The Good Witch’s Apprentice
It’s called “la tierra de brujos“ — the land of witches. Juventino Rosas, a traditional agricultural town in central Mexico, has a reputation for being home to good witches, bad witches, and healers. All three work with energy — the unseen force that keeps every living thing functioning and connects all entities to each other. The special power of brujos enables them to read, manipulate, and move energy. When something is amiss in an individual, the energy is thought to be blocked, and a powerful brujo can move it.
The brujo tradition is handed down from parent to child or from teacher to student. People are born with special aptitudes, but the techniques also can be taught. Energy work can be used for good or for nefarious purposes, but it is only the former that interests me — I never bothered to find out much about the latter.
I am not a casual observer of such healing traditions; it is a great, driving passion for me. My great-grandmother was a healer in a Russian shtetl, or village, and she did diagnoses by melting wax over a fire, molding it into a ball, and gazing into it. For the past decade or so, I have traveled around the world, experiencing and filming indigenous healing modalities that are rapidly disappearing. Very often, when I offer to pay for my sessions, the healers refuse to take money from me. “You are one of us,” they say, which makes me uncomfortable, and I always deflect it.
Six years ago, I first went to Juventino Rosas and, after inquiring about the best local healer, was sent to the home of Ana María de Villar. I knew a bit about Mexican tradition and requested a limpia, which is supposed to clear or cleanse the energy field and get rid of negative influences.
Ana, a plump, middle-aged Mexican curandera (healer), wore a housedress and oversized glasses and led me into her private chapel, or capilla, which was adjacent to her house. It was a rectangular-shaped room lined with beautiful, old, wooden Mexican string instruments, images and statues of Jesus, and many candles. Ana beckoned me to stand on a large, inlaid stone cross. She burned copal (an aromatic tree resin), and smoke filled the capilla. I instinctively closed my eyes as Ana circled me and performed the limpia, waving herbs in the air and deeply intoning a heartfelt prayer.
That night, I had a dream in which the word serpiente appeared. Because I speak very little Spanish, I was surprised and went back to tell Ana what had happened. She burst into tears, and I was somehow able to understand that Ana’s husband, Pedro, had been a famous healer, and he had died a year and a half before. They were waiting for a sign from him, and that sign was el serpiente — the snake. Ana, still crying, went into the capilla and emerged with a large, carved, wooden rain stick in the form of a snake. She presented it to me and insisted I take it. She said it was used to bring down the power of the moon during healings.
“We are connected forever,” Ana told me. “One day you will work with me as my assistant.”
My Training Begins
And so there I was, six years later, at the León airport, looking around for a cab to take me to Juventino Rosas. Someone called my name, I spun around, and there was Ana. She ushered me into a cab, and we drove to her sprawling house, where she lived with eleven family members. (Trying to understand Spanish with everyone talking at the same time was exhausting.) One of Ana’s daughters gave up her bedroom for me.
Every day at 10 a.m., Ana received clients, many of whom had traveled hours to get there. Ana informed each client that I was her assistant. Every time she said it, I felt a wave of unreality, tinged with fear. What in the world was I doing in a capilla in central Mexico?
Each person or family group sat on a wooden bench opposite Ana, who was on a chair. They spoke openly about their problems, which were a varied and complex combination of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual symptoms. Ana’s face was expressionless as she asked questions. Some of the clients were quite ill, and they had consulted with witches who had told them not to go to doctors. Ana whispered to me, “I need to give them permission to go to medical experts. It’s imperative for them.” Often, Ana prescribed herbal drinks, herbal baths, and footbaths, with ingredients like sarsaparilla, dandelion, and horsetail.
For many clients, Ana performed a limpia, as she had done for me, but this time she told me the names of the main herbs she used: sweet basil and pepper tree. She ran whole eggs over the bodies of a few; she showed me how to “read” the egg as she cracked it and plopped its contents into a glass of water. The way the yoke fell and the degree of cloudiness of the egg white were clues to a person’s state of health. Often, Ana burned handmade candles, each one representing a different aspect of Jesus, a saint, a portal to the spiritual world, the clients themselves, or unnamed others who were causing the client’s problems. When the diagnosis was envidia, or envy, it meant that someone was envious of the client and sending bad energy. A limpia would help to remove that bad juju.
