This article is from the October 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Black Power, White Magic and a Pinch of Publicity

by David Lida 

David Lida is the author of Travel Advisory (Harper Perennial, 2001, 208 pages, $13.00; ISBN 0-06-095933-9), a critically-acclaimed collection of short stories set in contemporary Mexico. His experience with the witches of Los Tuxtlas is the basis of “Bewitched,” one of the stories in the book.

My first witch is a man of medium height, with sleek black hair combed back from his forehead, and skin the color of coffee with cream. He wears a sky-blue polyester shirt and three gleaming gold chains across his chest. He also wears several gold rings and reveals gold-capped front teeth as he speaks. His eyes are as black as ravens' wings; his piercing gaze penetrates to the point of intimidation.  

His name is Tito Gueixpal Seba. “I am a specialist in black magic,” he tells me. “All illness, all accidents, all bad luck and even death are caused by la maldad negra – the black evil. I can take away the black evil by bringing in la poder blanca – the white power – to overtake it. With white prayer, I can unearth what has been buried in the graveyard by black prayer; the white cures the black.”

The walls in his workroom are painted black. Dozens of striped candles, and plastic bottles filled with liquids of different colors – red, green, yellow, blue – lead in tiers up to an altar to the Virgin of Carmen. Amulets for luck line his desk. They depict St. Martin on horseback.

He produces an object wrapped in brown-stained newspaper. “I can also bring about the black evil, and cause great harm, even death,” he says, his eyes more alarming than ever. “All I need is someone's name, their photograph and a piece of their clothing.” He unwraps the package and shows me a doll formed from what looks like parachute silk, dyed brown and tied in place with black thread. “Is that stained with coffee?” I ask. “Touch it,” he says. It is sticky, gluey. “That's not coffee. It's the oil of the dead.”

I’m in Los Tuxtlas, in southern Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. A region comprised of three towns – San Andrés Tuxtla, Santiago Tuxtla and Catemaco – Los Tuxtlas is famous for various reasons. Mexico’s oldest civilization, the Olmec, flourished here between 900 and 600 B.C. Formerly rain forest, Los Tuxtlas is one of the country’s most fertile territories; on the road you see and even smell mango, papaya, pineapple, melon. It’s also tobacco country, where internationally well-regarded cigars are produced. Fish and seafood proliferate in its rivers; fat cattle graze on its lush ranches.

This is deep Mexico, Mexico for aficionados: Although filled with warm and friendly people, in Los Tuxtlas, you have to do a little work to find a bank, a newspaper, a hotel with an efficient air conditioner or people who speak English. The weather is intense: acute heat and humidity, frequent rain.

Yet Los Tuxtlas has a special attraction. Above all, it's famous for brujería – witchcraft. All over Mexico I have heard people talk about the witches here – the curanderos who cure illnesses with plants and herbs and oils, and the brujos who cause spells, good and bad. Some set broken bones, some act as magical midwives while women give birth. Others read kernels of corn like tea leaves. Still others are reputed to bring back straying husbands, help save failing businesses, cause fatal damage to enemies.

Many Mexicans give credence to witchcraft. In every market in the country, there is at least one stallselling scented candles, mysterious oils and herbs, as well as boxes of soaps and packets of powders that promise, in words or pictures, good luck, success, protection for the home or new hair growth. (My favorite, depicting a woman with a gag over her mouth is called jabón de callarme – soap to shut me up.) Yet the witches of Los Tuxtlas have emerged as something of a tourist attraction. Few foreigners come here, but Mexican vacationers are lured from all over the republic.

When I visited Los Tuxtlas recently, I was determined to find out as much as I could about the witches. I was skeptical, but uneasy about the task. In his book A War of Witches, about brujería in another region of Mexico, anthropologist Timothy J. Knab depicts people who kill and maim through the use of toxic herbs, poisonous bat droppings, or the slashing of the jugular vein with extracted jaguar’s teeth.

Dr. Jeffrey Wilkerson, who heads the Institute for Cultural Anthropology of the Tropics in northern Veracruz, looks upon the area’s witches with great skepticism. He explains that Los Tuxtlas was “high jungle” until the 1940's, when good roads were finally extended and the region was fully cultivated. Until then doctors and hospitals were scarce, and given the area’s nature, there was a strong and longstanding tradition of healers who lived in the jungle and learned the medicinal properties of plants, herbs and even animals.

“People all over the south along the Gulf Coast sent their ill to Los Tuxtlas for the best curanderos,” says Wilkerson. But he adds that, unlike traditional curanderos, the brujos of today are simply “a gimmick with a historical root, promoted by people with tourist interests, like hotel owners. It’s publicity, promotion, a modern creation.”

