Cochineal Bugs, Alebrijes, and Mexican Arts: Oaxaca’s Rich Indian Heritage. Part 2

Bugs in your mug? In your Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino maybe? Or your pink tequila?

Picture these squashed creatures in your drink:

cochineal bugs

Humongous yuk factor, right? But it’s not really these bugs you’ll see. It’s the color they impart. One thing you can reassure yourself about—it’s natural, not one of those chemical dyes with toxic components that manufacturers will tell you aren’t large enough to kill you.

So what is this bug? It’s the cochineal bug, a natural dye source that’s been used centuries before those artificial chemical dyes. Before this bug laced your mugs, it seeped into some rugs. You got it—bugs in a rug. They’re responsible for the reds in the rugs in many rooms at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles in France.

They have also been used for artisanal-produced Oaxacan rugs at Teotitlan del valle in Mexico.

As you see above, cochineal bugs are small creatures that look like cactus seeds (and initially mistaken for them). In Oaxaca, our artisan-host started his demonstration of rug weaving by throwing a handful of dried cochineal bugs into stone metate which he ground to a powder using a stone rolling pin. Apparently you don’t use them alive or newly-dead. Just dried. Ground, it brings out their dark brick red color. If your curiosity has been piqued by these fascinating bugs, Wikipedia gives you research-based information.

Our artisan-host put a bit of ground bugs into an acidified solution, which immediately turned bright red orange. Then, he dispersed another pinch into an alkalized solution, which turned purplish red. Oaxacan rug weavers use other plant parts—flowers, barks, and roots—to produce colors like yellows and blues.

In addition to rugs, Oaxaca is known for black pottery, hand-embroidered textiles, and whimsical, brightly-painted wooden creatures called alebrijes. Created only since the 1930s from the dreams of Mexican folk artist Pedro Linares, alebrijes are not really a traditional craft. But they can be stunning souvenirs or gifts.

Native crafts aren’t the only pride of Oaxaca. It has produced a few of the best-known Mexican artists, notably Rufino Tamayo. We met another artist putting his work up at a gallery. He acknowledged being “muy conocido” and has exhibited several times in San Francisco. He has the very un-Oaxacan name of Didier on account of his French ancestry.

The Spaniards conquered Mexico, staying three hundred years. They left a lasting legacy of Catholicism that deeply spiritual Zapotecs and Mixtas (most of the population) adopted. But they’ve infused that faith with their native traditions.

We were treated to a couple of processions on the streets of the old centro historico. Locals told us this happened often because this was how Oaxaqueñans honor their saints.

One procession was particularly colorful and festive. All kinds of lilies, roses and dahlias in vibrant shades of red, yellow and orange sat atop baskets on the heads of women in native costumes of loose white muslins embroidered with equally colorful flowers. Men sauntered toward spectators, offering plastic cups of mezcal. A decorated car threw candies at the crowd.

Religion gave an occasion to celebrate and celebrations were not limited to processions. At the Zocalo, the town square, a few people were handing out flyers for a free concert—one that surprised us. A Schubert mass and Handel’s Messiah in the beautiful church of Santo Domingo.

We hurried to the place and were glad we did. It was an amazing experience. The acoustics was the best we have had in a church maybe because of the colorful embossed decorations that covered nearly every inch of the walls and the high ceiling of the church. The director had impeccable credentials and his choir sang its heart out in a rousing, evocative Hallelujah.

The rich cultural life in Oaxaca also includes Teatro Macedonio Alcala where we watched a modern dance performance of Carmen and met a young couple from Poland. The production had an enticing, sensual Carmen and a contemporary interpretation of the Opera that made the dance quite compelling and a joy to watch.

We met the Polish couple, by coincidence, the next night when they called to us as they were languidly passing time over beer at a sidewalk café at the Zocalo. We spent a few hours in lively conversation. He spoke very good English, was well-informed, and had strong opinions. And, of course, he works for an American company in Warsaw.

It goes without saying that we had a wonderful cultural visit in Oaxaca.

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