It was a pleasant surprise to me that a visit to del Río Dueῆas nopalry had been added to our tour group’s itinerary at the last minute, as the book I’d bought along to read during the trip was ABOUT the natural dye that was originally only grown in the valley of Oaxaca MX, and is the reason for the existence of this nopal cacti plantation. The book, A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield, Harper Perennial, 2006, was recommended to me by paper marbling and calligraphy artist, Anne Wood, when she heard we were about to visit Oaxaca. It gives a wide perspective of the global importance of the red dye developed from a cacti parasite in Mexico, which first came to the attention of the Spanish conquistadors. At one time cochineal granules were as valuable as gold or silver for trade amongst countries. When synthetic dyes were finally invented, the competition was too great for the cochineal market to survive, so this special nopalry exists now as a way to bring back some of the important history of Oaxaca, and also to provide local crafts people with organic and natural materials to work with. They are certified organic growers in the state of Oaxaca, MX. A cochineal museum was the beginning of our tour, followed by the green house, and then the artist studio, where artist interns experiment with the dye in their artworks. Our guide through the nopalry was artist and architect, Edgar Jahir Trujillo, and he sold his painting of a mosquito to a member of our group. A technique he used involved dried nopal paddles, dipped in the red dye, to print texture on the mosquito wings. What follows is a narrative I wrote up from some notes taken during the nopalry tour, and later tour notes about a weaving workshop and a handmade paper co-op, both which use and appreciate cochinilla dye.
The cacti variety grown at the nopalry has no needles, and only paddles from the highest quality plants are used in the special greenhouse where cochineal is nurtured. There the parasitic insects are protected from too much sun and micro predators are controlled as well as possible, and the cacti are protected from breezes that might blow the tiny insects away. The fertilized eggs of the female insect take 90 days to mature, then the insects on the nopal paddle is carefully moved with a fine bristled brush into a bowl (about 3 grams of insects per paddle) where the ones that are best for further breeding are separated from the rest that get used for dye. The ones to breed are the fat females, separated out by a sieve and put into a little woven palm mat tube. Both ends of the tube are blocked with netting to protect the cochineal from predators like spiders, then the tube nest is hung on a fresh nopal paddle which is control dated with an innoculation date. This date tells workers when the 3 month hatchling development period is up, but also when to empty the females from the nest. After the females are in the nest for 15 days, they are emptied out, dried up, and used for dye. The old emptied nopal paddle is fed to animals or composted. There is a small orifice in the mat tube where baby bugs come out and populate the nopal paddle like the parasites that they are. Each female insect builds a white webbing around itself on the cacti, which also helps protect it, and it doesn’t move around. (An aside: Indian mythology about the protective white webbing was that “The Cloud people surrounded blood from the gods with white fuzz.”) The males are tiny white flies that only have a 3 to 5 day life span. The male’s probiscus breaks off after coming out of the mother so it can’t eat, and it must mate with a female within its 3 to 5 day life span. It can fertilize more than one female before it dies. The female insects that were in the palm mat tube for a couple weeks, plus others that were separated out from the brushed off paddles (and not used for breeding), are killed by setting them out to dehydrate in the sun, or heated by other means.
The cominic acid in the insect protects it from viruses, but is also the important element used in the dye. 140,000 of the dried insects equal one kilo of chocineal. 30% of the chocineal powder is pure coloring agent (pure pigment) that will last forever, and will not react to the PH of different surfaces. If you squish a cochinilla insect in your palm, the dye reacts with elements in the skin… turning the color of blood. To get the carminic acid from the powder, water plus alum are added to make a liquid, the liquid is boiled, then it is put through filters.
Some of the chemical additives to achieve variations in color are: Citric acid from lime for less scarlet and more pink or bicarbonate of soda for mauve (dark purple). The artist interns working at this farm are encouraged to experiment with the cochineal granules/powder in their art works. A few products are sold in a small gift shop, like lipstick, dyed T-shirts, and books about the history of cochineal. Note: Ignacio del Río Duῆas is author of Grana Fina Cochinilla, pub. State of Oaxaca. He is one of the main shakers and movers to revive the chocinilla industry in Oaxaca. However, until the nopalry gets more investors they can’t create huge batches of product. An investor would provide money for the advertising/merchandizing efforts needed to move products quickly, but right now the product dye is only sold to local artists and craftspeople. Edgar pointed out to us that artificial dyes can be health hazards, though I’ve also read that there are also individuals who have bad allergic reactions to cochinilla. Another side note: Cochineal is too organic for tattoo inks.