Dissenting, Fernando Bustamante doesn’t draw such a fine distinction between curanderos and brujos. Bustamante, the director of the Museo Tuxteco in Santiago Tuxtla, which houses some of the Olmec treasures found at the nearby Tres Zapotes archaeological site, feels that they are of the same species. “When the curanderos began to say that they could cause ‘spells,’ that they could resolve problems or cause harm, this added an element of psychotherapy to their practice,” explains Bustamante, a grey-haired raconteur who has raised children and grandchildren in Santiago Tuxtla. “If I like a girl, but I’m too shy to approach her, and a brujo gives me an amulet that contains powder, perfume and a rock, when I see the girl, I grab the amulet and suddenly feel power surging through me. Then I approach the girl and the language of pheromones starts talking.” He laughs, shrugging. “It's a lot cheaper than going to a psychiatrist.”

Bustamante notes that uninitiated tourists in the region are frequently the object of scams by the witches, but offers to introduce me to three of them who are his friends.  

The first is the sinister-looking Tito Gueixpal. Almost immediately, Gueixpal warns me that I suffer from envidias – envy. Well, sure, I think, remembering various journalists whose bylines I see more frequently than mine. This is the wrong interpretation. Gueixpal explains that there are people out there envious of me, who in their maldad are keeping me from the professional success I justly deserve. He offers me a limpia – a cleansing to expunge these forces.

Seating me in a chair, Gueixpal has me repeat after him a prayer in Spanish asking the lord to take away harm, to save me from the enchanted snakes buried in the graveyard of evil, to give me salvation from the professional jealousies. As we incant, he grabs a bottle of brackish green liquid that he says containsbasil, rosemary and rue (and which smells like alcohol), and splashes it all over not just the exposed parts of my body – my arms, neck and head – but my clothes as well. He fills his mouth with a blue liquid and spits it all over me, several times over.  

The limpia is finished in minutes. “You're cured,”says Gueixpal, handing me an amulet for good luck and a fat stack of business cards to distribute among my acquaintances. I feel entirely magnetic for ten minutes after our meeting – I don’t know whether from his powers, or being drenched in herbs and alcohol, or the shock of a stranger spitting something blue atop my glistening bald head. Whether “real” or not, Gueixpal has done very well as a witch – he lives in a big house in downtown Catemaco with his wife and children.

My second witch, Gilberto Rodriguez Pereyra – also known as El Diabólico – has an even larger house in San Andrés Tuxtla. His business card assures that he can cure “sentimental problems,” bad luck in business, envies and jinxes (as well as pointing out that he's been interviewed by a prominent Latin-American TV star). Rodriguez is a slender man with a placid, sober expression, conspicuously red hair and lots of jewelry – silver rings depicting an owl, a skull and a serpent; gold, amber, red, black and jade necklaces, the last of which contains the spiked teeth of an animal he declines to name. “People come to me who have had no luck with doctors,” he says. “I have cured cancer. I have cured people who couldn’t walk. I cured a man who had been bewitched; he couldn't speak and had his tongue hanging out. It was enormous, like a dog’s tongue. I evoked God and the Great Lord of the Fog – Lucifer. I asked him to obey my orders and come into the light. Satan obeys the light.”

Like Gueixpal, Rodriguez claims to be able to cause great harm to a person – with nothing more than their name. I ask him if he has any pangs of conscience when casting a spell on someone who may be innocent. He raises an eyebrow. “If someone pays me,” he says, “I have to perform. If I don’t, they say I’m a liar, that I have no powers.”

Inside the thatched-roof hut in Rodriguez’s backyard where he performs his magic is a collage of photos of him with various VIPs – the governor of Veracruz, former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Brazilian soap-opera star and a stunning vedette in a bikini. When I mention that I have certain mild respiratory problems, he recommends that I make a tea with seven leaves of sweet basil and a red rose, and to drink it when it cools.

Our interview is cut short, however, when two clients – expensively dressed, dyed-haired matronly señoras – arrive. Rodriguez gives me an amulet for good luck before I leave.

My third witch, unlike the first two, has clearly reaped no great financial gains from her occupation. Doña Julia Gracia lives in a two-room shack with a dirt floor, cardboard walls and a corrugated tin roof in the humblest neighborhood in Santiago Tuxtla. She is diminutive, hunched and wears a common housedress covered with an apron. She claims to be 64, but the cross-hatched wrinkles around her eyes, forehead and cheeks, and her absence of all but one front tooth, seem to bely her mathematical prowess. She speaks in a whisper. She defines her work as “to take away the bad and replace it with the good.” Doña Julia says that people have come from “all over the world” to see her, and to illustrate, names a dozen indigent towns in southern Veracruz.

