispanic times.  Called āmatl in the Nahuatl language, today it is known by its Hispanicized form as amate paper.  Curanderos (healers) and brujos (witches or sorcerers) used the paper to make cutout “magic” figures of benevolent and malevolent spirits and deities for use in rituals such as rain-making, agricultural fertility rites, and for chasing away evil spirits.  Before cutting, the paper was folded so that when unfolded after a cutout figure was made, both sides were symmetrical.

In more recent times this traditional paper handicraft was adapted for commercial use, centered in the Otomí village of San Pablito in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico.  It is the only remaining major center of indigenous paper making in Mexico.  Small handmade books using amate paper began to appear in tourist markets in the 1970s.  Light colored amate paper was used as the background surface on which were glued the spirit cutouts made from dark brown amate paper.  The cutout figures were accompanied by manuscript text in Spanish, written with felt-tipped or ink pens.  Three Otomí from San Pablito are known to have produced amate manuscripts for the commercial market.  A copy of one of these, by Antonio López M., has recently been added to the UTSA Libraries’ Special Collections rare book holdings.

Antonio López M. produced what are referred to as “The López Manuscripts” which were amate manuscript books for the tourist market imitating those first created by another San Pablito Otomí, Alfonso García Tellez, whose Tratamiento de una ofrenda para pedir la lluvia : San Pablito Pahuatlan puebla is also also part of UTSA Special Collections.

Our Special Collections amate manuscript, Gran Libro de los Cantos Otomies de la sierra de Puebla de San Pablito Pahuatlán Pue., describes songs used in Otomí rituals, such as a ritual for getting rid of sickness by sprinkling the blood of a chicken over paper cutouts, as well as rituals associated with the earth and water.  The book consists of 17 numbered leaves of light amate paper.  Fifteen cutouts of dark brown amate paper, some of which are for named spirits, are glued on six of the pages.  Three additional cutouts are glued onto the cover.  The book also includes some cutouts made using plastic-coated glossy colored commercial paper.  The front and back endpapers are dark brown amate.  Although not dated, it was probably produced in the late 1970s or early 1980s, since Alfonso García Tellez’s amate manuscripts and later Antonio López M. imitations are believed to have been produced in that time period.

Pages from Gran libro de los cantos Otomies de la sierra de Puebla de San Pablito Pahuatlán Pue by Sr. Antonio Lopez M :

Pages from Tratamiento de una ofrenda para pedir la lluvia : San Pablito Pahuatlan puebla by Alfonso Garcia Tellez, the original creator of the amate manuscript books:

Our López M. amate manuscript book is part of a recent donation to the UTSA Libraries’ Special Collections of about 200 books and serials from the collection of Dr. Mauricio Charpenel.  Dr. Charpenel was affiliated with UTSA’s Div. of Bicultural Bilingual Studies in the 1970s.  He was the author of several children’s books and books about Mexican popular culture.  His donated books and serials reflect his interests in juvenile literature and in Mexican civilization and culture.


Karl Herbert Mayer, “Cover: Amate Manuscripts of the Otomí of San Pablito, Puebla,” Mexicon 34, no. 6 (2012): 129-35.

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