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Introduction

photo of the Sierra del Carmen mountains
The Sierra del Carmen mountains rise in the distance above the Rio Grande floodplain, a winding and sometimes treacherous boundary between Texas and Mexico. Although the area is not noted for economic productivity, the stony hillslopes and canyons are a natural habitat for the wax-producing desert plants, candelilla. Photo by Susan Dial.
map showing primary concentration of cadelilla plants and wax production
Primary concentration of candelilla plants and wax production in west Texas and northern Mexico at the time of surveys by Texas Historical Commission (THC) archeologists. Click to enlarge.
photo of smoke rising over a river
A plume of smoke rises over the river bank, alerting surveyors to the presence of a small wax camp. Photo by Curtis Tunnell. Click to enlarge.
photo of burros along a river
Burros bolt away from a wax maker in a riverside camp piled high with cut candelilla. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.

The Chihuahuan Desert reaches its northern limit in southern New Mexico, includes all of trans-Pecos Texas except the Guadalupe Mountains, and extends southward through the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila in Mexico. This vast area is not noted for its economic productivity. Of course, most areas serve very well for ranching, with sheep and goats being more widely accommodated than cattle and horses. Small amounts of silver, mercury, fluorspar, coal, sand, gravel, and petroleum have been laboriously extracted in some sections. Minor products include furs, honey, ornamental cactus, rope fiber, rubber from guayule, hunting leases for deer and antelope, tourism, and a modest amount of garden produce, corn, and cotton from irrigated plots along the rivers.

Perhaps the most interesting and one of the most economically profitable activities has been the extraction of wax from the candelilla plant. Since the first decade of this century, many millions of pounds of this high quality wax have been removed from wild plants and marketed in dozens of common products. Much of the wax production has been in Mexico, but, over the years, varying quantities have been refined and marketed along the international boundary in Texas. Many people have subsisted along the Rio Grande by making wax, and a few have grown rich through marketing.

The camps of the candelilla wax makers are one of the most common types of cultural sites along the Rio Grande. During an initial archeological reconnaissance through the canyons in 1964 as part of a thousand-mile survey of the river known as the "Cactus Cruise," we began to find and record abandoned wax camps. Mounds of waste candelilla cascading over the edge of a silt terrace often indicated site locations, and these were recorded by means of sketches, notes, and photographs.

Along the river there were many stories about burro trains of wax smuggled across and sold to representatives of the big floor-wax companies. One day in the depths of a canyon, a column of smoke led us to a wax camp in full operation, and the fascinating story of a fugitive industry began to be revealed. In intervening years numerous camps from different decades have been recorded and many good people have consented to interviews. The stories of candelilla wax and evidence remaining in the camps have become a permanent part of the heritage of the Chihuahuan Desert.

The wax camps are an interesting cultural phenomenon for many reasons and one that might be studied from varying points of view. The economic botanist, for example, might view the wax camps as a specialized industry based on exploitation of a single desert plant species. Historians see the wax industry as a significant element in the opening of the last frontier. The anthropologist and sociologist would find material for study in the transient nature of the camps and the fact that they are occupied by males only*, who live under primitive conditions. The folklorist who is fluent in both Spanish and English would no doubt find the camps a goldmine of information, ranging from cures and costumes to tales of bandits and heroes along the river.

For the archeologist, the wax camps are doubly interesting, being an excellent source of cultural data and insights in their own right and serving also as a veritable experimental laboratory for generating and testing hypotheses relating to prehistoric sites in the region, and the whole is enhanced by the fact that active camps can be compared to those that have been abandoned for various periods of time.

For all those who are concerned with the documentation and preservation of cultural resources, all aspects of the wax camps and those who live and work in them are significant. The era of the candelilla camps may one day come to a close, and it is important that this fascinating facet of our culture be documented and studied in detail. We can learn valuable cultural and environmental lessons by studying the camps. Perhaps most important of all, from the cereros—the wax makers—we can learn about hard work, productivity, adaptation, ingenuity, persistence, pride, endurance, determination, and survival against great odds.

*{Editor's Note: In the section entitled, "The Industry Today," researcher and historian JoAnn Pospisil brings new information to bear on what has long been considered a "male only" industry.}

photo of canyon walls
Looming canyon walls cast a shadow over THC surveyors as they maneuver down a stretch of the Rio Grande. During the archeological reconnaissance tagged the "Cactus Cruise," surveyors began to find and record abandoned wax camps. Photo courtesy Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.

We can learn valuable cultural and environmental lessons by studying the camps. Perhaps most important of all, from the cereros we can learn about hard work, productivity, adaptation, ingenuity, persistence, pride, endurance, determination, and survival against great odds.

map of wax camp sites
Locations of wax camp sites, factories, and buyers at the time of the 1960s survey of the Rio Grande canyons. Map courtesy of Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.