On the margins of theology – III

19 10 2009


photo credit

On magic (black, white, and various shades of gray)

Veracruz is known as the “witch capital” of Mexico. Many of the esoteric movements in underground Mexican Catholicism are believed to have started there. For those who know their history, you will also know that it was near Veracruz that Cortes first landed, beginning the conquest of all of Mexico and its subjugation to the powers of altar and crown. The reasons for the reputation of Veracruz, however, do not have to do solely with survivals of autochthonous tendencies in the religious consciousness of the people. Equally important are the contributions of European and African elements. If anything, some of the more bizarre practices in Mexican “folk Catholicism” have less to do with indigenous belief than with the survival of religious elements that the Spaniards brought with them from the Old World.

Almost thirty years ago now, a group of anthropologists journeyed into the heart of “witch country” in Veracruz to find how such practices continued in the modern day. What they found was one of the most astounding ethnographic insights into the lives of everyday people living in a very old culture. This was expressed in the film, Brujos y Curanderos, which you can view in its entirety on-line here. Since there are no subtitles, and a good number of my readers do not speak Spanish, I have chosen a few scenes with the approximate time to describe for my Anglophone readers. Those who can understand Spanish, I would very much recommend watching the whole thing, with one caveat. We are dealing in some parts of the film with certified, Satanic witches. Just to give you a clue, it ends with an initiation of a male “witch” in a cave in which they sacrifice a black cat. So the viewer best ask himself if he could stomach such a scene before endeavoring to watch the film.

A quick lesson in nomenclature is necessary. Due to the nature of American religion, all things that smack of “conjuring” are seen to fall under the category of “black magic”. As I have pointed out before, this has not always been the case. The Pennsylvania Dutch, the African-American community, the Catholics of southeast Louisiana, and others have always had “conjurers” as essential parts of their community. In Mexico, this was the same situation. A curandero is basically a faith healer. He can cure various diseases with herbs, bark, and other plants, but he can also cure diseases of a preternatural order, such as the evil eye. A brujo is a practitioner of black magic. Usually he works with all sorts of evil spirits, from Satan, to duendes, to aires, to the black Santa Muerte. Added to this are the spiritists, or people who follow Allan Kardec, who practice all forms of invoking the dead and other more modern European-inspired practices. The lines between all of these people, mediums, faith healers, and sorcerers, is often quite pourous, as it has been historically. A curandero could readily do a “dark work” if provoked, a brujo can be seen merely as a more effective curandero who works with suspicious spirits, and a medium could just as easily pray a Hail Mary over you as read your palm.

The opening of the film itself shows all of this quite well. The opening scene is of a woman standing on a boat with an incenser in her hand reciting the Lord’s Prayer over the waters. The very next scene is that of a certified sorcerer polking pins into a black wax doll, invoking all sorts of demons, la Santa Muerte, and Satan himself. Throughout the film, the range of practicioners presented ranges from the pious old woman to a seemingly agnostic and irreverent healer, to people whose only intent is to do harm to others. Perhaps the most paradigmatic character in the film is one older gentleman who said that he works with both God and Satan. He made a pact with Satan to give him great healing powers, but later told Satan he wouldn’t “work with him anymore”. In his office, a prominent demon and Catholic imagery are placed side by side: cognitive dissonance in its starkest form.

The subject of the film, however, is not just the phenomenon of these specialists, but also the religious and cosmological view of the people they aim to serve or harm. Towards the opening of the film, around 7’30”, a group of average village men is shown discussing quite frankly how “you have to believe in something to succeed”. One of the young men describes how in one village, called Piedra Labrada, in the midst of drought, the villagers will go before a rock, have a wake, a dance, and a feast in its honor so that it will start raining again. And it always does. Later, a man describes how red strings are tied to the branches of trees so that the fruits and leaves won’t wither on the vine due to the looks of pregnant women. The common belief, as I have presented elsewhere, is that the will or the very gaze of a person can harm plants, animals, and even certain people of a weak disposition. Certain people are deemed to have a strong sense of sight, others are deemed to have el don or the gift to cure.

One of the more fascinating parts of the film begins around the 20 minute mark. There, various curanderos and brujos speak of the power of herbs and plants, and how they must be prepared and picked at the right time to be effective. For many, spring is a particularly auspicious time. A number of the plants used in rituals are picked on the first Friday of March, close to el Viernes de Dolores or Passion Friday. Other plants are always cut at a full moon, at a certain hour, in a certain place, etc. One rather scary brujo speaks of how people who practice witchcraft fast for much of Lent, giving up meat, sweets, and sexual intercourse to be able to cast more effective spells on people. The plants themselves are often picked after a period of fasting. One bark has to be ground and prepared only by young women, or it will “go to waste”. In all of these practices, regardless of their intent, a view of the cosmos as interconnected is clearly presented. Man is not some sort of autonomous creature who has nothing to do with nature, but his body and even his spirit are affected by the cycles of the seasons.

There are a lot of fascinating scenes of actual limpias or purification ceremonies intended to cure the ill patient. The healers attempt to cure illnesses ranging from susto (fright), childhood illnesses, impotency, and even blindness. One of the most significant to me was a “blessing of the net” of a fisherman, around the 33 minute mark, in which the curandera recites an “unofficial” Catholic prayer similar to many that I have posted here, while passing the net over incense. In all of these rituals, I was reminded of a term that an 18th century French cleric gave to similar practices in the countryside there: enacted prayer. Many of these Catholic “white magicians” ask God to heal their patients in all “faith, hope, and confidence”. Even if they are at the margins of the Catholic world, they are still very much a part of it.

My own sense in watching all of this is, “kids, don’t try this at home”. Many curious seekers, especially on the Internet, want to be spritually adventerous, seeking to fulfill their curiosity by usurping obscure practices of Mexican peasants, Italian grandmothers, medieval witches, and so on. As I have shown here, such a world is no joke, and even seemingly innocuous people can be working with some quite nefarious forces. On the other hand, all of this is a snapshot into how regular, “uncatechized” Catholics really think. The same world that produces the pious women singing to St. Isidore while processing through the fields at the beginning of the film produces the Satanic sorcerers sacrificing a black cat in a cave towards the end. If we don’t see how much these worlds go together, it is because it is our own religious views that have become profoundly abnormal. In the rest of the world, and for much of history, “spiritual warfare” was not merely some bourgeois exercise in moral self-improvement, but a real battle against forces that were attempting to do us harm, both physical as well as spiritual.



3 responses

20 10 2009
Allen Kardec

What is normativizing?

AV–isn’t Veracruz also one of the regions with Black slaves from Africa? (I thought the coastal regions primarily of Africans in Mexico)
isn’t some of the stuff African (Yoruba–like Santeria)

19 10 2009
Is Theology Nothing But Libido Dominandi? « The Lonely Goth’s Guide to Independent Catholicism

[…] there is this informative but thoroughly normativizing account of brujos and curanderos in Veracruz on a Catholic blog I read regularly.  It’s frustrating because much of the normativizing […]

19 10 2009

Dang man, how did you know I wanted an article on folk religion in Veracruz? I’ve been looking for resources on this very topic! Are there any people in Veracruz (presumably the richer sort) that are the equivalent of neo-pagan/Wicca dabblers? If so, where do they fit into the scheme of things?

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