Who knew that a tiny bug from Oaxaca could change the course of history?
In my visits with En Vía to Teotitlán del Valle, I had watched local weavers using a mysterious powdered product to dye skeins of wool. It was, they informed the watching visitors, a ground-up insect, called cochinilla or cochineal in English, which has been cultivated in Oaxaca for many hundreds of years.
Eugenia, an En Vía borrower, grinds up dried cochineal
Fascinated, I decided I needed to learn more about this strange bug and headed to Tlapanochestli, a cochineal farm and education centre near San Bartolo, about 15 kilometres from Oaxaca
In a building covered in fine netting to protect the insects from predators and from the sun, caretaker Manuel explained that the cultivation process is slow and labour-intensive. There are five different cochineal species in Mexico but only the cochinilla fina, the domesticated insect, is used for production purposes, due to being much bigger than its counterparts in the wild.
Parasitically attached to the cactus, the cochineals emit a white, web-like substance, camouflaging themselves. They feed off the leaves of the nopal cactus, sucking the juice through the proboscis, which resembles a tube. In what must be a fairly relaxed existence, the females feed on the same spot for their entire lives. Males are small and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible.
The cactus juice metabolises inside the insect and turns a deep maroon colour. Known as carminic acid, the colour protects the insect from other microorganisms. If you squash a dried cochineal against your palm, this maroon colour is very difficult to wash off, demonstrating its colour-fast properties and suitability as a natural dye.
After three months of infestation, Manuel collects around two-thirds of the female insects from the cacti. Only the females are used for the dyeing process as the colour produced by the males is not particularly vivid and the males eventually develop wings and fly away.
Manuel freezes or suffocates the insects and then lays them out in the hot sun until they become hard and dry. People from villages such as Teotitlán del Valle or Santa Ana del Valle then buy them to dye wool for their beautiful tapetes (carpets), or to sell onto other customers. Manuel sells the dried cochineals for 1300 pesos/kilo. As it is expensive, not all Oaxcan weavers exclusively use ground cochineal as pigments. They also use synthetic chemical dyes, which fade rapidly and are more harmful to the weaver’s health.
Ground cochineal, ready to be used as a dyeing agent
The remaining insects are collected in a nido (pictured below), or a small bag, and attached to a new cactus plant for 15 days. The females lay their eggs inside the bag and cycle begins again as the baby cochineals emerge through tiny holes and choose a spot on the cactus on which they start feeding off the juice.
The nopal cactus and the cochineal.
The seemingly insignificant cochineal insect, no larger than the nail on your little finger, has a long and fascinating history. It played a vital role in Pre-Hispanic Mexico. The ground insect was processed into flat cakes, known as nocheztlaxcalli, and was sold and traded in this form. The various shades of reds produced by the ground cochineal were highly prized. The Mixtecs, for instance, offered red cloaks as tribute items to the dominant Mayan and Aztec civilisations. Emperor Moctezuma’s subjects also paid their taxes in bags of cochineal. The Zoque Indians in Chiapas painted their houses with the colorant. For those of you who have visited the wonderful pyramids of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, the paintings on the pyramids contain cochineal dye.
The vivid colours worn by high-ranking members of the indigenous cultures fascinated the Spaniards when they first came to Mexico. As the cochineal insect is camouflaged in a white substance, the Spanish initially assumed that it was a seed, hence the name grana fina. However, they soon discovered the secret of this unique cultural practice.
It is easy to see why the Spanish mistook the cochineal insect for a seed.
Following their conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish established a monopoly in the trade of textiles dyed with cochineal. Popular in Europe for its colour and its colour-fast properties, the export of the dye became so important that it provided the third-highest income for New Spain after gold and silver.
Cochineal dominated the colour industry. Initially exported to Spain, cochineal eventually reached places as far afield as India and Africa. The Spanish fiercely guarded the secret of the dye, prohibiting the export of the live cochineal and barring foreigners from visiting Mexico without a permit. Subsequently, very few knew that this precious product came from a tiny dried bug!
After the Mexican War of Independence from 1810–1821, the Mexican monopoly on cochineal came to an end. In Guatemala and the Canary Islands, large-scale production of cochineal began to emerge. The industry experienced an enormous shock when synthetic dyes were invented later in the 19th century. Cheaper and involving less-painstaking processes, synthetic dyes came to rule the market. Trade in cochineal dwindled and almost disappeared.
Today, cochineal is one of the most common natural colourants. As consumers become more aware of the potentially harmful properties of some synthetic dyes, it is increasingly being used in food and cosmetics. On food packaging, it is commonly referred to as carmine, E120 or Red No. 4 and is added to products such as juice, icing, ice cream, ham, sausages, in addition to certain pills and lipsticks. Vegetarian and vegan consumers of Starbucks coffee recently petitioned against the company’s use of cochineal in their beverages.
While Mexico is no longer a large producer of cochineal, it remains an integral part of indigenous Oaxacan folk art. In Teotitlán del Valle, you may be lucky enough to witness weavers crushing the dried insect into a fine powder, and to watch as they dye skeins of wool with wonderful, vibrant colours – shades of red, orange and yellow. This humble bug is no humbug: it holds a unique place in Oaxacan cultural history.
By Helen Lyttelton