Papel Picado: 5 Fun Facts and Its Significance on Day of the Dead

Last Day of the Dead, I collaborated with my friend Marisa Morrison, founder of The Neon Tea Party, for her papel picado crafting workshop. She asked if I could lead the educational segment on this beautiful and intricate art form and provide an explanation of how it relates to Día de los Muertos. Following my research, I organized five fun facts and beautiful images of papel picado handcrafted by Yreina Flores, founder of Ay Mujer!, which I thought you might enjoy.

What is papel picado and what does it represent?

Papel picado translates to “perferated paper,” which is used to create tissue paper banners with cutout designs used to decorate altars, homes, streets, and buildings. In Mexico, papel picado banners are commonly used for Día de Muertos, and for national holidays such as Mexican Independence Day on September the 16th, religious festivities, street parties, weddings, birthday parties . . . just about any Mexican fiesta! Today, even outside of Mexico, papel picado continues to be used for religious and civic festivals, weddings, baptisms, birthdays, and Day of the Dead.

What is the History of Papel Picado

Aztec Roots 

The tradition of using papel picado originates with the Aztecs who used to use the bark of mulberry and wild fig trees to make and decorate a rough paper called amatl. They used this tree bark “paper” to make flags and banners, and used it to adorn homes, streets, fields, and temples.

Spanish Influence

This practice evolved in the 18th century when the Spaniards introduced many new foreign products to the region of Mexico, including tissue paper. Tissue paper is referred to as papel china in Mexico, which translates to “paper from China.”

That was when artisans began to apply this ancient art form to a new material, and thus, papel picado came to be the quintessential fiesta decoration we are familiar with today. The Spanish church would commission artisans to make thousands of strings of papel picado for religious festivals where they hung in church plazas and lined the streets.

Papel Picado: Folk Art vs. Fine Art

Skilled craftsmen use awls, chisels and special cutting blades to render intricate designs. Working over a basic pattern, they cut through as many as 50-100 sheets of tissue paper at a time. 

Popular designs include figures such as flowers, foliage, birds, angels, crosses, calaveras or skeletons and historic figures, as well as words or phrases associated with specific holidays. Borders may be straight, scalloped, zig-zagged or fringed. Each design is a unique and complex work of art requiring a keen ability to envision the use of negative space. While many consider papel picado a form of Mexican “folk art,” I’d argue that these finely designed and cut tissue papers are actually a form of fine art!

How is Papel Picado Used for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)?

Colorful papel picado is often displayed on Día de los Muertos altars and represents the union between life and death. This delicate tissue paper also signifies the fragility of life as it is ephemeral, as well as the element of wind. On Day of the Dead, because papel picado is so lightweight, when it moves, it lets families know that their loved ones have arrived.


All images are from the talented papel picado artist, Yreina Flores, founder of Ay Mujer! She is based in Indio, CA and you can purchase her work online at aymujershop.com.


For more Day of the Dead inspiration, check out:

Free Printable: Mini Papel Picado by Live Colorful

5 Fun Day of the Dead Crafts and Treats for Kids by Elba Valverde

7 Day of the Dead Traditions to Start as a Family This Year by Brook Porter Katz

3 Bilingual Books to Teach Children about Day of the Dead by Lola’s Cocina

10 Creative Crafts for Day of the Dead by Lola’s Cocina

Tags: , ,

Categories: Cultura, Day of the Dead

2 Comments on “Papel Picado: 5 Fun Facts and Its Significance on Day of the Dead”

  1. Isabel Magana
    October 13, 2021 at 2:31 pm #

    Great information about papel picado. Such a beautiful tradition and when used it just gives parties life. And I love the work from Aye Mujer. She customer made my birthday papel picado when I turned 50. She does some amazing work.

    • October 17, 2021 at 10:46 pm #

      Thank you, Isa! It was a lot of fun researching the information for this post. Love that you had your papel picado custom made to celebrate your 50th!

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