She says she can cure espantos (sort of cosmic frights), “airs in the head,” and romantic problems. She shows me three dolls, each formed from melted candle wax. They have human hair attached with pins, and ribbons of different colors. One, she says, is to bring back a straying spouse, another to attract an indifferent lover. The third is para alejar – to banish the extramarital lover far from the cheater’s life.

Our chat is interrupted by a customer – a girl of about 15 is suffering from intestinal problems (unfortunately a chronic complaint in impoverished parts of Mexico, mostly due to poor sewage systems and drinking unfiltered water). Before her altar to the Virgin of Carmen, decorated with white candles and strewn with white lilies, Julia gives the girl a limpia. In her prayer, she evokes various Catholic saints, including Peter, Martin and Mary. She splashes the girl with blanquillo – a clear liquid – and rubs an egg over her forehead, arms, neck and legs. She also passes a soaked bundle of herbs – again basil, rosemary and rue, the holy trinity of Mexican witches – over the girl’s body and under her shirt.

When she finishes, she cracks the egg into a glass and shows the girl that the albumen is filmy, milky, murky. This, explains Julia, is the maldad the girl was suffering from, which she was able to extract. Now, announces Julia, the girl is cured. She charges five pesos – the equivalent of about 75 cents at the current exchange rate.

Visiting the modest world of Doña Julia makes me ponder whether I’m missing the point by wondering if Mexican witchcraft is “real” or not. An attempt to answer that question only evokes further questions: How can we define “real”? Are the practices of Mexican witches so different from modern medicine in the United States, where a witch in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck gives us a pill to cure us of our ailments? How much of our being healed depends on our faith, on our belief in him? Even in the U.S. there is a growing movement of homeopathic, herbal and natural medicine, as evidenced by the popularity of such practitioners as Andrew Weil. Not to mention our beliefs in other arcane products and practices: Rogaine, Fen Shen, daily horoscopes, the Psychic Friends Network. 

And here in Mexico, how much of “witchcraft” is a consequence of the uneasy marriage between Catholic faith and indigenous belief? All three witches I visited evoked Catholic saints and prayers. In any case, in this sweaty, obscenely fertile, jungly region of southern Mexico, off the established tourist trail, where ills were cured with herbs and plants long before the Spanish conquerors arrived, it’s hard not to believe, hard not to be bewitched.

Looking into the limpid eyes of Doña Julia, I am moved by her caring, maternal nature, her essential sweetness. I recall another wry comment of Fernando Bustamante: “We’ve all had the experience as children of having a headache, and feeling better when our mother puts her hand on our forehead.” In this sense, he posits that “all mothers are witches.” If it’s hard to tell what’s “real” among the witches, one thing is certain – hey’re here to stay. Several of Doña Julia’s grandchildren ran in and out of her shack during my visit. The youngest, Julieta, about three years old, seemed to be the apple of the old woman’s eye. At one point she hugged the child to her breast and laughed. “When she grows up, she’s going to be a witch, too,” she said. 

IF YOU'RE GOING By Air or Land: There are various daily connections on both Aeroméxico and Mexicana from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz. From there, various buses on the safe and reliable ADO line to the three towns that make up Los Tuxtlas – Catemaco, San Andrés Tuxtla and Santiago Tuxtla. At the TAPO bus station in Mexico City, the ADO bus line has many daily buses to each destination in Los Tuxtlas.

WHERE TO STAY All phone numbers are local. Catemaco has the best tourist infrastructure. Doubles tend to run around $35 in the local hotels, such as the Hotel Catemaco (Calle Venustiano Carranza, 8; 3-02-03) or Hotel Los Arcos (Madero, 1; 3-00-03). Both properties are clean, cheerful, with phones and TVs in the rooms, as well as swimming pools. Santiago Tuxtla is a good option if you prefer to be distant from evidence of tourism. It’s a picturesque town with a river running through it. The Hotel Castellanos (Doubles, $23) is little more than functional, but it’s comfortable. San Andrés Tuxtla is the largest, most anonymous and least engaging of the towns, but the Hotel del Parque (Madero, 5; 3-01-98) is a bargain at $25.

IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WITCH Tito Gueixpal Seba lives on the corner of Veracruz and Mina in downtown Catemaco, in the neighborhood called Linda Vista. Phone: 3-07-02.

Gilberto Rodriguez Pereyra lives on the corner of Corona and Mateos, not far from downtown San Andrés Tuxtla. Phone: 2-16-04.

Julia Gracia Carvajal can be found on Calle Mariano Abosolo in the neighborhood of Xogoyo in Santiago Tuxtla. She has no phone but when you get to Xogoyo ask around; everyone in the barrio knows her.