Our group was graciously welcomed into the workshop of Isaac Vásquez Garcia & his son, Jeronimo, who are Zapotec weavers from the weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle. They spin and dye their own wool and many family members work on looms weaving beautiful rugs that sell well to the tourists in their shop which is called “The Bug in the Rug”. When dying wool yarn red using cochinilla (the bug!), alum and acacia fruits and freshly squeezed limes & their juices are added to fix, darken, and intensify the deep red. They also use Tehuantepec indigo, dyes derived from lichens, the acacia tree, and other natural sources. We saw examples of all these natural materials and the dyes made from them as demonstrated by Mr. Vásquez Garcia. My book, A Perfect Red, especially mentions Isaac Vásquez Garcia as having “helped to breathe new life into Oaxaca’s age-old textile arts, allowing them to pass to a new generation.” And…”when the craft of natural dyeing had almost vanished from Oaxaca, a few artisans like Isaac Vásquez… sought to revive the old techniques. Coloring wool with cochineal…”
We also visited a paper making co-op with a separate workshop for silkscreen printing, a gallery, and a gift shop. El Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca was begun in 1998 in San Agustín, Etla, Oaxaca. Francisco Benjamín López Toledo is a famous Mexican artist who helped establish this paper making co-op and he commissions their paper to use in his art practice. He got them a grant to create paper from only renewable sources and materials. It took 8 years of learning and organizing to establish the co-op. Today, artists come from China, Finland, Arab countries, and Japan to give paper workshops. They grow and use natural fibers from the Kapok tree (the green variety, as the black kapok tree is more rare) which is also known as the sacred Seiba tree (Tree of Life). Also used are the natural fibers of Chichicastle, agave, Majahua, white cotton, cotton Coyuche, and lion’s paw.
The fibers are boiled first with bicarbonate of soda. A big machine – Hollander beaters – is used to further break down the fiber pulp. Lots of water is used for soaking the fibers and water also helps with the swishing of the pulp when it is screened. The used water is filtered and strained and treated so it’s fit to consume and arrives in Oaxaca City via tank transport. Another part of their goal to leave a low footprint is met by not using catalyzer agents and using only natural fibers. The pulp screening involves a technique of swishing the liquid from side to side and then up and down in order to cross stitch the fibers, thereby evening out and strengthening the paper. This workshop has their own watermark embedded in the screen which leaves its mark in either base or high relief; Its design is a heart with a swimmer approaching. After swishing in the boxed screen, they press the water out with big sheets of felt (using synthetic/industrial felt as its easier to peel off, doesn’t decompose as fast, and it gets reused). Then the pressed pulp is turned out onto a big zinc tin-sheet to dry. The tin-sheets are cut from recycled materials like construction siding. In this step you can press decorative indentations into it, add decorative leaves or shiny mica bits. We also saw molded paper hanging to dry which were portraits of historical Zapotec or Mixtec leaders we’d seen at one of the archeological sites we’d already visited.
Tree bark might decompose in water for 5 years before its ready to use, so this paper is pricey. Today’s cost is 300 or 400 pesos for a 2’x3′ sheet of handmade paper, though the strength of the US dollar made it very affordable for us to buy, so I brought back a rolled up indigo blue sheet in my suitcase. There is a kind of Japanese seed that is made into gel that uses less fiber and makes a thinner, yet very strong paper. They can’t get it directly from Japan because of customs limits but a seller in Santa Anna, California, makes it available to them in powder form. That lighter weight paper is the kind I bought from their shop. Other items in their shop included paper kites and blank paper journals with screened prints, many of the designs made by Francisco Toledo, and also jewelry made from rolled paper beads. You can see photos of the paper making process and some of the gift shop items at: http://www.mexicoartshow.com/artepapel.html