Thoughts from the last posting on Oaxaca, Mexico continue to linger in my mind...
I just finished reading another one of the books I brought back with me -- Amy Butler Greenfield's A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (2005). Greenfield's book gives an historical account of the importance the natural red dye found on the cochineal, a parasite that grows on the nopal (prickly pear) cactus. Because the color red was such in demand in Europe and the sources of red dye were very limited, this little critter played an important role in world history.
In 1519 when the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), they immediately noticed the rich red fabrics and feathers that adorned the inhabitants. By 1523, the first shipments of red dye made from the cochineal began to arrive in Spain. The demand for this red dye was so high that Spain was able to finance much of its world empire for the next couple of centuries by controlling this commodity. But Greenfield puts the cochineal in even a greater historical context throughout as she aptly ties in other major events such as the discovery of the microscope (around 1704), the naval war between England and Spain or the rise of the pre-World War I chemical industry, which led to the development of the poisonous mustard gas.
It's a better book than Mark Kurlansky's Salt (2003)– a book that it is often compared to – and though they are written in a similar12th grade social studies style (meaning nothing flashy prose wise), at least I finished Greenfield's book because as I mentioned, she managed to expand the scope of her primary subject to keep it fresh.
Still, if I were recommending one book to read before I went to Mexico, I'd suggest Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005), which looks at the civilizations that dominated the Americas before Columbus, including a few pages on the Zapotecs, the indigenous tribe that began building Monte Alban (shown above) in 500 BC and whose language is still spoken in the artisan villages that surround Oaxaca City. In one chapter, Greenfield makes an interesting point about how the Zapotecs were able to maintain their heritage and status much better than other tribes. Since harvesting parasites off cactus is a difficult, non-scalable agricultural endeavor, the ruling Spaniards granted more independence to the families that grew the valuable cochineal, which was not the kind of agricultural product than lent itself to large plantations like coffee and bananas and the displaced labor who had to work the fields.
I became familiar with Mann when I saw him at Emory University a few years ago. There were a few discussions about the book around our inn's breakfast table as well. And you can bet they had plenty of copies of 1491 at Oaxaca's Amate bookstore next to the shelves filled with Alebrijes, the fantastic wood carved sculptures that are so much a part of the folk art of Oaxaca. From my understanding, there was a recent literacy push featuring animals reading books. (The link takes you to a peacock reading Flanary O'Connor.)
Below is another lingering memory of Mexico which now graces my living room, a reading cat carved by Jesus Calvo-Sosa. Undoubtedly this carving appeals to soccer fans too, which anyone who witnessed 68,000 fans who overran the Georgia Dome last week for an exhibition match between Mexico and Nigeria knows cannot be denied. I am only glad that I saw it first.