University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

The Candelilleros and Their Camps

photo of cereos in front of tents
Cereros squat in front of their temporary shelter thatched with candelilla. The workers are masters at improvising, using resources from the land for shelter, tools, and food, and recycling manufactured products for other uses. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of candlillero
Leaning on his pitchfork, a worker takes a break from pitching weed into the vat. While early candelilleros wore khaki clothing, tire-tread sandals and a handmade hat from Mexico, today's workers wear blue jeans, imitation leather shoes and a western hat or baseball cap. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to see full image.
photo of a cerero and his burro
A cerero and his burro relax for a moment. Some of the workers are family men who travel back to their villages from time to time to see their families and get supplies. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.

If you are wanting to buy a burro it is always worth 100 dollars, and if you are wanting to sell one it is always worth 25 dollars.

photo of pots of a wax maker's meal
A wax maker's meal, consisting of black coffee, beans, and tortillas. At times, the workers supplement their diet with wild game and plants, such as hearts of desert lechuguilla or sotol, which they slow-bake in hot ashes. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of a handmade bag
A bag handmade from cordage twisted from fibers from the desert lechuguilla plant. Photo by Cutrtis Tunnell.

I was walking with a wax collector one time when the candelilla load began to shift on the burro. The man stepped over to a torre yucca and stripped off some fibers with his fingernail and twisted them into a crude cord and tied the candelilla load to the packsaddle more securely.

photo of handmade sandals
Handmade sandals with soles made of tire treads. Modern wax makers tend to wear factory-made shoes. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.

Wax Makers: Conditions and Wages

Wax makers are called cereros or candelilleros or occasionally paileros and are always men. There is a conspicuous absence of women in the camps. The occupation of wax maker is one that many men along the border have practiced at one time or another, and a few men work at the wax vats for years.

All wax makers come from Mexico. You couldn't get people in this country to make wax if it was worth five dollars per pound. You can't just hire anyone to make wax, they need to have had experience. It is very hard work and relatively few men can do it well. The men have to have tough hands and a strong back to pull candelilla. They never use gloves and you can tell by looking at their hands if a man has worked with wax a long time. According to Davis Adams in a 1980 interview, experienced men can get more wax from each ton of weed and get more wax with less acid.

Some of the cereros are family men who travel back to their villages—Las Norias, Boquillas, Santa Elena, El Mulato—periodically to visit their families, attend mass, and get supplies. Others are young men who are wanting to learn a trade, earn sufficient money to go to a city like Ojinaga or Juarez, or, more likely, head north as illegal aliens. A few are drifters or men outside the law and are hostile toward strangers with cameras or hide in the rocks to avoid such contacts.

Generally cereros work eight to ten hours per day and six days per week. Sometimes the men will work for 20 or 30 days straight and then quit and go to nearby towns "to see the girls and get alcohol." They also like to observe all manner of religious and political holidays. Some men may go well down into Mexico to visit family or attend weddings. Their usual mode of travel is by burro or "they just walk."

A good wax maker can gather the plants for, and extract about 1,000 pounds of wax per month if he works at it. One man can make wax by himself, doing everything from gathering the plants to the final boiling and bagging, but usually at least two men work together. Men of the same family (for example, a man and his sons or several brothers) often work together on a crew.' When the price is right the men produce wax the year round; however, slightly more wax is produced in winter than in summer.

The men are paid a little more if they provide their own burros, but a foreman or rancher always has extra burros on hand. When asked the price of a burro, one informant said: "If you are wanting to buy a burro it is always worth $100, and if you are wanting to sell one it is always worth $25." He estimated a good average price in 1980 to be about $50.

Adams said wax makers on his ranch will work hard until they have made $200 or $300 in a month, then they begin to slack off. If they worked hard all month they could make as much as $600, but they don't seem interested in making as much money as possible each month. He believes that, generally, the standard of living of the wax makers is much better than it used to be, and that "some day if Mexico becomes sufficiently affluent, no one will want to produce candelilla wax.," Adams said. "You gotta have a commissary if you're going to produce wax." He said he always sells groceries to the men because they have no other place to get them. "You can't just provide them with food because if you do they will use a pound of coffee per day, but when they have to buy it themselves a pound of coffee will last them for a week."

