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The Industry Today: The Strength of Tradition

Photo of workers at a wax camp near San Carlos, Chihuahua, Mexico
Workers at a wax camp near San Carlos, Chihuahua, Mexico, with a ramada for shade. Because women were not observed working in the wax camps during the 1970s survey by Curtis Tunnell and other THC archeologists, it was assumed that wax working was a male-only profession. However, a number of "candelilleras" (female workers)—several of whom learned the trade as children—were interviewed in the 1990s and more recently for this exhibit. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
Photo of candelillera Vidalia Castillo and her family
Although as a child she did not work candelilla with her father, candelillera Vidalia Castillo (far right) today works alongside husband Jose Tápia Pacheco. Daughter Morima (center) also helps. Son Luis is still too young. Las Norias, Coahuila, Mexico. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.
Photo of candelilla and lechuguilla
Candelilla and lechuguilla growing on an extremely rocky slope near Peguis Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico. Stunted growth is due to the thin and rocky soil. The very light gray color of the candelilla indicates a heavy wax coating developed by the plant to conserve moisture in this extremely arid and harsh environment. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
Photo of a candelilla bundle
A "tercio" (bundle) of candelilla, securely bound by a "hondilla" or "tarabilla" and slip knot. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
Photo of a burro
Idle burro near a well with the spectacular Sierra del Carmens in the background. Las Norias, Coahuila, Mexico. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.
List of uses for candelilla wax
Uses for candelilla wax, 1910 to present. Click to see full image.

{Editor's Note: This section by historian and researcher JoAnn Pospisil provides new perspectives on the wax-making industry, with an update on changes that have occurred since Curtis Tunnell conducted his study in the 1960s-1970s. It is based on Pospisil's numerous trips with THC steward Enrique Madrid to camps predominately in Mexico, where they visited with accomplished candelilleros, including, surprisingly, several women.}

Candelilla wax remains an important economic cash commodity in the Big Bend region, especially in the rural areas of northern Mexico. Tradition plays a strong role in the methods used by families engaged in the industry. The most efficient harvesting and field processing practices are handed down from generation to generation and remain largely unchanged since commercialization of this natural resource in 1910.

The candelilleros teach their sons and daughters how plant regeneration is assured by the proper harvesting techniques, why correct bundling is important for successful transport of the harvested plant to the processing camp, how to use a honda to tie the secure slip knot that will allow the rope around each bundle later to be removed with ease, and why, when, and how much sulfuric acid or ash to add to the vat of boiling water from which the candelilla wax is skimmed.

This vegetable resource flourishes at elevations between 1100 and 3800 feet on well-drained, south-facing limestone slopes. Through the years, attempts to commercialize plant production have failed. Irrigation reduces the plant's waxy protective coating. Mechanical cutting causes the milky sap to drain and the plant to die, thus lengthening propagation. The fastest recovery is from rhizomes left in the soil when the candelilla plant is pulled up by hand.

The industry is restricted spatially to the Chihuahuan Desert's mountainous Big Bend region of Texas and northern Mexico. Locals report that before the severe drought in the 1950s there were candelilla stands as thick as wheat. Harvesting and more recent droughts have diminished this previous abundance, but recovery continues. Since the organization of Big Bend National Park in 1944, most of the candelilla in the United States is protected within the park boundaries. The majority harvested today comes from Mexico. Although large expanses of this scenic mountainous terrain were declared natural areas by the Mexican government, the candelilla plant is not a protected resource. Candelilla management and recovery are left to the candelilleros who are given the role of steward and expected to harvest prudently in order to preserve the continuing cash potential.

Unfortunately, the forced localization of this relatively primitive industry cannot shield it from the global political, financial, and social forces governing today's economy. Erratic market prices, fluctuating demand, and an unreliable wax supply under Mexican export restrictions and U. S. tariff policies prompted large industrial consumers to develop synthetic substitutes for this second-hardest, naturally occurring vegetable wax. Although demand has declined, prices have enjoyed a generally upward trend since the 1970s, as is shown in the graph.

