Cochineal was one of pre Hispanic Mexicos main
contributions to the rest of the world. The arrival of the Spaniards started cultural and
commercial trade and there were many articles and objects that enriched both countries and
cultures. Carmine red dye went around the world and it went through several different
stages over the centuries: from its discovery to its mass commercialization, and
then from its decadence to its revaluation.
The dress has always been a fundamental garment
in the civil and religious lives of the indigenous population; the pieces of clothing used
by the noblemen and priests bestowed status on the wearer and denoted hierarchies.
One of the most important characteristics of these garments was their ceremonial value and
their value as objects of barter, related with the tints used for dyeing them.
Cochineal was one of a group of pigments and sources of colors
that came mainly from animals and plants. Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) is a
parasite insect that grows on the nopal cactus. Carmic acid, or red coloring, is obtained
from the dried out body of the female of the species.
During the time of the colonies, with the introduction of the
sheep herds, the use of cochineal increased, as it provided the most intense color and it
set more firmly on woolen garments than on clothes made of materials of pre Hispanic
origin such as cotton, agave plant fibers or yucca fibers.
The laborious task of breeding this insect notwithstanding,
the skill and the patience of the Indians made sales of this product increase. Once the
European market had discovered the qualities of this product, their demand for it
increased dramatically. Red carmine became strong competition for the European colorants,
as it was used for dyeing the clothes of kings, nobles and the clergy. It was also used
for painting handicrafts and tapestries. As a product for export, it left the country via
Veracruz and entered Europe through Spain, where it was redistributed to different
countries, reaching Russia and even Persia.
The Nao de China (the galleon that sailed to the Philippines)
left Acapulco loaded with valuable cargo, including cochineal for the Oriental countries.
Along with gold and silver, it was one of the most important New Spanish exports.
Bernardo Sahagún tells of how the cochineal insect was
commercialized all over the world since the times of the colonies: Cochineal is well
known in Mexico and abroad; it has arrived in China and Turkey and is highly appreciated
and valued in nearly all countries in the world. The purified cochineal that has been made
into little rolls is called the thick, or fine grain; it is sold in the open air markets
and is bought by painters and dyers.
The nopal cactus was another of Mexicos
contributions to the world. Its great adaptability to arid land and dry climates
made it possible for the Spaniards to introduce the cochineal grain to Peru, the Canary
islands, and Guatamela. In Mexico, production was concentrated in Oaxaca.
After the war of independence, the Spanish monopoly on
cochineal came to an end, thus placing Mexico in an unfavorable position with respect to
Peru and Guatemala. But the demand for cochineal fell with the appearance on the market of
artificial colorants discovered in Europe at the end of the 19th century. The
delicate manual labor required for the breeding of the insect could not compete with
the modern methods of the new industry and even less so with the lowering of production
costs. The tuna blood dye stopped being used and almost totally disappeared
during the 20th century. Oaxaca was the most affected part of the country, and
since then the breeding of the cochineal insect has been done mainly for the purposes of
maintaining the tradition rather than to satisfy any sort of demand.
It is currently still used to dye wool and is sometimes
preferred as natural dye over artificial products. This is especially true in the
pharmaceutical and food industries and the concern over artificial additives to products
of human consumption has opened up possibilities of breeding the insect again.
Santa Ana del Valle is known for its textiles and many
artisans preserve the tradition of making clothes on a loom, and today the traditional
techniques of carding and spinning the wool are still used; this is done on
the pedal loom; worsted yarns are, generally speaking, dyed using anilines; in other
times, tints or dyes of animal or plant origins were used, such as the snail and, of
Doña Macedonia Martínez has bred cochineal insects for
the last three years; however, there are few families in Santa Ana these days who do this
type of work. She has a small piece of land at her house where she grows nopal cacti and
there are a few suitable shaded areas where the cochineal insect can be bred. This
insect, however, does not grow on any type of nopal cactus; the Castilla nopal has
to be used. It is known that the nopal cactus that acts as host to the cochineal insect
belongs to various species of the Opuntia and Nopalea types of
Once the nopal has grown several leaves, it is transplanted to
a place in the shade. The leaves are cut off and then it is infested with cochineal
insects. Four days later, it stands up
Sometimes the nopal cactus comes with wild cochineal (Dactyopius
spp), which can be distinguished from the other variety by its less clean appearance
and its cotton-like quality. The wild cochineal grain is harmful to the fine grain and it
gives a purplish tone that is different to the intense red produced by the normal
cochineal insect. The fine or cultivated grain has a waxen cover or skin that is
easy to take off.
After four days, the nests are placed in the
fleshy part of the cactus leaf in which some two or three spoonfuls of the adult insect
are placed. The young come out through the hollow gaps in the nest and they stick to the
nopal cactus and feed off its juice.
The nests are changed to a different nopal every three days
and the young are taken out two weeks later. After the brood of young insects has
been taken out, what is left in the nest are the shells of the female cochineal, which is
the clean grain.
Three months after the cochineal reaches adulthood, the cycle
is repeated: the cochineal is taken from the nopal with a spoon, it is sifted in a
colander and the outer shell is then taken off. This is then placed in the nests so that
the infestation starts all over again. The culture is placed in the shade and the nopal
cactus is covered with a piece of plastic to protect it from the sun.
According to Doña Macedonia, you can get about five liters of
paint from one kilo of grain. This is enough to dye twenty skeins of 250 gm each. Twenty
skeins will dye two or three big serapes; a serape dyed with cochineal grain can be
sold at double the price.
It is difficult to know the return on the breeding of the
young and that is why it is not commercialized. This type of work is not recognized in the
village, only by those who want to have their carpets dyed with the grain.
Cochineal grain alone is not sold because we dont know what we could
get for it; its only used for family production. The main market is, without a
doubt, foreigners who visit the village and who know how to tell the difference
between cochineal and artificial dye. Breeding cochineal insects is a family job and
it appears that only two families in Santa Ana del Valle do this sort of work.
desconocido # 292 / June 2001