Altars are common in Oaxacan houses. They can serve various purposes. Some are places of (usually Catholic) prayer; some are specially erected for holidays such as Days of The Dead; some are erected to assist in the preparation of potions, poultices and materials used to "clean" bodies of afflictions. This one belongs to a weaving family in Teotitlan del Valle, outside Oaxaca city.[Photo by Diana Ricci]
"Maria" (not her name) is a curandera. She has had the "don" (power) since she was born. She thinks it came to her through her great grandmother, of whom the old ones tell stories of miraculous cures. She doesn't know why the don skips generations, but she has asked others who have it and they tell similar stories.
When she was born, there were signs that she was special. There was a light that appeared around her. Only her mother could see it, and only from outside the room, shining through the cracks in the door and window. Opening the door caused it to disappear. Also, her best friend, who was born at almost the exact same time, has it. It is said that the power always is divided in two when it descends, half from the daytime (power for healing) and half from the night (power to do harm). Her friend is a bruja, practicing from the night side, in Mexico City.
I ask her if they are still friends. Of course, she says. Her friend didn't decide to practice on the dark side; the power chose her. I ask if she has ever had to cleanse someone whom her friend had infected. Many times, she answered.
What was it like growing up? She was sheltered, kept indoors, watched over. Her father was afraid of her power, distrusted her visions, thought she was crazy. Why did he think that? Well, there were the three native Indian boys she played with, whom no-one but her could see. They were her helpers and advisers. Now, they are within her, watching out for her, guiding her when the going gets difficult. What tribe are they? She will not speak further of them, for their identities are a secret entrusted to her.
What do the neighbors think of her? They think she is a good citizen, a good mother, a good neighbor. She meets her social obligations, goes to church regularly, and is faithful to her husband. They accept her, and some of them come to her for help.
Has she ever referred a patient to a doctor of medicine? No, she has never had a patient whom she needed a medico to save. Quite the other way around: many of her patients are people whom the doctors sent home to die. Her father was such a one, and last year, facing death, he allowed her to cure him of stomach cancer. Since then, he has spoken of her work with approval.
What do the priests think? They know what she does, but they do not choose to acknowledge that they know. She does not flaunt her work at them, and they do not go out of their way to judge her. In fact, she is -- as most "good" dons are -- a devout Catholic. Her power, she says, comes from God. God protects her from becoming infected by the evil things she must remove from her patients.
So she sees no conflict between Catholicism and "Witchcraft"? Do I think there may be a conflict? She smiles. What a curious position to take. Why would anyone think that?
Doesn't each cleansing subtract something from her reserves? Yes. How does she renew her strength? Once a year she goes to the four places of power (the reservoir, the river, the field in the valley, and the mountain). And of course, she prays in church.
Can she tell who hexed someone by examining them? Oh, yes; each brujo or bruja leaves his or her signature. Once she knows who is responsible, it is easier to cure the victim.
Do any of her children have the don? No. How does she feel about that? How should she feel? It is God's will, and there is no more to be said.
I thank her for her time, and she smiles a beautiful smile, eyes twinkling. Come back any time, she says. You could use a good cleansing. I believe I could cure you. Any time you want, she says to my retreating back. Whenever you can open yourself without your medical doctor beliefs interfering. I tell her I will consider it. The truth is, the whole business scares me.
[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]
[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]