The name ‘cotton’ designates various plants of the genus Gossypium in the mallow family. The genus includes around fifty species which grow wild in the warm regions of the Americas, Africa, south Asia, Australia and some islands in the Pacific. They are related to the blossoms known in Mexico as jamaica, which we buy in the markets to make a refreshing drink, and also to the hibiscus shrubs that embellish gardens in Oaxaca. Cotton flowers are not as large as the brilliantly colored corollas of the tulipanes, as hibiscus plants are called here, but they are showy, nevertheless. They deserve to be cultivated as ornamental plants in full sun, with the advantage that they require little water. In the case of the cotton species that is native to Mexico (Gossypium hirsutum), the blossoms are unusual in that they change colors: initially they are yellow, but little by little they turn red as time goes by. On a single plant you can find flowers of both colors, a variation which is not common in the green realm.
Just like the color of the corollas will vary, so can the fibers that surround the seeds be white or tawny, or even brown. The word coyuchi designates various shades of brown, from a light beige to a cinnamon color. Coyuchi comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) coyōichcatl, which means ‘coyote [colored] cotton’. It used to be thought that coyuchi represented a distinct species of cotton (which was named Gossypium mexicanum), but careful research showed that in reality it belongs to the same species that is native to our country (Gossypium hirsutum), which grows wild on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and which was domesticated in this region of the planet thousands of years before the arrival of Hernán Cortés. The Europeans, for their part, already knew two species of cotton (Gossypium arboreum and G. herbaceum), which had probably been domesticated in Asia five thousand years earlier. Their name in Spanish, Italian, English and French derives from the Arabic نطقلا (al-qutun), which suggests that we owe to Islamic civilization the spread of these plants around the Mediterranean. Wool, linen and other textile fibers, in contrast, maintain their names of Indoeuropean origin in Spanish and in the nearby languages.
In the same way that words provide hints to track down history in Europe and Asia, the names for cotton in the languages of Mexico indicate that the first peoples have known the plant and its cultivation for a long time. Xhiaa, xiil and other analogous forms in the Zapotec languages; kachì, kàtyi and katsi in the Mixtec languages; píxtun and pixy in Mixe, taman in Yucatec Maya, ichcatl in Nahuatl and xurhata in Tarascan, nowhere do we find that the term has been borrowed from another language. Archaeology and genetics confirm that cotton was domesticated in this region of the world at an early date. The quality of the fiber that was achieved by Mesoamerican horticulturalists surpassed the properties of its counterparts in Asia and Africa. Nowadays, over 90% of global cotton production is obtained from hybrid plants where the major contribution of genes comes from Gossypium hirsutum, with additional input from G. barbadense, the species that was domesticated in South America. Hence we have reason to state that Mexican cotton clothes humankind today.
In this exhibit we propose to highlight the beauty of the fiber that is native to our country, both in its white form, and in its beige and brown varieties. The indigenous peoples of Mexico and Guatemala did not just succeed in developing a resistant crop and an excellent fiber, but they know how to convert it into magnificent threads and admirable textures. Their art and skill survives today, resisting the invasion of synthetic fibers derived from petroleum and garish dyestuffs produced by chemical factories. Long and soft, the white and coyuchi filaments which have been fashioned into these elegant garments and lengths of fabric seem to alert us that our future wellbeing will not ooze out of oil wells, but will grow in green rows covered with red and yellow flowers, fields which will resemble gardens.
Editor’s note: The Museo de textil de Oaxaca has kindly grantes us permission to reprint the Flowers of Cotton text by the Alexando de Ávila, the exhibition’s curator. Images and text first appeared on the museum’s website: museotextildeoaxaca.org.