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Cochineal

By: Octavio Hernández

Cochineal was one of pre Hispanic Mexico’s 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.

Photo: Octavio Hernández EspejoThe 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.”

Photo: Octavio Hernández EspejoThe nopal cactus was another of Mexico’s 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 course, cochineal.

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 nopal.

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.

Photo: Octavio Hernández EspejoAfter 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 don’t 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.

Source:  México desconocido # 292 / June 2001


 
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