If you’ve spent much time in Mexico, especially in smaller cities and towns, you may have noticed special decorative archways in front of a church or on the road into a town that get put up at festival times. These can be made from a wide variety of different natural or synthetic materials but one common traditional material can often be difficult to identify for outsiders. You may have seen these flowers with waxy white petals and wondered, what is that made from?
[Photo-detail of arch]
It’s actually a plant, and the white part used as the “petals” on these flowers is the core of the plant called Cucharilla in Spanish, Tií in Mixtec, and according to Wikipedia, “Great Desert Spoon” in English. Having never lived in an English-speaking desert, I’ll have to trust Wikipedia on this one. The plant, Dasylirion acrotrichum, looks like a skinny agave or Aloe Vera plant but is actually in the asparagus family. All the Dasylirion species are native to Mexico and grow in arid and semi-arid environments. The leaves are connected to a bulb in the center which comes apart—think kind of like an artichoke—and when separated the base forms a spoon, cuchara, in Spanish, hence the name. Until about 30 years ago it was commonly used as a spoon, particularly for eating pozole at big fiestas. Now they are mostly used to make decorations.
[Photo-the whole plant]
But, the plant is seriously endangered. Mainly because it’s a slow-growing desert plant. It can take 12 to 15 years from germination of a seed until the plant flowers and releases seeds of its own. Many plants are cut before they have ever flowered. And, like so many plants and animals today it also faces the loss of habitat due to urban sprawl, large-scale agriculture, and grazing.
Overexploitation is also a factor as, rather than disappearing, the art of making arches from cucharilla is actually on the rise. Geographer Ingrid Heackel conducted a study on the plant’s use in the arches in the neighboring communities of Coatepec, Teocelo, Acajete y Tlalnelhuayocan in central Veracruz and found that in 2007, 70 arches were constructed in this region whereas in the 1960s only about 10 arches were constructed a year.
In the Mixteca Baja region of Oaxaca, there is one community that has particularly dedicated itself to the making of cucharilla arches and decorations, Santiago Cacaloxtepec. This town is located 15 minutes from the city of Huajuapan de Leon. There are three main times a year when arches are made, the town’s main festival on July 25th, the Day of the Dead festivities on November 1st and 2nd, and Good Friday, during Easter week (dates vary) when they hold an arch making competition.
Photo by Bertha Lilia González Trejo/Unidad Regional Huajuapan de Culturas Populares, Indígenas y Urbanas.
The competition starts early Thursday morning when the arch-making groups (the local cofradias, groups which are formed to carry out different festivals) gather along Hidalgo Street in town. Cacaloxtepec is a small town and this street runs from the Cathedral on the town square to the town’s cemetery, so if you decide to visit it won’t be hard to find. They line up along the street where they are going to build, decorate, then raise the arches.
Local records show that Cacaloxtepec has been making these arches for at least
100 years, though locals think it’s likely much longer. Currently, ten different arches are made along the street, these compete for prize money that the cofradias will use towards the other festivals they are commissioned to organize throughout the year. Each team is led by an experienced arch builder who lays out the design on paper before the competition. Trucks bring in hundreds of plants; this year’s estimate was 400 plants were used for the Semana Santa arches. In other parts of Mexico, such as Coatepec, Veracruz they make bigger arches and can use as many as 250 Cucharilla plants in one arch.
If you visit Cacaloxtepec on Thursday you can observe how the arches take shape and are raised by late afternoon. The judging takes place Friday after the Good Friday procession and the arches remain standing through the next week.
All of this may have you wondering whether or not this custom is worth saving as it obviously could take a toll on the environment. The town of Cacaloxtepec has thought of that as well and has taken action to preserve its tradition. In 2014, the municipal authorities, together with the General Direction of Popular, Indigenous and Urban Cultures Regional Office, designed a program for Cucharilla conservation. This included the creation of a greenhouse equipped with the capacity to germinate 10,000 plants a year, the suspension of grazing rights on large tracks of communal lands to protect habitat, the construction of terraces to slow erosion on those lands, transplantation brigades to transfer young plants from the greenhouses to their natural habitats, and the creation of the arch competition to stimulate interest in the project and innovations that increase the utilization of the whole plant in the designs.
I supplemented my visit to Cacaloxtepec with information from these sources.