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Wax, Men, and Money:
Candelilla Wax Camps along the Rio Grande

Collage of scenic panorama, modern waxmakers and a man with burros
Candelilla wax makers of yesterday and today, shown against a backdrop of the rugged Rio Grande canyonlands where the valuable plant thrives. Photo credits: Scenic panorama and modern waxmakers (forefront, left and right) by Raymond Skiles. Photo of man with burros, courtesy of Big Bend National Park, National Park Service.
photo of candelilla plant
Pencil-like stalks of blooming candelilla stand in silhouette against the blue desert sky. A source of high-quality wax used in many common products, the desert plant is still harvested and processed in traditional ways involving rigorous labor. Photo by Glenn Evans, courtesy Texas Memorial Museum, University of Texas at Austin.
photo of Curtis Tunnell
Former State Archeologist and Executive Director of the Texas Historical Commission Curtis D. Tunnell. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
sketch of a candelillero and his burro
Cover of the 1981 wax camps report by Curtis Tunnell for the Texas Historical Commission. Drawing of candelillero and his heavily laden burro by Sharon Roos.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Texas Historical Commission archeologists surveying the rugged west Texas lands along the Rio Grande river encountered a fascinating small-scale industry centered around an inconspicuous wild plant known as candelilla. While growth of the stalky, leafless plant is ruled largely by the whims of nature, the harvesting and extraction of the product—a high-quality wax—is dependent solely upon the ingenuity and sweat of Mexican laborers following decades-old traditions.

Then as now, the industry seems almost shockingly primitive in our crisply modern and mechanized world, particularly given the value and world-wide usage of the product. Wax makers (candelilleros)—many of them working alone in remote areas—cut massive stacks of the weed by hand, then boil it in jerry-rigged metal vats to extract the wax. Once cured, the raw wax is stuffed into huge burlap bags and hauled down dusty trails on the backs of small burros. Although a few workers have acquired trucks to expedite the process, paying for gasoline is another matter, and there are no trucks to equal the nimble burros in areas where there are no roads.

From these crude origins, the wax is delivered to buyers, refined in factories, and ultimately distributed into an international market where it will become a key ingredient in floor wax, cosmetics, candles, chewing gum, and other items. Though unknown to most of us, candelilla wax has touched all our lives in a small way through products such as these.

The late Curtis Tunnell, former State Archeologist of Texas and Executive Director of the Texas Historical Commission, was a leader of those early survey expeditions along the Rio Grande. Over a decade's time, he developed a fascination with the industry and an abiding admiration for the self-reliant wax makers. His conversations, interviews, and research led to a remarkable study published by the commission in 1981.

In the following exhibits, we take a look at the wax makers and their way of life as Tunnell observed and wrote about them roughly two decades ago. The text of his report is followed closely throughout. In the Introduction, we learn how an archeological survey project was transformed into a much richer, transcultural experience. The History section tracks the wax-making industry back to the turn of the century when enterprising businessmen with an eye for new opportunities moved onto the desert frontier. In "From Desert Plants to Dollars," a fully illustrated Techniques section takes the reader step-by-step through the wax-making process, followed by a look at the resourceful Candelilleros and their camps—fascinating constructions of desert plant materials and scavenged metal containers.

Historian and ethnographic researcher JoAnn Pospisil provides an update on the current state of the wax-making industry and new perspectives on traditionally held views about women's roles in the process. New restrictions and trade agreements such as NAFTA as well as border closings following the events of Septempber 11, 2001, have necessitated a number of shifts in the way the workers now operate.

Finally, in Tunnell's Journey, we look back over the life and career of Curtis Tunnell through recollections and tributes of some of his friends and colleagues at the THC.

The exhibits are illustrated by Tunnell's exceptional black and white photos and the charming drawings by Sharon Roos of the THC. New photos by Pospisil, Big Bend wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles, and others bring color and additional views of the industry, the people, and the ruggedly beautiful west Texas landscape to the presentation.

The Wax Camps exhibits on Texas Beyond History were supported by a grant through the Curtis Tunnell Memorial Award, Friends of the Texas Historical Commission. In these exhibits, TBH reflects Tunnell's appreciation for lesser-known, traditional cultures and pushes across political and geographic boundaries to provide a larger, more-meaningful context for understanding our state's rich cultural heritage.

In a small way, candelilla wax has touched all our lives, though unknown to most of us, through a variety of products.

photos of lipstick and gum, as well as their ingredients
Cosmetics and gum are just two of the common products made with candelilla wax.

Click images to enlarge

photo of the Chihahuan desert
The often harsh landscape of the Chihuahuan desert can be transformed into a scene of breathtaking beauty after a rain. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of  a young girl
A young girl brings water from the Rio Grande to the riverbank village of La Caldera. New photos such as this, contributed by Big Bend wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles, add color and new perspectives to Tunnell's original 1981 report.