Mexican artisans are fighting to preserve the traditional craft of paper-cut decorations that have long been used on Day of the Dead altars.

Eschewing the increasingly popular mass-production methods, second-generation paper cutter Yuridia Torres Alfaro, 49, still makes her own stencils in her family’s workshop in Sahimilco, on the rural southern outskirts of Mexico City.

As she has done since childhood, Torres Alfaro drove extremely sharp chisels into thick stacks of tissue paper at her Papel Picado Xochimilco business.

While others use durable plastic sheets, laser cutters or pre-made stencils, Torres Alfaro does each step by hand, as Mexican craftsmen have done for 200 years.

In 1988, her father, a retired school teacher, received a large commission for the sheets — which usually feature holiday skeletons, skulls, grim reapers or Katrinas — to decorate city government offices.

“The business started 34 years ago, when we were very small, and we started helping with the work,” recalls Torres Alfaro.

Begun in the 1800s, experts say papel picado, using tissue paper, is likely a continuation of a much older pre-Hispanic tradition of drawing ceremonial figures on paper made from fig bark leaves. Mexican artisans adopted imported tissue paper because it was cheap and thin enough that dozens of sheets could be cut at a time with sharp tools, extreme care, and great skill.

But the most important part is the stencil: its design marks the parts to be cut out, leaving a complex, airy web of paper that is sometimes stretched over a building or street. It is most often hung above altars on the Day of the Dead, which Mexican families use to honor and communicate with deceased relatives.

The holiday begins on October 31, remembering those who died in accidents; it continues on November 1st to commemorate those who died in childhood, followed by those who died as adults on November 2nd.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico and Central America on November 1 and 2 to honor deceased loved ones.

Traditionally, the bright colors of the paper had different meanings: orange – a sign of mourning, blue – for those who drowned, yellow – for the elderly dead, green – for those who died young.

But many Mexicans — who also use the decorations at other times of the year, stringing them at roof height along the streets — now prefer to buy plastic, which lasts longer in the sun and rain.

Still other manufacturers have tried to use mass-produced stencils, meaning that tens of thousands of sheets can have exactly the same design.

“The papel picado stencils started coming out because it’s very labor intensive when you have to provide a lot of people,” said Torres Alfaro, who still hand-cuts her own stencils with the original designs.

“We wanted to keep doing it the traditional way because it allows us to do small, personalized batches and keep creating a new design every day,” she says.

Another rival was the US holiday Halloweenwhich roughly coincides with the Day of the Dead because it is flashier and more marketable – costumes, movies, parties and candy – it has gained popularity in Mexico.

“Halloween has been bigger for a while,” Torres Alfaro said. “We do more traditional Mexican stuff. It’s part of the job, putting the Mexican stuff in the papel picado. If we make things for Halloween, it is only to order” of customers.

Still others tried to use 21st-century technology, using computer-generated designs and laser cutters.

But Torres Alfaro says that such a heavy focus on cutting leaves out the most important part: the delicate paper canvases left behind.

“There are some laser machines that are gaining popularity, but we checked them and the costs are the same, the machines are still cutting hole after hole, and they can’t cut as many sheets,” she said.

“There are downsides to (ready-made) stencils and a laser machine,” she said. “Pappel darts is based on what you can cut and what you can’t, and that’s the magic of papel darts.”