Hexes and blessings are muttered in the same breath where witchcraft is a way of life
CATEMACO, Mexico – The witch is cloaked in a black gown with a Chinese yin-and-yang sign, representing the moon and sun. Dark and light.
Through lace curtains, a shaft of light casts an eerie glow onto the altar. A spindly, wooden red devil dominates the table, towering over the potbellied Hindu elephant deity Lord Ganesha and statuettes of Merlin, Buddha and Shiva.
This is the room where Ignacio Cobix casts spells of life and death, love and spite.
His timber house is a block from Lake Catemaco, where Mexicans come for boating, fishing, bird-watching and spiritual cleansing. Catemaco is one of three major villages in the Los Tuxtlas region south of the port of Veracruz. Like neighboring San Andrés Tuxtla and Santiago Tuxtla, Catemaco is shaped by virescent volcanoes and magic realism. Here, hexes and blessings are muttered in the same breath.
Myths and legends flourish as lushly as the waterlilies in the lagoon: Tales of water spirits. Tales of la Virgen del Carmen. Tales of the devil.
“You have bad energy around you,” Cobix tells me in Spanish. “You need a cleansing.”
Tonight is supposedly ideal for an aura cleansing. The magic will be strong when midnight ushers in the most important day of the year for the residents of Los Tuxtlas.
“The people believe that the first Friday in March is the first day of creation, the first Friday in history,” local anthropologist and raconteur Raymundo Gonzáles says. “It’s a potent day for magic. All the high witches are here for the gathering tonight.”
Every year, witches convene for the annual Brujos Convention in Catemaco, an area many regard as the center of magic.
Mexicans believe there are three types of magic: black, white and red.
Curanderos practice white or red magic, using plants or the spiritual world to heal. Most feared are the brujos, or brujas if female, who practice black magic.
Curanderos, or shamans, are bound by the law of nature and karma to never do harm. But brujos, the powerful witches, answer to a darker creed.
The devil’s cave
“Brujos can put curses on people. They make bad things happen, and from what I’ve seen, it works,” says John Todd, a Houstonian who lives in Veracruz.
“In Mexico, there are three levels of illnesses. The first is spiritual. The second is emotional, such as sadness, and the third is physical. In the United States, people turn to doctors and pills to treat physical illnesses. But they don’t treat the emotional and spiritual. Mexicans believe you must treat all three.”
I had asked my guide, Andrés Huesca Tapia, to find a brujo. He laughed, pointing to the young men on dusty motorcycles zooming up and down the road to Catemaco.
“Pick one,” he said. “Those men are roving billboards for the brujos. They’re everywhere.”
Now we find ourselves in a waiting room, commanded by a woman with ebony eyes. She introduces herself as Ignacio Cobix’s confidante, housekeeper and mother.
“I knew from the start my son was gifted,” she says. “A mother just knows these things. Even Mel Gibson came seeking his advice. He was in Catemaco, filming a movie about the Maya. You wouldn’t recognize him, unshaven with a thick black beard. I didn’t care for it. But I recognized his eyes. He has beautiful blue eyes.”
Almost everyone in Catemaco claims that Gibson “was here.” And maybe he was. It’s a dime-size town, divided by winding roads and houses with peeling paint. At the center of social activities is Lago de Catemaco, a massive bowl of water formed millions of years ago by now-extinct volcanoes. With peaks poking through gray mists, the sierra casts an eerie aura over steel-blue water.
I am sitting on a creaking chair, waiting for the brujo. Minutes later, a young man with puppy eyes walks out of a side room and waves us inside. Sitting behind a writing desk is the gran brujo, sober and boyish in appearance.
“A brujo can never marry,” his mother had told me earlier. “My son can have relationships, two at the same time if he wishes. But he can never wear gold jewelry. Ever.”
Gold is a symbol of vanity. Wearing it would anger the spirits and drain him of his power.
Where he’s most powerful, Cobix says, is in his cave, about an hour’s boat ride across the lake. Last year, German journalists filmed him there, performing a ritual. He shows pictures of the cave, surrounded by vines.
Caves are cradles of mysteries. According to local legend, the devil’s cave is somewhere in Los Tuxtlas. It leads from the real world to the world of the dead.
“We can go there,” Cobix says. “I’ll charge only 2,000 pesos. Usually it’s more.”
Seeing my stunned look, my guide intercedes and tells Cobix that I can’t pay $200.
Cobix nods his head, understanding, but doesn’t budge, so we leave.
“Come back tomorrow,” he says on our way out the door. “I’ll do an aura cleansing. You need it. Normally I charge people 300 pesos. For you, 200 pesos.”
Catemaco cools at night. The mountain air fans the boisterous crowds at the Brujos Convention at a park outside town.
Onstage, dark-eyed beauties in beaded Aztec costumes perform songs and dances. Their male partners glisten with energy, stomping across the stage with bravado. The music continues well past the witching hour.
Wispy white tents flank the stage, belonging to various brujos, sages and curanderos. Aside from a few dollars for parking, entrance to the festival is free.
“Spiritual cleansings cost 100 pesos,” says the gate attendant, “the same as tarot readings.”
I opt to scout the stalls, where charms are sold. Rabbit’s feet. Horseshoes. Coyote talismans. Leather bracelets. Jet amulets. Clay totems. Red pillows for love and good luck.
