Herminia Albarrán Romero learned the art of papel picado (Mexican paper cutting) as a child growing up in the small Mexican village of San Francisco de Asís, south of Mexico City. The intricately designed paper cuttings and paper flowers are used in Mexico on special occasions such as quinceañera (coming out ceremony for 15-year-old girls), weddings, Cinco de Mayo, and especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). She is also known as an altarista, a creator of altars and offerings that might incorporate paper decorations, personal mementos, and uniquely designed breads.
In 1981, Romero moved to the Mission District of San Francisco where she has continued to practice her art form and teach younger students. Recognized as a master artist, her work has been featured in exhibitions at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, the Oakland Museum, the Heard Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. In one of her exhibitions, she created an elaborate altar and lined the walls and ceiling with more than 800 paper designs.
In 2002, the city of Cuernevaca, Mexico, invited her to set up an altar in the city's central plaza. In an exhibition catalogue, Romero states: "In creating my works for Dias de los Muertos, I am joyful as I sense the near presence of my loved ones. When I create papel picado and paper flowers, I again experience those childhood moments near my beloved mother and grandparents who also worked at these crafts. I feel connected to the love they have for me even in death and this is why I feel such a great joy within me.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
[Editor's note: Patricia Rodriguez, Gallery Director at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, translated for Ms. Romero and participated in the interview.]
NEA: I want to congratulate Herminia and was wondering if she could tell me how she felt when she heard the news of her award.
MS. RODRIGUEZ: When Barry Bergey called she was so surprised she had to look for a pen to write down the information because she didn't think it was real. She never imagined she would win.
NEA: Tell me about her earliest memories of learning how to do this work.
MS. RODRIGUEZ: She was born into that environment. Her mother, father, and grandparents were papel picado makers.
NEA: And what attracted her to continuing the tradition?
MS. RODRIGUEZ: She did it for a long time without taking it seriously as a craft. She just did it because it was second nature. Then she came to the United States to look for work and ended up working with me at the Women's Building. I was setting up a huge event to honor women and I asked the women to do paper cutouts. All the women were struggling with the foldouts and the cutouts and there she was sitting in the back. When she showed me her paper cutouts, I almost fainted. "And who are you?" I asked. She told me her story and I kept saying, "You've got to stick around with me. We've got show your art work and introduce you to the community."
Then I gave her my spot at the Galleria de la Raza to do an altar. After that she just took off. Everybody wanted her then.
NEA: What role would she say that papel picado and the altars play in the Mexican-American community.
MS. RODRIGUEZ: Papel picado is used in every facet of the Latino community - birthdays, weddings, debutante parties, festivals in the park, celebrations in the house. Now, instead of buying streamers for your birthday party, you buy papel picado because it's so decorative and so beautiful. It's so popular that the stores have picked it up, machine-made papel picado imported from Mexico. But because of the difference between store bought paper and what she does by hand, many people request special orders for her work.
NEA: And the altars?
MS. RODRIGUEZ: Most importantly for Dia de los Muertos. You make an altar to honor the person who has passed as part of the overall ritual. These altars are done in all settings, from the small home environment to galleries, museums and in public.
These days there are two kinds of altars. The traditional altar for, say, the Day of the Dead, and then those that are more like installations. They have the qualities of an altar, but are not religious or based in the Mexican tradition. They are very popular, especially here in Northern California.
NEA: How have the altar and paper cutting traditions changed in her lifetime?
MS. RODRIGUEZ: The biggest change is how the tradition is being passed on to young people. Nowadays, if school teachers have adequate time, they will hire her to do traditional papel picado so the children will learn directly. But if time is limited, they go ahead and buy the machine made papel picado from Mexico. It's stamped and they get thousands of sheets with a design. Generally speaking, people have gotten more complacent and wait until the last minute and buy the commercial version.
What she is seeing with altar-making is that artists making them for Dia de los Muertos in the galleries are creating installations that have nothing to do with the traditional altars of Mexico or traditional altars representing the Day of the Dead. They're made to honor the dead but in a different venue and much more contemporary. They're using different materials and they're not using a lot of the tradition that she has learned and has been teaching.
NEA: How has she been able to continue these traditions throughout the years?
MS. RODRIGUEZ: What keeps her inspired are her traditions and her belief. She believes that Dia de los Muertos is very important. She has already cut out a road for herself in letting people know she does this. In July and August she begins to prepare for Dia de los Muertos, when the community starts coming forward to ask her to do something for that occasion. People call her from everywhere to come do a traditional altar. This inspires her. It keeps the tradition going.
NEA: Finally, what makes her work so unique?
MS. RODRIGUEZ: She spends a lot of extra time folding the paper in different ways in order to cut it. She cut about 800 different designs for the altar she did at the Berkeley University Art Museum. They just come out of her head. That's what makes her a master artist, I guess. Her students are picking up on that kind of style, too, but in the end you can see where Herminia's work really stands out.