One day, in between clients, Ana pulled out a shoebox full of black, red, and green candles and explained that I needed to know about these objects. Although Ana only practiced healing and white witchcraft, she said there were many practitioners of the black arts who cast spells that hurt people, physically and psychically, and who dealt with the devil — and these were some of their tools.
“Why would anyone want to hurt someone else?” I asked.
“Because the dark forces are very powerful,” Ana replied. “People have been hurt or rejected by others, and they want to hurt them back. They pay a lot of money to witches for this.”
Ana led me to a shelf in the capilla and showed me envelopes stuffed with hundreds of photos that people had sent to her from around the world for long-distance healing. “This is my way,” she said. “I pray for them.”
My job in the capilla varied, according to the client. Sometimes, I handed Ana the incense burner or brought her the incense. Often, I just sat next to her as she instructed me about the candles, the eggs, the incense, the herbs, or the prayers.
For one week, I was in a constant state of overload and exhaustion from the language difficulty. On the eighth day, by some linguistic miracle, I woke up at 6 a.m. and was able to understand about 70 percent of what was going on. It was still difficult for me to speak Spanish, but I could cobble together sentences. At 7 a.m., Ana announced that I was going on a trip with her. A taxi was waiting in front of the door. Once we reached the outskirts of Juventino Rosas, Ana said she was taking me to some sacred places for healers and witches. I laughed and said I was ready for the “Witch Tour.”
The Witch Tour
We rode for about an hour towards San Miguel de Allende and stopped at Santa Cruz de Puerto Calderón. “This is one of the sacred portals,” Ana explained. We walked into a small chapel and were greeted by a curandera, draped in a serape, with sad, sad eyes. Four years ago the holy cross in the chapel, which had been there since 1531, was stolen. The woman said she hadn’t been able to sleep, drink, or eat normally since then. She told us that the cross was from a time when the Indians were at war with the Spanish conquerors. There was an awful battle nearby, with thousands of native and Spanish dead on the battlefield. After the battle, the Indians saw the apparition of a holy cross in the sky, and they understood the power of the religion to which the Spanish had tried to forcibly convert them. They set up the cross as a shrine and, eventually, the chapel was built there.
We got back into the cab and drove to a bridge on the old road to San Miguel de Allende. Ana told me to climb down the steep, slippery, rocky path that led under the bridge. I did as I was instructed and saw the candles and paraphernalia of black witchcraft. The rocks had been charred from smoke and candle-burning. There were remnants of food on paper plates.
“What is the food for?” I asked Ana as I climbed back into the cab. “Is it an offering to the devil?”
She looked at me like I was nuts. “It’s food. To eat. Witches who work their spells get hungry, too.” Then she said with intensity, “Now we’re going to the village of Llanito. There will be an all-night vigil and fiesta there on New Year’s Eve, and you must attend. All the Indians come, and pilgrims come, and many witches. You must stay up all night, and I will show you what to look for.”
I got cold feet — literally. It was extremely windy and cold in the tiny, dusty, run-down village of Llanito — but I also became panicky at the thought of being there all night on December 31. “Ana, I don’t think I can get here again,” I said. “I’ll be staying in San Miguel de Allende after I leave your house. I have no transportation, no warm clothes, and I’m too paranoid to eat from roadside stands. I don’t think I can do it. Will you be here?”
“No. I can’t come this year. You will be here.”
Damn, I thought. Damn. I just can’t do it.
Ana took me into a small chapel in the village called El Señor de los Afligidos — Lord of the Afflicted. She prayed in front of the Christ at the altar and pointed out to me that in her own capilla, she had the same image. I nodded. I followed her around like a puppy. Then she instructed the cab driver to take us to three different calvarios — stone altars or shrines with niches inside. In each niche, she pointed out white candles that had been used by curanderos for healing and well-being. Then she pointed out the black candles, black wax skulls, and miniature votives for harming children. The cab driver ran away, spooked. “You must know to recognize these things,” Ana said, “so you can deflect their energy and not let them harm you.”
