This article is from the October 2001 The Mexico File
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.