In an attempt to gain control of the resource, the Mexican government nationalized the industry in 1935. Local government units called municipios were divided into ejidos with wax production reserved for the resident ejidatarios. Large commercial producers employing their own crews simultaneously were given permits to harvest and process candelilla.

This created a treacherous environment for the competing independent producers whose camp locations were disclosed to the more powerful commercial interests by American buyers, among others, in exchange for bribes and kickbacks. These small operations often were destroyed with the workers sometimes thrown into the fire or brutally restrained while their camp was burned, equipment demolished, and burros shot. Mexican rangers called forestales demolished any camps found in close proximity to the river because they automatically assumed an intent to smuggle the wax directly across the Rio Grande.

Candelilla's conservation and managed commercial exploitation is becoming increasingly important as the population continues to swell along the northern Mexican border. Survival in this arid environment with its paucity of resources becomes ever more tentative.

Photo of Juan Avila carving a curved wooden honda
Juan Avila carves a curved wooden "honda" used to secure the slip knot used to tighten the rope around bundles of harvested candelilla. San Antonio del Bravo, Chihuahua, Mexico. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
map of transpecos and Big Bend area
The Trans-Pecos and Big Bend area with points of interest. Click to enlarge.
Candelilla volume and price graph
Candelilla volume and price graph. (Source- U.S. Dept. of Commerce: Imports of Merchandise for Consumption and General Imports of Merchandise, 2000.) Click to enlarge.
Photo of candelillera Antonia Avila
Candelillera Antonia Avila used to enjoy working outdoors and regrets that now her age prevents her from participating in strenuous tasks. She is shown at her home, with La Sierra del Ojo in the distant background where the Avila family ranch is located and where she worked in the candelilla camps with her brothers (click to see full image). Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
Photo of a candelillero emptying the vat
A young candelillero empties the vat after processing is complete, carrying the yerba seca (literally, dried herb) a short distance away from the paile (vat). The spent candelilla will be recycled as fuel for the fire to process another vat full of candelilla. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
Photo of Candelillera Maria Orozco and her family
Candelillera Maria Orozco (standing in doorway) worked from age 10 alongside her father, then worked with her husband. The family lived in brush shelters called "jacalitas" or in caves in the mountains while harvesting candelilla away from home. Her children, Julia (seated), Veronica (red shirt), and Chuy do not work with candelilla. Las Norias, Coahuila, Mexico. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.
Photo of the small town of Boquillas
The small town of Boquillas, nestled at the foot of the Sierra del Carmens, was at one time a critical port of entry. Today, due to NAFTA and security measures, the border crossing has been closed and the historic river ferry has ceased operations. Photo by Susan Dial. Click to enlarge.
photo of footbridge over the Rio Grande
Candelária, Texas. Footbridge over the Rio Grande to the village of San Antonio del Bravo, Chihuahua, Mexico. The sign to the right warns that it is illegal to enter the United States at this point. This informal crossing was in use for thousands of years before it was closed by the U.S. government in 1996. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.

The economic and cultural manifestations of the candelilleros' proud traditions have withstood past market assaults and, despite an uncertain future, the candelilla wax industry remains an important economic mainstay unique to the Big Bend region.

Curtis Tunnell visited some of the riverside camps during initial survey and study of the candelilla wax industry and observed in his 1981 report that "there is a conspicuous absence of women." However, in subsequent research, I have found that women often participated in the industry, and these female candelilleras harvested and processed candelilla alongside their fathers, grandfathers, brothers and husbands. There is no stigma attached to female participation although the form and extent varies according to local custom.

