Candelilla Wax

In which we travel to the border.

candelilla wax
One night long after I had answered the beeswax-negative-ions question and delved into so many far-flung wax stories from ozokerite’s “Gunplay” Maxwell’s shoot-out to adipocere’s Granville’s mummy, I was in bed reading an article in The New Yorker about a canoe trip along the Mexico-U.S. border. On the trip were the article’s writer, Nick Paumgarten, and, among others, a U.S. senator, a Roosevelt, and a groover. The group paddled down the Rio Grande, and, floating off here and there, Paumgarten paints an interesting kind of boots-on-the-ground, paddle-in-the-water reality in which to set this idea that some have of building a sky-high wall along the U.S. side of the river. The article points out that this would effectively change the southern border of the United States, and notes that already land owned by the National Butterfly Center has been bulldozed for the wall, without due process, let alone the group’s knowledge, but what really caught my eye was a paragraph about wax.
He pointed to the shrubs that cling to the base of the steep cliff: candelilla, a source of wax used in the production of lip balm, candles, religious figurines, and chewing gum. A hundred years ago, there was a Great Wax Rush here, with factories on both sides of the river, but now it’s a small-time affair. He described how people on the Mexican side rip the shrubs out of the soil, boil them with sulfuric acid in vats at a camp downstream, skim the wax off the surface, and then transport it by donkey out of the canyon, up to the mesa and into Boquillas. On a good day, a candelillero can produce about ten dollars’ worth of it. “It’s either that or running a ferry,” McDonald said.
Now wait a minute. The Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago? Right down there at the border? How in all my great wax research did I miss the Great Wax Rush? From Warth I had made this one simple note on candelilla wax:
... coats entire surface of shrub (N. Mex; SW US) ... odor of beeswax ... burns w/ bright flame ... used to harden other waxes ... raises M.P. of paraffin.
I bet at the time I searched online for “candelilla wax” and got, as I did recently, a bunch of ads for candelilla wax. And, I swear, so often the results of an Internet search feel like being thrown into a 1970’s shiny new, slick, generic, boring behemoth of a suburban shopping mall that traps you inside until you are lost and confused, standing there glassy-eyed staring at this candy-colored map that tells you “You are here,” a little dot amid all the crap, and all the good stuff—the museums, libraries, antique shops, resale shops, and just plain old quirky shops—are all downtown, where everybody’s afraid to go and the bus no longer runs, and, anyway, you forgot what you came in for.