The most common items which he sells to the men include coffee, beans, potatoes, flour, black pepper, salt, canned tomatoes, vermicelli, lard, roll-your-own tobacco, onions, and chile peppers. He said it is rare for the men to have meat, but occasionally they may have a chicken or a goat if those can be acquired cheaply from a nearby homestead. They also kill javelina hogs on the ranch but are not permitted to kill deer. Traps are used by the men, since they are not permitted to have guns on the ranch. Adams said that, since he also forbids the wax makers to have liquor, things are fairly quiet on the ranch.

Adaptation and Improvisation

Cereros take little in the way of material possessions with them to the camp. An iron wax vat with grate, burros and packsaddles, machetes, burlap bags, rope, jars of acid, a few cooking pots, staple food, and a change of clothes make up the usual inventory. The men are masters at improvisation, adaptation, and "living off the land." This is perhaps best illustrated by the shelters that they find or fabricate. The cereros' use of the candelilla is especially noteworthy, for not only does the plant produce the wax and provide fuel for the vats, the wax makers also use it for their beds and as thatching for various types of shelters. The types of shelters and their methods of construction are discussed in the section on camps below.

Candelilleros fabricate many of the tools they use for work, the implements they use in cooking, and even the clothing they wear. Pack saddles often are made from pieces of driftwood held together with rope, pegs, and salvaged nails. An acid dipper consists of a small can or jar tied in the fork of a stick. A wax skimmer is made from a flattened tin can perforated with a nail and attached to a handle with wire and nails. Pitchforks for stoking candelilla into the fire are carved from forked mesquite branches. If no wheelbarrow is available, candelilla is stacked on two parallel poles and carried between two men.

A griddle for tortillas is made by cutting the flat end from a steel drum. Wooden pegs are cut and driven into shelter walls for hanging clothing and food. A hanging wire serves to keep food out of the reach of rats. Sandals are fabricated from the tread of old tires, and shoes may be repaired and reused as long as bent nails will sustain them. Leggings of raw goat skins are sometimes used to reduce the painful wounds inflicted by lechuguilla and Spanish daggers on the gathering slopes. Plastic bleach bottles lost by fishermen are the usual water canteens seen around camps and carried on burros.
One informant, Bob Burleson, described an example of spontaneous inventiveness:

I was walking with a wax collector one time when the candelilla load began to shift on the burro. The man stepped over to a torre yucca and stripped off some fibers with his fingernail and twisted them into a crude cord and tied the candelilla load to the packsaddle more securely.

Sotol and lechuguilla are readily available sources of good fibers for twisting into twine and rope, which are used in the harvesting of the weed, fabrication of bags and shelters, repair of tools and clothing, and for many other purposes. We have seen piles of leaves and quids from both species where hungry cereros have baked the plants in hot ashes at the front of fire pits and feasted on the nourishing hearts. Our field party baked hearts of both plants in an earth oven for 20 hours and found them to be soft, quite palatable, and almost tasty.

For the most part the wax makers have been friendly and cooperative with our field crews, permitting us freely to take photographs, ask numerous questions in broken Spanish, wander around camp, draw maps, and pet burros. An occasional small mordida of cold beer or money improved communications and helped compensate the workers for time lost in conversation.

The Camps

You couldn't get people in this country to make wax if it was worth five dollars per pound.

photo of weathered hands
The weathered hands of a wax maker, breaking up chunks of raw cerote with a stone. Candelilleros need tough hands and a strong back for the job. Photo by Raymond Skiles.
photo of a man sitting on weed
Resting against an enormous mound of weed, candelilleros pose for photographer Curtis Tunnell. Click to see full image.

Cereros take little in the way of material possessions with them to the camp. They are masters at improvisation, adaptation, and "living off the land."

drawing of a griddle
Camp necessities. A griddle for cooking tortillas is a must-have item in the camps. This one was made from the end of a steel drum. A wooden tortilla roller and cut cane cigarettes are in foreground. Drawing by Sharon Roos, THC.
photo of lechugilla plant
Fibers from the spikey leaves of desert plants such as lechuguilla (shown) and yucca can be quickly stripped and made into cording for rope or knotted into carrying bags. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
photo of wax skimmers
Two well-used wax skimmers handmade from tin cans. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of crero
A hard-working cerero enjoying a small "mordida" of cold beer offered as a small token of gratitude by archeologists who interviewed them and photographed their work. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of an abandoned camp
Abandoned wax camps are familiar sites along the Rio Grande. Many are reused after the candelilla stands have grown back in the area. Note the steel wax-boiling vat (overturned, at left) and the sagging remains of a ramada, or shelter, on right. This camp is in Santa Elena Canyon. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of a worker
A worker continues to boil wax despite Rio Grande flood waters within inches of entering the firebox. The processing stations are typically located immediately beside the river to have easy access to water; camp and sleeping areas are set further back. Photo by Raymond Skiles, Boquillas Canyon, 2002. Click to see full image.
photo of a seasoned wax worker
A seasoned wax maker loads a vat with weed. In some camps, there is often an older, master wax maker who is nominally in charge of operations. Photo by Raymond Skiles.
 
