Wars have been waged, tributes paid, and civilizations overturned because of cochineal. Cochineal is one of the most valuable commodities on earth. Some say, it is more costly per ounce than gold. For the uninitiated, cochineal is used to dye fiber RED (and purple, pink, orange, and all shades in-between). Remember the Red Coats of the British Army — their coats were dyed with cochineal. Yes, cochineal is a “parasite,” I reply in response to a question recently asked. Aztecs had exacted fealty payments in cochineal from Zapotec and Mixtec subjects long before Cortes conquered southern Mexico. However, not soon after, the Spanish created a controlled world monopoly on the commerce of cochineal. The holds of galleons were filled with tons of dried powder to export to Europe, as a royal and middle class sought to bedeck themselves in red — symbol of power and prestige.
Where does cochineal come from?
A beetle grows and develops on the fleshy leaf of the prickly pear cactus. It becomes imbedded, morphs from male to female, lays its eggs, multiplies, and after about three months of development is ready to be harvested. In Teotitlan people call this beetle a bug. The bug is picked off by hand, dried, and then crushed. It is about the size of an ant. If you pick a live bug off the cactus, put it in the palm of your hand and crush it, it oozes a deep, rich red, like the color of blood. Add lime juice or ash and watch a color transformation. It takes a g-zillion little dried bugs to make an ounce of powder. In the Chavez home, they crush the bugs by hand with a mortar and pestle.
Oaxacan rugs and textiles dyed with cochineal are much more expensive because of the cost of the dye. One can pay up to 50 percent more for a piece that is all naturally dyed with cochineal. Because of the costs, cultivation and preparation time, most weavers in response to market demands for cheaper goods, have put aside the traditional methods of dyeing with cochineal and are using aniline (commercial synthetic) dyes instead.
Oaxaca, once the center for cochineal cultivation, has been surplanted by Peru which produces the largest quantity of cochineal in the world. With renewed interest in cochineal by weavers, the cochineal farm just outside of Oaxaca city is cultivating and selling the little bugs. You can even find souvenir packets of them in gift shops on Alcala Macedonia.