COTTON: Politics and Production in Mexico

By Julie Etra

Did the Mexican Revolution start with a prohibition on “underwear”?

Cotton, Coercion, Morality, and Modernization

Porfirio Díaz, the 33rd president of Mexico, was a complicated and controversial character; by the end of his seventh (and last) term, many considered him a dictator whose policies led directly to the Mexican Revolution. His successive administrations focused on modernization, economic development, and trying to “Europeanize” Mexico.

In the late 19th century, Díaz prohibited men from wearing the traditional white cotton clothing known as calzón de manta. This very Mexican clothing originated in pre-Hispanic times, particularly in the warmer regions of Mexico. It consists of loose-fitting, long-sleeved white shirts and pants, woven from 100% cotton and often tied with a colorful red or blue belt. The design promoted cooling airflow next to the body, and Porfirian administrators saw it as peasant underwear – immoral and definitely not modern.

Calzón de manta was worn particularly by campesinos (rural farmers), and Díaz associated these clothes with the backward, uneducated, and unrefined lower classes; from his perspective, calzón de manta symbolized a Mexico that prevented social and economic growth. Some urban communities, including Guadalajara, required that men arriving from the countryside remove their calzon de manta and rent more appropriate pants, including a type of denim, before entering the city.

Historian Florencia Gutiérrez, Ph.D., of the Colegio de México, ties the prohibition on calzón de manta to the Porfiriato’s concern with eliminating alcoholism and improving personal hygiene; as for calzado (footwear), huaraches were bad, too.

All about Cotton

But cotton, it turns out, is not just a peasant fabric despised by 19th-century elites. Cotton is called algodón in Spanish; the word is ultimately derived from the Arabic name al-qutun. Cotton is known as ixcaxíhuitl in Náhuatl, and taman, piits’ in Mayan.

The scientific name for the species cultivated in the western hemisphere is Gossypium hirsutum; its origin and evolution may be parallel to that of Gossypium barbadense, a cotton that emerged near eastern Sudan in the Middle Nile Basin around 5000 BCE.

The first cultivated cotton fabric of the species G. barbadense appeared around 3000 BCE in the Indus River Valley (present-day Pakistan). Around 2500 BCE, Chinese, Egyptian and South American civilizations begin weaving cotton fabrics. Although Mexico claims to be the origin in the western hemisphere, the oldest cotton fabric was found in Huaca Prieta, an archeological site in Peru, and dated to about 6000 BCE. It is hypothesized that Huaca Preita is the western hemiphere’s site of domestication; cotton seeds and rope dating to about 2500 BCE have also been found in Peru.

Some of the oldest cotton bolls (the mature flower) were discovered in a cave in the Tehuacán Valley in Puebla, Mexico, dating to about 5500 BCE. By 3000 BCE, cotton was being grown and processed in Mexico and the southern United States (the town of Algodones on the Arizona-Mexico border is currently dedicated to dental tourism). In the 1700s, cotton was grown in the Keres and Tiwa native American pueblos in southern Arizona, then sold to other pueblos. Drought and lack of arable land, combined with raids by the Apache led to the demise of cotton cultivation in the area.

Columbus found cotton growing in the Bahama Islands in 1492, and by 1500, cotton was known generally throughout the world. In the United States cotton is said to have been planted in Florida in 1556 and in Virginia in 1607. By 1616, colonists were growing cotton along the James River in Virginia.

Cotton’s Cousin – the Lovely Hibiscus

Cotton is closely related to hibiscus and they both reside in the mallow family, Malvaceae, which also includes the common hollyhock (Alcea rosea), globe mallows (Sphaeralcea), and checker mallows (Sidalcea).

Hibiscus plants are tropical ornamental shrubs, common around Huatulco, and one of my favorites, given all its varieties and showy flowers. Hibiscus is not native to Mexico, with India and Africa the disputed origins. However, we do have a beautiful native with sealed petals, Malvaviscus arboreus, found along trails and the forest edge. According to a 2007 article in the Boletín de la Sociedad Botánica de México (Bulletin of the Botanical Society of Mexico), the Malvaceae family comprises 2.7% of all species in the Huatulco National Park, with 11 genera and 18 species. (You can learn more from Diagnóstico de los Recursos Naturales de la Bahía y Micro-cuenca de Cacaluta (Assessment of the Natural Resources of the Bay and Micro-Basin of the Cacaluta River), available at the UMAR bookstore for 258 pesos).

The Malvaceae family also includes Hibiscus sabdariffa, aka flor de jamaica, whose fragrant and sticky calices are steeped to make the delicious beverage, agua de jamaica; this plant, however, is native to Africa, having found its way through trade routes to the West Indies and on to the tropics of Mexico and Central America.

Much to my irritation, hibiscus is also a favorite food of iguanas, and in my stubbornness, I continue to replant them and try to protect the younger plants, usually to no avail. I sometimes catch the athletic reptiles devouring the flowers and tender shoots. Our friend Juan just laughs at me, gestures, and points at his stomach, indicating that they make a fine stew and medicinal soup, at least the black and white iguanas.

Mexican Cotton Today

Today, all cotton is obtained from four domesticated species; of these, the Mexican highland cotton (G. hirsutum) comprises 90% of world production. Countless traditional Mexican clothes – way more than calzon de manta – and fabrics are woven from cotton. It is also used in the production of rope/twine, paper, banknotes, cooking oil, packaging, cosmetics, hammocks, and even livestock feed.

Cotton production in Mexico occurs primarily in the border states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and the centrally located Durango. Cotton requires both water and some fertilizer, along with a warm climate and full sun – these northern Mexico states provide ideal growing conditions. In 2021 approximately 164,000 hectares were under production, with the primary market being the U.S., followed by El Salvador.

In terms of world production, India and China vie for producing the most cotton worldwide, with India in the lead for the moment, followed by the U.S., Brazil, and Australia. In the 2018-19 growing season, Mexico was the world’s 9th-largest producer, but as Mexico has outlawed genetically modified (GM) cotton seed and the herbicide glyphosate, it has dropped back to 13th in worldwide cotton production. Press reports indicate that some Chihuahuan cotton farmers are looking for alternative crops, because non-GM cotton seeds don’t produce well enough to be profitable.

Mexican Cotton for Your Home

For excellent quality hand-woven cotton tablecloths, napkins, bedspreads, etc., you can look in any number of weaving shops in La Crucecita, mostly in the south end of town – for example, Casa Textil Escobar is located on the corner of Cocotillo and Bugambilia, while Textil Arte Huatulco is closer to the central square, at Flamboyan 116.

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