 
 

Location and Features

Rarely, a wax operation may be set up sufficiently near a settlement that the men can commute from their homes to the production area, but most such locations were exhausted long ago. By far the most common pattern is for several men, three or four to eight or ten, to take their vats and donkeys into a remote can-yon area where candelilla is abundant and establish a camp, which they may use continuously for months and intermittently for years.

A few camps may be found near springs, tinajas (potholes), or windmills, but the majority, even those in out-of-the-way places in the canyons, are located near the river. The camps occur on both sides of the Rio Grande and seem to be situated according to convenience with no consideration of the international boundary. The vats usually are placed immediately beside the river on the first terrace, about 6 or 7 feet above normal river flow and 10 to 12 feet back from the terrace edge. Living areas may be from 30 to 100 feet farther back on the same level but are more often on the edge of the second silt terrace. The area of the camps varies from about a quarter acre to as much as two acres, with most of the area devoted to stockpiles of candelilla awaiting processing and spent weed drying for fuel.

The most prominent features in the camps include vats and firepits, deeply worn trails, piles of ashes, sleeping shelters, candelilla stock-piles, yerba seca (cooked candelilla) piles, sun-shades or ramadas of various types, brush fences, and burned areas in brush and cane along the river. The most obvious activity area in a camp is the area where the weed is processed. The living area where the men sleep and cook is also clearly delimited in most camps. Occasionally there may be an area where the burros are maintained. Trash seems to be scattered randomly about rather than deposited in a systematic way.

Work Organization

There are various types of organization in the wax camps. Some camps are composed of several individuals who gather weed for themselves and take a "turn" at the wax pit when they have stockpiled sufficient candelilla. Other camps, especially those on ejidos, consist of a group of men working in common and sharing in the profits of the operation. A few camps belong to one man, a rancher or jefe, who pays wages or a commission on the wax to the workers. Adams said there were from five to seven camps producing wax on his ranch in 1980, and these are operated according to a modified commission plan. He has a foreman who buys wax from the camps and then sells it to Adams, and the man makes about 10 cents per pound for the transaction, Adams finds it necessary to buy the wax by the sack even though it is produced on his land, because if he paid the candelilleros to produce it, he would not get as much for his money. Buying wax produced from his own weed costs the same per pound as wax brought from Mexico.

Job assignments in the camps vary. In some, men seem to have particular jobs—stoking the fire, carrying water, skimming the vat, breaking wax blocks, bagging cerote—and the jobs have different status within the group. In other camps chaos seems to reign, with different men doing different jobs at different times and some obviously doing more than their fair share. There often is one older man, the master wax maker, who is nominally in charge.

Shelters

The most prominent features in the camps include vats and firepits, deeply worn trails, piles of ashes, sleeping shelters, candelilla stock-piles, yerba seca (cooked candelilla) piles, sun-shades of various types, brush fences, and burned areas in brush and cane along the river.

photo of a camp
A camp beneath the trees with a makeshift storage platform. Note the plastic carrying bag hanging in the tree at left, a more common sight now in wax camps. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
photo of a worker
Squatting in front of the boiling vat, a worker skims waxy foam off the top. Some camps have assigned tasks for workers, and the jobs have a different status within the group. Photo by Curtis Tunnell.
 
 
drawing of wax camp
Wax camp above Mariscal Canyon. Note cerrero's beds "under the stars" on stacks of candelilla at center and shelters in overhanging cliffs at left. Drawing by Sharon Roos, THC.

In pleasant weather the wax makers usually prepare meals on open hearths and sleep on top of candelilla piles under star-filled skies.

drawing of a cliff shelter
A small cavity in a limestone cliff has been turned into a compact shelter for a wax maker. Front view (A) and overhead view (B). Drawing by Sharon Roos, THC.

In pleasant weather the wax makers usually prepare meals on open hearths and sleep on top of candelilla piles under star-filled skies. However, shelters are always provided in the camps for those nights when rain storms rumble through the canyons or cold north winds bring chill and frost.