“Witchcraft is a corrupted word,” my guide says. “When the Spaniards arrived, they converted wishcraft into witchcraft. It’s not so much witchery as wishing for something.”
The movie star
The next day we drive to Santiago Tuxtla, nearer Veracruz. We pass tobacco fields in San Andrés Tuxtla, where tourists can visit one of several factories to see how the large, floppy leaves are cured and rolled into prized cigars.
With its serene, bone-white colonial main square, Santiago Tuxtla attracts those curious about El Negro, an ancient Olmec sacrificial stone believed to channel powers.
El Negro is only one reason to visit this old village, where men pass the afternoon beneath swaying coconut trees, playing cards. Mexico-based author David Lida, who wrote about the witches of Los Tuxtlas, had suggested that I call on an ancient woman known as Doña Julia. Of all the brujos, she had made an impression on Lida.
But first, El Negro and Shirley MacLaine.
“Shirley MacLaine was here. She heard about its power. She wept when she placed her thumb on El Negro’s forehead,” says museum director Juan José Palagot Perea, standing in front of the oblong stone sculpture with a flat, almost baby face.
I’ve heard many versions of this story. Some people say the New Age guru-actress actually lay on El Negro, face up with her arms to the side for full effect.
“No, no, she didn’t do that,” Palagot says, chuckling. “She simply placed her thumb here.”
He directs me to put my left thumb about an inch from El Negro and close my eyes.
Seconds later, darkness is colored by pulsating red light. I feel lightheaded. And in my mind’s eye I am flying high above mountains. Are these images induced by sunlight pouring from a window overhead? I can’t be sure.
My guide, Andrés, is next. Descended from Aztecs, he has high cheekbones and tanned features framed by lustrous, long, inky curls. A former professor, he traded his job in Mexico City for the slower pace of a small fishing island in Veracruz.
Andrés starts to cry, a quiet shower that lasts five minutes before he opens his eyes. Embarrassed, or overwhelmed, he turns, waving us away.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” he says. “This is too much. I need to go outside to get some air.”
When Andrés returns, the museum director smiles and nods his head knowingly. “I didn’t tell you beforehand what you might see because I wanted you to discover for yourself,” he says. “Some people see the color red, others pyramids. Some even sense they’re flying over a great expanse of hills back in time. And others see a cave with a man, El Negro or one of the ancients.”
Leaving the museum, I spot another Olmec stone head in the main square. It’s a colossal figurehead with a helmet over flat, jaguarlike features and bulbous lips. Even now, this ancient civilization, the oldest in Mexico, has a hold on the people of Veracruz.
As we wave goodbye to the museum director, I remember to ask about Doña Julia.
“Ah, yes, she was one of the greats. But she’s no longer here,” he says. “She died last year.”
The lady shaman
For several months, Gibson and his crew shot the Maya epic Apocalypto near Nanciyaga. The movie set was still up when we drove into the private nature reserve. It’s easy to see why Gibson chose this dew-drenched rain forest on the northern shore of Lake Catemaco.
Nanciyaga is one of those places where you can be one with nature but not in the wild. The reserve is riotously lush with native fauna, a rain forest with the luxury of a restaurant and nearly rustic cabins for $75 per night, which includes mud facials, mineral baths, boating and other activities. Nanciyaga attracts Mexican crooners and movie stars seeking to renew mind and spirit.
“People come here to be close to nature,” guide Agustín Rafael Domínguez says. “But they also want to be spiritually healed. Magic is a tradition we have had for generations. We were told magic exists. Some people don’t believe. I don’t know why. It’s not the magic they see in the movies. It’s more about the aura, the energy between nature and man. Herbs and plants have the ability to cleanse us, cure us. Why is that so hard to grasp?”
Eager to illustrate his point, he takes me to the wooden hut of Asunción Ixtepán, one of three white shamans who perform aura cleansings, or limpias, at Nanciyaga.
Dressed in a flowing white dress against the jungle backdrop, Ixtepán exudes Mother Earth. She directs me to follow her through a beaded curtain into the hut, where there is an altar laden with colorful pictures of saints and wooden crosses. I feel at ease, unlike the sensation that washed over me when the brujo Cobix performed the aura cleansing.
Warmth rather than dampness. Lightness rather than weight. Cobix had rubbed an egg over my arms, neck and head, then brushed a long bundle of leaves over my body while whispering an incantation that I couldn’t make out. Afterward, he instructed me to throw the egg on the side of the road to get rid of the malady. He took the 200 pesos, then sent me on my way.
Ixtepán turns me to her. She places her hands on my head. Warmth radiates from her to me. A mother’s womb. She starts to pray:
“Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, please protect her, give her a house, food and a job. Let nothing go amiss in her household. Remove all bad spirits. Luck be with her.”
She finishes by brushing herbs and citrus leaves along my back and shoulders. The leaves feel soft and cool. Their heady fragrance makes me think that perhaps this is something like aromatherapy or herbal medicine.
“Now, be strong and go in peace,” says Ixtepán, placing an herb-filled amulet in my hands.
Life is ironic. I learned later that the picture on the amulet is of St. Ignatius, in Spanish Ignacio, the same as the brujo Cobix.