Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mexico’s original organic dye

Mexico is the second largest producer of silver in the world. For several centuries it was number one. The Spanish empire thrived on wealth created by silver bullion exported through Veracruz to Seville. From there it spread throughout Spain creating tremendous inflation before settling into the pockets of German and Dutch bankers. But silver wasn’t Mexico’s only valuable export.

I frequently ask members of the groups who travel with me if they can identify the second most important source of wealth extracted from Mexico by the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Rarely does anyone have the correct answer. I usually ask this question at Teotihuacan just before entering the Quetzalcoatl Quadrangle. This is not because the answer had a particular relationship to that place. It’s because I know we’ll soon encounter one of the Castro brothers who will show us a sampling of that second most important source of wealth for Spain. The Castros, as their late father before them, sell postcards – ten postcards in a white envelope for sixty pesos.

The Castro brothers have one of the most marvelous marketing schemes I’ve ever seen. Using a stick and a nopal cactus leaf infested with white clusters of insects and eggs, the Castros carefully scrape off a cluster, squishing it on the envelope containing postcards. It instantly changes to crimson red. Using the same small stick they gather sap from the leaf, cover the red, sealing the color onto the envelope. Even if you rub your finger over the color it won’t come off. I urge members of my group “Buy a packet of postcards, send them to your friends but keep the envelope. Put it away in your desk drawer. Pull it out ten years from now and it will be just as red as it is today.”

The Castros use a fast-track process. The proper way to harvest cochineal is to go through a nopal cactus orchard with a whisk broom and gourd, collect female insects, kill them by immersion in hot water and put them in the sun to dry. When dry they resemble tiny dark red, almost black, pellets. Ground on a metate, they become a fine red powder. Added to a vat of boiling water it becomes dye. The longer cloth is left in the water, the redder it will be, and once dry will not fade. To imagine the color, think of British red-coat soldiers. That red was created by cochineal dye. The bright red permanent dye enthralled Europeans, most had no idea the treasured dye was insects.

Sent west from Acapulco to Asia, cochineal pellets were sold in Manila – not in the market – but in jewelry stores for a set price known to all. A common language was unnecessary. Customers merely pointed to glass containers of dark, tiny, pellets, indicating to the jeweler how much was wanted by putting that much gold on the jeweler’s scale. In Manila, dried cochineal sold for equal its weight in gold!

Though never as expensive in Europe, cochineal was consumed by the wealthy with prices quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Realizing the value of the dye, Spain put an embargo on the export of any live insects from Mexico or the colonies. In 1777 a French botanist smuggled both insects and nopal cactus to a French Caribbean Island. Fortunately for Mexico’s monopoly the insects died. In 1788 The British also smuggled cochineal insects and cactus to Australia. These insects also died but the cactus thrived and ultimately overran 100,000 square miles of eastern Australia. The bottom fell out of the cochineal market in the 1860’s when a German chemist discovered how to artificially make the same-colored dye. With renewed interest in organic dyes, cochineal has made a recovery and is again in demand. Though I doubt cochineal will again compete with silver or gold, it is an interesting chapter in Mexico’s history.

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