Rockshelters are the quickest, easiest, and most durable type of shelter available in the desert, and the cereros never miss an opportunity to use them. In some areas, small cavities and crevices in limestone serve as individual living units, which may be furnished with candelilla and burlap-bag beds, pegs, and a rat wire for protection of food. These shelters serve well in the most inclement weather. More commonly, overhanging cliffs provide partial shelter for camps and storage of possessions.

Simple to fabricate and reasonably effective shelters are prepared under convenient mesquite trees. Branches are chopped from the underside of two or three large overhanging branches, and the shelters are thoroughly thatched with candelilla and cardboard when available. A candelilla bed and cobble-lined hearth complete the living unit, which is effective in a rain but gives little shelter from cold wind.

photo of ocotillo plant
An ocotillo plant in fiery bloom looms over a stand of candelilla. Limbs of the ocotillo are used as poles in the waxmakers' camp shelters. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
Plan map of wax camps
A wax camp where workers constructed mesquite shelters in Boquillas Canyon. Note fence made of thorn bushes at left, encircling the processing area. Drawing by Sharon Roos, THC.
drawing of a house made of plants
A "house" made of plants. This typical wax maker's shelter, shaped like a pup tent, is made of poles from the desert ocotillo plant, is tied with cording of lechuguilla fibers, and is thatched with candelilla. Front view and side view. Drawing by Sharon Roos, THC.
photo of a steel vat
A rusted steel wax vat is lodged in the sand, after having been washed away by a flood. River camps always run the risk of losing vats during floods. Photo by Raymond Skiles.
photo of waxmakers
Waiting for the wax to boil. When not actively engaged in processing, waxmakers spend much of their time standing or squatting. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.

At sites where high silt terraces face the wax-producing ground, substantial dugout shelters may be prepared. These have well-smoothed walls with niches and pegs for storage and unlimited potential for graffiti. The roofs are made with wooden support poles and vigas thatched with thick layers of candelilla interspersed with cardboard and rags. Candelilla beds and cobble-lined hearths are on the floor. These dugouts provide adequate shelter for most weather and may survive for years in a desert environment.

Another type of fabricated shelter is about the size and shape of a pup tent. This type is made from a framework of wooden and ocotillo poles tied together with lechuguilla fibers and thatched with candelilla. A candelilla bed and plastic water bottle constitute the furnishings. Hearths are not compatible with these shelters, which provide only moderate protection from rain and cold.

Wax Vats

Like the shelters improvised by the workers, the equipment used in making wax varies from camp to camp and according to circumstance. A large wax vat (called a paila or occasionally caldera by the cereros) may be made from half a steel boiler cut lengthwise or fabricated from sheet steel in a welding shop in one of the larger cities. In some camps the vats are provided by the wax refiner and do not belong to the cereros who use them. The vats vary in size and shape but may be about 6 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet in depth. A heavy steel grate is attached at either end by loop hinges and, after much stomping to submerge the weed, a lever clamps the grate at the center to hold the load in place until the wax is boiled off. The vats and grates can be used for years, although they frequently need patching or small repairs.

A small wax vat made from half an oil drum cut lengthwise was seen tied between two wooden poles and carried by two burros. It was designed for easy transport into a remote niche where a tinaja of rainwater would support a brief rendering operation. A grate of hardwood sticks was used to submerge the weed in this small vat.

Modern Conveniences

Certain categories of things, which we who are accustomed to a more affluent existence might expect to find in wax camps, have never been observed there. Trucks, although used to haul weed to some of the early factories, are not in evidence. We have never seen a motor vehicle, or remains of one, in camps along the river. Devices for marking the passage of time such as radios, calendars, clocks, and watches have not been recorded there. Basic tools such as axes, hammers, and saws are apparently replaced by machetes and hammerstones. Lighting devices such as flashlights, candles, lanterns, and lamps have never been seen in the camps; moonlight and a campfire suffice at night. The convenience of boats, mattresses, and even gloves cannot be afforded by the cereros; nor can eye glasses, finger rings, dishes, and flatware. For those who live standing up and working or sleeping on the ground, there is no need for chairs and tables. Common domestic animals such as dogs, cats, and chickens have not been observed. The sharp eye of a master wax maker judges the weight of bags of wax in lieu of scales. Even such inexpensive conveniences as books, paper, pencils, and soap are apparently beyond the means of or simply not desired by cereros.

drawing of shelter
Fabric or blankets are often draped over the shelters to provide another layer of insulation. Drawing by Sharon Roos, THC.

For those who live standing up and working or sleeping on the ground, there is no need for chairs and tables.