On the margins of theology – II

21 09 2009

pacho villa

The primitive ontology of the Laguna region of Mexico in the 1950’s

In the year 1953, my mother was born on the U.S. – Mexico border, in the town of Sullivan City, Texas. Within three months, she and her parents returned to their native village of Florencia, in the state of Coahuila, just outside the city of Torreon, in what is known as the Laguna region of northern Mexico.

That same year, an American anthropologist, Isabel Kelly, began to do field studies into the healing practices and popular beliefs in that same region of Mexico. She would later compile these into a small book titled, Folk Practices in North Mexico: Birth Customs, Folk Medicine, and Spiritualism in the Laguna Zone. While her book appears more as a series of field notes, almost verbatim accounts of various practices from the area around the city of Torreon, they reveal that the popular vision of the world was shaped by various cross currents, both ancient and modern, that informed the how people from my mother’s homeland dealt with the various travails of their harsh existence.

It should be said, first of all, that the land of my immediate ancestors was one of recent immigration and cultural flux. Unlike the more established regions in central Mexico that had been inhabited for thousands of years, the Laguna region was a recent settlement, and large numbers of people had only lived there for perhaps a couple of centuries. Thus, they were much less “traditional” than other inhabitants of Mexico. Perhaps this is why such tendencies as Allan Kardec’s spiritism took hold of the imaginations of the people far more easily than in other parts of Mexico. According to Kelly, the Laguna region was a “hotbed of spiritualism” (the most prestigious Mexican citizen Coahuila has ever produced, the revolutionary President of Mexico, Francisco Madero, was a known spiritist), and there were various “spiritist temples” described in her book. Such practices often mixed with more traditional practices from other parts of Mexico also described in the book. As in many other places, the “borders” between Christian orthodoxy and syncretic/spiritist heterodoxy were not at all clear.

Most of Kelly’s book focuses on cures for various ailments and problems in life. One such cure has been described almost verbatim to me by my grandmother:

To cure susto, the person is “cleansed” with an alum stone. It is passed over the body in the form of a cross while one recites [Apostles] Creeds. Later the alum is burned, and it is said that there [in the flame] is formed the [image of the] thing or the person who caused the fright. Practically everyone treats susto in this way because it is the most certain and efficacious cure.

Susto or fright is one of the most common folk ailments after the evil eye (mal de ojo). Unlike el mal de ojo, it can strike adults as well as children, and it is deemed by some to be caused by a separation of the soul from the body due to a traumatic shock. It can lead to vomiting, headaches, psychological paralysis, or even death. Various plants and prayers are often used to cure it in its many manifestations. Another such cure is as follows:

The sick person is stretched on the ground, with his arms extended in the form of a cross. This is done at a crossroads; or, if they cannot got to such a place, they make a cross in the ground with lime.

Then, with a knife… the ground is marked, following the outline of the patient. At the same time, the Creed is recited three times… One makes the sign of the cross on the body of the patient. As the third Creed ends, a hollow is dug… at the head, at the feet, and adjacent to each hand… And in each hole is poured water- holy water if possible…

Illnesses and misfortunes with far more nefarious supernatural causes were also the concern of such practices. Witchcraft was a feared weapon used by enemies to settle disputes in often fatal ways. “Voodoo dolls”, toads, and human hair were often the materia of choice for those who would employ such dark practices for their own benefit. The aloe vera plant was considered one household item that would protect a household from sorcery, as were special baths using such herbs as rosemary and rue.

Often more extreme measures had to be takes against witchcraft:

In some instances it is said that a witchcraft victim is stroked with a black hen, which is afterwards burned alive in the dome-shaped oven in which bread is baked. One woman is assured by a witch that to be happy she always should have a black hen or a black cock at hand, and thus have within reach the means of curing sorcery.

Spiritist temples often thrived in this region to address the problem of sorcery especially, and the mediums there would channel spirits from beyond the grave to act as a help against such dark enchantments. The range of spirits invoked in such séances could range from the souls of martyrs of the Cristero uprising to gypsy and Indian spirits. The most colorful spirit, however, was perhaps that of spirit of the revolutionary leader, Francisco “Pancho” Villa:

Pancho Villa drove out the evil spirits by yelling [at them] and by hitting them with a whip. In any case, at every shout the boy let out a cry of pain. Pancho Villa, in not very acceptable language, told the spirits to withdraw and leave the boy free.

People also spoke highly of the spirit of Don Pedrito Jaramillo, a Texas curandero from earlier in the century known in that region to be perhaps the most powerful faith healer of his generation. Other more ambiguous spirits such as Tomasito Herrera and Juan Minero still have a presence in Mexican esoteric shops to this day.

Other materia were often used not so much to cure ailments or witchcraft, but merely to bring luck or prosperity. The horseshoe was one such item, and I have seen them in Latino shops in the U.S. attached with images of various saints to “augment” their power. To get rid of an unwanted neighbor, the following novena was done:

One merely buys the prayer to [St. Jude] and at midnight one lights a candle and, walking [back and forth], recites the prayer. One does not sit down or lie down; one walks. And one asks that the [undesirable] person go away.

Another, even more frivolous usage of talisman, is one used for luck in gambling:

… a black disk, called a “sea bean” is highly regarded; “it is bought particularly by those who play cards for high stakes.”… The talisman is carried by the owner in a small red bag and from time to time he rubs the “bean” betweens his hands, reciting:

Sea bean, by the power that you have given to you by God, grant me happiness, luck, fortune, and money.

[This is one of the many prayers recited to “objects” deemed to have special powers given to them by God. The reader would also be fascinated to know that Kelly makes reference to a prayer to la Santa Muerte, proving that this phenomenon is more than a half century old.]

