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Mexican Paper Cutting: La Catrina and the Labyrinth - Mireia Sallarès

One of the first things which fascinated me about Mexico was its folk art, specifically ‘los papels picados’ or paper cutting. It is a type of popu- lar folk art made from tissue paper worked with hammer blows and normally used in popular festivals especially for the Day of the Dead, on November first. Mexicans place it on altars they have made for dead family members.


As a part of the project I decided to create a series of these paper cut- tings. So I got in touch with an artisan, Miguel Santibáñez, from whom, by pure chance, I had previously bought some examples of his work at a popular folk art fair. After a few meetings and conversations we worked out some designs together. For me it was essential that the design be based on our conversations concerning the project.


But how to make paper cuttings that symbolize and encompass all the many stories that the women had told me? The result was a smiling female skull. It was the face of Death in all its forms and guises. The Mexican Catrina1 without a body and her normal ostentatious ornamen- tations. This personality apparently was created prior to the Mexican Revolution by folk engravers, such as José Guadalupe Posada2, in order to represent wealthy bourgeois women ‘del porfiriato’3. Later she be- came a recurrent icon appearing in all Mexican art. Nothing could be more Mexican than death, and La Catrina in the context of the ‘Little Deaths’ symbolizes this in the extreme.


Las Muertes Chiquitas (Papeles Picados) (2010), Mireia Sallarès

Later on I ordered another series of paper cuttings from Miguel, this time on a much larger scale and based on a sentence taken from a book by philosopher Maite Larrauri, which analyzes the idea of desire in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. It goes like this: ‘So difficult to desire, that it is even easier to obtain what is wanted.’ I chose this quote in an attempt to illustrate the difficulties we encounter when confronted by our pleasure and desire. This difficulty came up in every conversation with the women I interviewed. In my opinion, and in agreement with the French philosopher, desire is something much more complex than we realize, a process, a becoming, a life, a type of filigree.


What fascinates me about Mexican paper cuttings is precisely their filigree, the labyrinth which surges through its re-cut forms. The ham- mered incisions open almost like wounds. A wound which in Mexico al- ways has a feminine sense to it. Like a labyrinth in which what is missing from the paper is as important as what remains and what in reality the form itself is depicting. Much like the labyrinth of solitude that Octavio Paz speaks of.


‘When we fall in love we open, we show our intimacy, as that now old tradition has it, the one who suffers from love displays his wounds before whom he loves. But in uncovering one’s wounds of love, the lover transforms his being into an image, into an object of contempla- tion for the woman and for himself. And in revealing himself, invites others to contemplate him with the same pious eyes he uses to contemplate himself. The distant look now no longer denudes.(…) it returns the image and gaze of whom it is contemplating as well.’
—El laberinto de la soledad, Octavio Paz


The vivid coloring and decorative nature of these paper cuttings is in reality, as Octavio Paz says, a mask. But there is something else which comes to us across the empty spaces from these forms and vibrant colors. They are full of contradictions. Their material is simple and costs little, but they are still precious and priceless in themselves. They are open in structure but retreat into themselves. They are extremely fragile but hold together as well. And finally, above all, they are ephemeral. They are not meant to last or be preserved, but to accompany us momentarily as we celebrate and weep. This is what in my opinion the paper cuttings represent, like a metaphor, the essence of experiences such as orgasms, pain, death, and the stories of the lives of these women and the essence of this project.


‘And we ask of love that it being desire, is a hunger of communion, of falling, of dying that in being re-born we are being given a bit of true life, of true death. We are not asking happiness of it, nor repose, but only an instant of life to the full, in which is endowed with the contradictions and opposites of life and death, time and eternity in a pact (…) of abundance, reunion, undisturbed, and said balance, with the world which waits for us at the end of the labyrinth of solitude.’
—El laberinto de la soledad, Octavio Paz





1. La Catrina: common representation of Death in the form of a wealthy women.
2. José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913).
3. Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915), President of Mexico.


SALLARÈS, Mireia. “Los Papeles Picados: La Catrina y El Laberinto”. En: Las Muertes Chiquitas. Barcelona: Blume, 2009. Pág 310-311.

“Las Muertes Chiquitas” (trailer) Mireia Sallarès



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