Many visitors ask how families make a living along the Rio Grande. Candelilla wax supported a few families some years ago. Candelilla (candle EE ya) is a plant found growing in the lower desert hills on both sides of the Rio. It can be identified by its clusters of bare, 18" slim-as-a-pencil stalks of a greenish-gray color. The candelilla plants are harvested by hand—root and all—and brought by the burroload to wax camps where the wax is rendered by placing it into vats of boiling water. A little sulphuric acid is added so the paraffin-like wax will float to the surface. After it cools the crude wax is skimmed from the top and sent to market for further refinement and distribution. It is used both as a hardener and a solvent in products as varied as saddle soap, cosmetics, paint remover, and chewing gum.
Peter Koch wrote about a wax smuggling rendezvous he observed on the Rio Grande in his book, Exploring the Big Bend Country.
"There were three of us in the old black Ford when we started out just after dark. Creaking and groaning, the truck slowly bumped its way over an unimproved road to a well-known Rio Grande river crossing. . . . The moon was rising over the scrubby mesquite and willow trees when we reached a small clearing on the river bank. . . . A rendezvous had been arranged to meet a burro train loaded with candelilla wax and I was invited to watch the operation. My worries eased a bit when I learned it was not illegal to receive the wax in the United States, although it violated Mexican law. (At the time Mexico had established quotas and had placed a limited embargo on shipments out of the country.)
"Presently a rustling in the river cane and muffled voices announce the arrival of the pack train. Friendly greetings are exchanged and a brief business consultation is followed by whispered jokes about the quality of the wax, the amount of dirt and gravel included, and accusations regarding the accuracy of the scales. [At last] the weighing begins. Sacks of crude wax are transferred hastily from the burros to the scales, then loaded onto the truck. I watch as everyone works to speed up the exchange. "
. . . When the weighing is finished a bottle is passed around. Money changes hands. Then burros, smugglers, and dinero disappear back into the river cane.
"Each side believed it came out ahead, but my guess is that things were about even."