On the tenth day of living with Ana, I was in the bedroom, packing my belongings, just about to call a cab to take me to the bus station, when Ana’s daughter came running into the bedroom. “Ana needs you in the capilla — now,” she insisted. I dropped everything and ran to find Ana, who was with clients — a couple and a baby. The baby had been sick, the wife had been sick, and the man felt that perhaps he had been “bewitched” by his ex-wife, who was envious of his newfound happiness. Ana lit candles, watched as they melted, and told the man he was right. “Envidia,” she said. Envy.
Then Ana turned to me and said she wanted me to work with the couple. I was totally, completely unprepared. “Sola?” I asked. Yes, she nodded, alone. I stood up and walked to the altar, beckoning the couple to stand on the stone inlaid cross. I felt like an idiot. I knew nothing. Worse yet, I couldn’t open my mouth and pray to Jesus in Spanish. I just couldn’t do it. I looked over at Ana. She smiled at me. I opened my mouth — and Hebrew came out. I spoke an ancient Israelite prayer for healing and had the couple repeat several words after me, also in Hebrew. The couple looked at me as though it were entirely normal. Ana looked at me as though it were entirely normal. I was sweating down to my internal organs.
I returned to the bedroom, not thinking, just packing. Moments later, Ana and one of her daughters appeared in the bedroom. I thought they had come to say good-bye. Ana walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You are on your own. You can do it. You have been ready for a long time. You know how to do it all. You are now a curandera, with my blessings.”
I burst out crying. Ana burst out crying. Her daughter burst out crying. We didn’t talk. We hugged and hugged and bid each other good-bye. I grabbed my belongings and left.
On December 31, in the early afternoon, an old friend who lives in San Miguel de Allende dropped me off in Llanito. I was overloaded with sweaters, coats, hats, cameras, and a plastic bag full of food. Pilgrims — some of them crawling on their knees — had come to pray for healing from El Señor de los Afligidos. Hundreds of people were descending on the village and setting up camp in the courtyard of the church. They lit fires and cooked food. They curled up on the ground in blankets and went to sleep. It seemed odd that in the middle of such devotion and piety, there were also carnival rides and food booths and an air of merriment. I trudged around, wondering where to park my body. I accepted fresh bread that had been baked in a faraway village by those who had come on the pilgrimage.
After several hours, I talked to a young taxi driver, and he offered to let me deposit my belongings at his grandparents’ house. There, I met his wife and young daughter, and the wife told me about their marital problems, as well as the taxi driver’s awful childhood and his battle with drugs and alcohol. I felt terrible for them — they were so young and so dear. I invited them to be my guests for New Year’s Eve — rides, food, whatever they wanted. They happily agreed.
Late at night, all the revelers gathered in front of the church to watch Indian dancers in gorgeous feathered costumes perform the Danza Azteca, a centuries-old ceremonial tradition. The taxi driver’s wife was standing next to me, and she started crying, telling me how difficult their life had been and that they had no one who cared about them. They paid rent to the taxi driver’s grandparents to live with them, but the young couple felt lost and needed help.
I knew what I had to do; I had no choice. It was almost midnight. “Would you like a healing?” I asked them. They both said yes, yes, they really wanted a cleansing, a healing for the new year.
And so it happened, at 11:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, that I walked to the most powerful of the calvarios, being careful to avoid the evidence of black witchcraft. I lit a white candle I’d purchased in the chapel and began to pray over the couple in Hebrew. It seemed normal to them and oddly normal to me as well. I wasn’t afraid any longer. I prayed from my heart, using gestures and words that Ana had taught me but filtered through my own upbringing and in a language that didn’t seem alien coming from my lips. I prayed and prayed and prayed.
On my last night in Mexico, I ate dinner out and came back to the apartment where I’d been staying in San Miguel de Allende. As I put the key in the front door, I heard someone call my name. I turned around and saw Ana getting out of a cab. She had come all the way from Juventino Rosas. How did she know the precise moment to arrive? She looked at me. I looked at her.
“I did it, Ana,” I said. “Just like you told me. I was a curandera on New Year’s Eve in Llanito.”
She grinned and nodded her approval.
Judith Fein is a journalist, speaker, and filmmaker who has contributed to more than 60 publications.