Some candelillera tasks include harvesting, handling the burros in camp and during candelilla transport, cooking food for the crew, carrying water to fill the processing vat, stomping the candelilla to pack it tightly in the vat, skimming wax, and removing the spent plant from the vat and stacking this yerba seca [literally, dried herb] away from the processing area. Candelilleras generally are strong-willed, stoic, and somewhat non-conformist with a love of the outdoors. The likelihood of violent confrontations with forestales probably accounts for the absence of women in camps near the river.

Historically, field processed candelilla wax, called cerote, was sold legally into the U. S. anywhere along the Rio Grande to American buyers who generally paid higher prices and in cash. The wax then was declared as soon as possible at a formal port of entry. Both candelilleros and U. S. buyers recount colorful incidents related to this "direct" import across the Rio Grande which clashed in mid-river with Mexican export restrictions that required all wax to be sold through the Mexican National Bank.

In the 1990s the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] eroded the independent production supported and encouraged by the ejido system. NAFTA privatized the industry which caused more centralization and increasing control by large commercial interests. In 1996 all Class B informal Rio Grande border crossings were closed by the U. S. government. Candelilleros in northern Mexican villages like Manuel Benavides [San Carlos], Boquillas, Jaboncillos and Las Norias found their small profit margin could not support transporting the wax to the relatively distant formal ports of entry at Presidio and Del Rio [see map]. These imposed market conditions forced the independent producers to sell their cerote to local Mexican buyers.

The generally lax enforcement of the 1996 Class B crossing closings ended following September 11, 2001. Presidio and Del Rio then in reality became the only legal entry points in the Big Bend region. This caused crucial tourist dollars to vanish from the economies of border villages like Boquillas, Santa Elena, and Paso Lajitas. Candelilla harvesting and wax production escalated because the candellilla wax trade became critical as the remaining legal means for participation in a cash economy. Other alternatives for replacing lost tourist dollars are not acceptable to most citizens. One option is the costly special work permit for U. S. employment along the border, perhaps in the expanding Lajitas resort. Another more lucrative but illegal and dangerous choice is drug trafficking.

Today most cerote is sold to Mexican buyers and warehoused in Mexico. Larger lots then are exported to U. S. buyers/brokers through Presidio or Del Rio, or directly to commercial consumers in the northeastern U. S., or to newly developed markets in Germany and Japan. Current prices are considerably higher than historically and often not competitive for U. S. buyers. For the past three years, Mexican buyers in the State of Chihuahua paid candelilleros 27 pesos [minus 3 pesos for social services] per kilogram, almost $6 per pound at the exchange rate of 10 pesos per U. S. dollar.

With proper management, candelilla is a renewable natural resource with myriad uses in our everyday lives [see chart]. Candelilla's conservation and managed commercial exploitation is becoming increasingly important as the population continues to swell along the northern Mexican border, and survival in this arid environment with its paucity of resources becomes ever more tentative. The economic and cultural manifestations of the candelilleros' proud traditions have withstood past market assaults and, despite an uncertain future, the candelilla wax industry remains an important economic mainstay unique to the Big Bend region.



Photo of candelillero Navidad Zubia on his mule
Candelillero Navidad Zubía on his mule. This hardy animal remains the most reliable form of transportation for hauling harvested candelilla from steep terrain in remote mountain areas. San Carlos Chihuahua, Mexico. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.

Photo of candelillera Flora Zubia Guevera
At age 13, candelillera Flora Zubía Guevera began working candelilla with her father and brothers. When they were working for another rancher, the entire family sometimes camped out for three or four nights while completing the job. Later she also worked candelilla alongside her husband. Photo taken near San Carlos, Chihuahua, Mexico, by JoAnn Pospisil.
Photo of bed with quilt outside, in front of a structure
Cool evening breezes are easier to enjoy outdoors. The colorful and durable "cubre de cama" (bed cover or quilt) is made from polyester. One man insists that all the polyester pantsuits from the 1960s and 1970s found their way to northern Mexico where they provide bright, almost indestructible quilting material. Jaboncillos, Coahuila, Mexico. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.