Love magic was also popular in Mexico, as I have outlined in other essays. Materia for these types of operations often consisted of photographs of the person, personal articles such as shoes, and buckets of water, accompanied by unspecified prayers. The chameleon was an animal also used by women to bring back wayward husbands, sometimes tied to the bed and fed, other times killed and dried out to be fed to the husband without his knowing.

In all of these practices, the ancient concept of sympathetic magic was alive and well, often paralleling the Christian sacramental system. Even things that we would consider inanimate or dumb objects were often considered the locus of “spirit” and supernatural power. In this sense, herbs and minerals were not considered curative merely because of quantifiable components within them (the common scientific explanation), but because of a qualitative power given to them by God, Thus, it is no surprise that prayers were thought to go along with their employment, even prayers that were directed to the materia themselves. In all of these practices, such primitive ontological principles as number and sympathetic gesture played a large part in the deemed effectiveness of the ritual object, and in this they shared similar principles as those of the Catholic sacramental praxis.

Of course, as an “orthodox” Catholic, one would have to reject such practices as necromancy and some of the more extreme forms of white magic (not to mention its “black” counterpart). What should be kept in mind is that such strange preternatural practices were the backdrop in which most believers would have accepted the orthodox doctrines of official Catholicism. And for many, such practices contextualized how they saw the Gospel of Christ, and did not necessarily conflict with it. What now seems foreign, syncretic, and pagan, may be so only for us.


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8 responses

23 09 2009
FrGregACCA

How do Mexicans pray the rosary?

22 09 2009
otavanpoika

Thank you, Alice. Very interesting. I agree with you on the ancestral thing.

22 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Manuel,

The difference between a “curandero”, a “brujo”, and an “espiritista” in these circumstances is not at all clear, and often overlapping. My great-grandmother “sabia de las curaciones”, but did that mean that she was a curandera? Maybe, and maybe not. Some “crooked” curanderos were little better than witches who would cause illnesses in clients in order to “cure” them. In the coming weeks, I am going to do an essay on the divide between witch and faith healer in another region of Mexico. Stay tuned.

As for the altars of the dead, my family does not erect them either, at least in this country. My grandparents still in their eighties go to Mexico for a month around All Souls’ Day to visit their parents’ graves. So we never got to see what they do on those days. I do know that, growing up in California, Mexican families were much more attached to their dead and much more prone to visit them. The Mexican section of every Catholic seminary was a much more colorful place than the “Anglo” section. But that may just be an “Anglo” thing. Here in Louisiana, the cemeteries are a veritable sight to see in most places.

And you are right, some things in Mexico are pretty universal, such as how to pray the rosary (different than the “Anglo” version), susto, mal de ojo, mandas, etc. But there are regional variations. The phenomenon of el aire de basura, that I have written of before, is specific to central Mexico, and has very little presence in the folk mentality of my family. Mexico is by no means a homogenous place.

22 09 2009
Manuel

My family is from central Mexico and while I heard of susto, and mal de ojo, there was never any talk about curanderos. I guess the remedy was simply to pray. I do know one aunt who devoutly prays the rosary every evening and once prayed to some saint (I do not remember which one, my mother told me this story) so that she could get rid of some trouble with some neighbors.
There is also the annual ritual in our house of explaining to other Mexican families about why we do not build an altar to the decesed on Nov. 1( “aren’t you Catholic?”). My mom simply replies, “we never did it in our house so why start now.” Mexico (in fact Latin America) is a big place and contains many diverse traditions and peoples. We should not think that because we saw it on a website or on TV everybody is doing it.
Or maybe my family is just weird.

22 09 2009
Leah

Are the practices described in this and other posts unique to Northern Mexico or would they be found in other regions of the country as well? Are some aspects of Mexican folk religion purely regional? Has Internet access made some local cults more widespread?

21 09 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Otavanpoika, here is what I have written:

Religious belief is conditioned by the faith tradition which we receive from our parents, grandparents and even, if we are to believe Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, from our ancient ancestors. If Jung is right, those who practice paganism or atheism must experience a constant inner struggle against the affirmations of God’s love that their ancestors experienced. Perhaps this is why their lives are often tragic.

Likewise those whose ancestors were pagans are still inwardly pagan until their Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection miraculously breaks the great delusion, freeing them to embrace Holy Tradition. The Häme region of Finland, for example, is traditionally known for its paganism. It is reported that when the Catholic missionaries began baptizing people there, some would later repent of their baptism and wash it off in a lake where the shamans sacrificed animals to the lake spirits. The familial tradition is so strong that elements of paganism continue for generations even after the families convert to Christianity. A young Fin, Jaakko Olkinuora, reports: “In western Finland, the Catholic Church was very strong before the Reformation, as was Lutheranism afterwards. Our region, however, still has its native pagan place names and stories about spirits and demons of the lakes. When I was a child my mother had a book of Finnish stories collected from the old people. They were all pagan: demons of the lake, demons of the forest. My father has two Finnish names, Seppo and Tapio, both names of Finnish gods.” (Road to Emmaus, Vol. IX, No. 4, p. 33)

I thought Olkinuora’s story was interesting. I believe the whole report may be online here: http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/

21 09 2009
otavanpoika

Alice, could you please elaborate on that Finnish practice?

I am from Finland and have been investigating Finnish folk religion for years. I follow this blog specifically to gain insight about the similarities between Northern American folk religions and Finnish folk religion. I believe these similarities are signs of the ambiguous “Neoplatonic” undercurrent that exist under the surface of many folk practices.

21 09 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Very interesting, Arturo. Here we see the work of the curandero(a) paralleling the work of the Catholic priest. It is similar to what happens in southern Finland where shamanic practice parallels (and sometimes seek to unto) the work of the Orthodox priest.

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