But search terms make all the difference. Once I knew to search for “great wax rush,” whoa-ho, Texas Beyond History: The Virtual Museum of Texas’ Cultural History popped up and I was right there downtown where the good stuff is. The section “Wax Camps” offers a series of articles and a plethora of photographs telling a fascinating tale of life on the border with a plant called candelilla, aka Euphorbia antisyphilitica, aka Euphorbia cerifera, a plant which grows wildly and nearly exclusively in the Chihuahuan Desert. Much of the text and many of the photos stem from survey expeditions along the Rio Grande in the 1960s and ’70s. A man named Curtis Tunnell, once a state archaeologist of Texas and executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, was a leader of the expeditions. In 1981 he wrote a report: “Wax, Men, and Money.” What we learn on this site is that for a period of time beginning about one hundred years ago the candelilla wax industry flourished back and forth across the border in the area that is now, on the northern side, Big Bend National Park. One reason for the rush was that the wax fetched a good price during World War I when there was an increased need for wax to waterproof tents, made of canvas, and ammunition. After World War II, the industry’s flame flickered and activity has, appropriately, waxed and waned ever since. A small but steady demand, however, remains. From the site:
Wax has always flowed across the Rio Grande either because buyers on this side would pay more than the Banco or because cash was more quickly accessible from Texas buyers. It is illegal under Mexican law to smuggle wax out of Mexico, but not illegal under United States statutes to bring it into this country for marketing if it is declared with customs. Heavily laden burros have brought wax into Texas at various places, including Stillwell’s Crossing, Reagan Canyon, La Linda, Boquillas, San Vicente, Solis, Santa Elena, Lajitas, El Mulato, Presidio, and Candelária. It is estimated that as many as 1700 tons of wax have been smuggled across the Texas border in some years.
The process of separating the wax from the plant is simple yet arduous. Paumgarten neatly sums it up, but Texas Beyond History provides detailed descriptions of the candelilleros and their camps, their burros, their burlap bags and buckets, their vats and firepits. In Tunnell’s time, the camps were primitive.
Devices for marking the passage of time such as radios, calendars, clocks, and watches have not been recorded [in the camps]. Basic tools such as axes, hammers, and saws are apparently replaced by machetes and hammerstones. Lighting devices such as flashlights, candles, lanterns, and lamps have never been seen in the camps; moonlight and a campfire suffice at night.
There are descriptions of the U.S. buyers of cerote (raw wax) and the refining factories; tales of smugglers and smuggling operations that occurred in the dead of night—
Along the river there were many stories about burro trains of wax smuggled across and sold to representatives of the big floor-wax companies
—a story of pesos sewed into a burlap bag, flung from an airplane; an account of the regulations and controls that developed over time on both sides of the border; the raids and the border patrols; and, of course, descriptions of the wild, weedy plant it all stems from. As it happens, when cultivated, candelilla produces very little wax. It seems only in the wild will it produce what we want.
The wax of the candelilla is an epidermal secretion on the stems that helps conserve internal moisture of the plants during severe hot and dry periods. The wax, which forms a scurfy coating on the stems, is much heavier in the dry season of the year and during periods of drought. Since average annual rainfall in the desert where candelilla flourishes ranges from about 4 to 20 inches, drought is not an uncommon condition. The moisture-protecting mechanism of the plant is apparently effective for, as Big Bend writer Virginia Madison has said, “You seldom see a dead candelilla plant.”
One chapter of “Wax Camps” is an update circa the early 2000s, when there is significantly less activity in the borderland wax trade. However, descriptions and photos of the production of the wax—the way the candelilla is harvested and the wax boiled out—remains much the same.
Harvesting native stands of the plant and processing the wax under primitive conditions remains the best and perhaps only method of extracting candelilla wax.
A worker holds a piece of raw wax
which has hardened in a barrel.
Photo by Raymond Skiles, taken at La Caldera,
Melchoir Musquiz Ejido, downstream
of Boquillas Canyon, 1988.
Photo and caption from
At the time I was reading about candelilla wax and the candelilleros, the United States Border Patrol was taking children from their parents as they attempted to cross into the U.S. This activity was dominating the news and causing an uproar among those who believed the separation harmful to both children and parents as well as society at large. Was it a moral issue? A pragmatic issue? A legal issue? A political issue? All of the above? In essence, as I saw it, poor families venturing far from home in search of a better life—meaning, simply, a modicum of safety, work, education—were being destroyed. Although the United States can, at times, be a benevolent place, sometimes it is just the opposite, and often it seems any benevolence there may be is meted out based on skin color, on background, on wealth, on education, on who your parents are. In other words, each of us has a perceived value based on a tradition of exclusivity and bigotry. We know that historically a person without property is perceived by those in power as having less value than those with property. We know that historically a person with a darker skin color is perceived by those in power to have less value than a person with a lighter skin color. We know that historically females are perceived by those in power as having less value than males. And we know that those who yap loudest and longest about “family values” are often the first to disregard families that they perceive to have little value or no value especially when those families are perceived also to be posing a threat … to what, exactly?

Well. I can’t tell you how many people have either eked out a living or amassed a fortune from the wax of the candelilla plant; nor can I tell you how many have enjoyed candelilla wax in one product or another. But I’m guessing I have enjoyed candelilla wax, and maybe you have, too, not that either of us would have been aware of which product it was in, or how it came to be there.

… for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall (The New Yorker, April 23, 2018)
National Butterfly Center Staff Surprised by Workers with Chainsaws Prepping Trump’s Border Wall (The Texas Observer, August 4, 2017)
Texas Butterfly Preserve Contests Border Wall in Court (Courthouse News Service, December 12, 2017)
National Butterfly Center
The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes
Texas Beyond History, Wax Camps, Main Page
Big Bend National Park
Candelilla Institute
Trade Survey … with Special Focus on Candelilla Wax (Paper submitted at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2009)
A Photojournalist at the Border (NPR, Weekend Edition, June 17, 2018)

Extracción de Candelilla - UM Palomas (4:59) 2013 Jairo Ferniza
Candelilleros de Cuatro Ciénegas (13:32) 2012 Lorenzo A. López Barbosa
Extracción de cera de candelilla de alta calidad (8:15) 2016 conaforgob (National Forestry Commission)

This page edited 1/19/2019.

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