The community of the witches
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
The so-called mal de ojo (evil eye), empacho (indigestion), and any kind of pain can be healed by a group of women from seven rural communities, who owing to their knowledge of herbs have often mistakenly been called witches.
In 2012, 27 rural communities were acknowledged as indigenous communities by the CDI (National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities). These communities have been grouped into microregions, one of them being La Cuadrilla, which is made up of seven communities: Lindero de la Petaca, Guerrero, Salto, Capilla Blanca, Bordo Colorado Los Barrones and La Cuadrilla. These communities have in common the use of herbs for healing. La Cuadrilla is the oldest community, founded in 1700, and currently has 487 inhabitants (82 of them are Otomí speakers). Their main activities consist of making products based on medicinal herbs, witchcraft, production of arts and crafts and midwifery.
Doña Catalina Ramírez Quintero has done embroidery for more than 15 years, having learned the craft from her sister. One of her most successful pieces is called “the miracle,” a piece of fabric on which she designs, draws and later embroiders saints, body parts and even stories. Doña Catalina said she started this activity because her husband was an alcoholic and she had nine children to support and feed (a couple of twins among them). Ramírez said that when she began designing the miracles, she started with a real story. She had a 12-year-old son who suffered from epilepsy; one day, he asked her permission to swim in the river, where he drowned. According to Catalina, she designed her first miracle depicting her son being dragged by the current with a legend stating “this true story occurred in 1989.” That piece sold well. The pieces are called “milagros” because people ask for them from Catalina when they need a miracle from a saint. The people go to Catalina’s house and ask her to design a miracle with our Lady of Guadalupe, San Martín or other saints, and depending on the person’s illness she can draw an arm, a foot, or other affected body part. The requester also tells Catalina the text to be embroidered; it could be something like “I thank you, Holy Cross, for healing my arm.”
She also knits shawls but said that they are very complicated and tiring. She can finish one in a month, she said, or in two weeks if it has been requested in advance. The price is 120 pesos, which is a very low, she commented. Sometimes her comadre buys her shawls, at the same price, and resells them at 200 pesos. She is hoping to have more profits from her work and has trained 10 more women from the community to make those clothes in order to be prepared if someday they have a major order.
Mostly in rural areas, a baby’s fontanelle (“soft spot”) is called a mollera, and it can become sunken when the baby is dehydrated. Mothers in the communities believe that the mollera is sunken because it fell down and for that reason the baby does not want to eat. The baby is taken to old women such as Teodora López, a 92-year-old lady, who learned from her mother how to lift up the mollera. For curing the babies, Teodora turns them upside down and tap them on the bottoms of their feet, and later she pulls their hair. Doña Teodora also introduces a tomato in the baby’s mouth and pushes it up so the mollera can be restored in its place. She says that young people are not interested in learning this ancient cure.
Lucía López Rodríguez was born in La Cuadrilla and later moved to Mexico City, but now she is back in this community. Her grandmother is from Xilotepec, an indigenous community in Querétaro. According to Lucía, when babies are teething they can get empacho from their own drool, and sometimes when their parents feed them chicharrón (fried pork skin) or chewing gum these foods clog their intestines and impede elimination. For curing them (in three daily sessions), Lucía massages the babies’ stomachs, and later their backs until their backbones pop. She uses a pomade called pampuerco, which is sold in bóticas (pharmacies). Lucía learned to do this from her grandmother because her baby frequently had indigestion; her grandmother told her, “You should learn to do this, Lucía, because I will not live forever.”
Witchcraft or spirituality?
Lucía López also commented that often her son was sick from the evil eye (the evil eye, bad energies transmitted to children from older people, causes a baby to vomit and have fevers and diarrhea), and to cure him she had to pay 20 pesos to a healer. So, she learned to do it herself. To heal a baby she passes stems of basil and an egg over the child’s body while she prays. She said that she used to cure older people but her energy was so wasted at the end that she now only does this with children.
In a ritual in which she prays and directs incense to the four points of the compass, Alicia Ramírez has cured members of her family, such as her daughter, who had widespread pain and did not want to go to a doctor. So, she asked Alicia to cure her. Alicia asked her for sticks of pirul (Peruvian pepper tree) and red and white flowers. To heal her, she prayed before an altar, passing the incense, sticks and flowers over her daughter’s body. “When I was on my way to put the flowers and sticks in the trash can, my daughter told me: “Mother, is that for real? Because now I am feeling good.” “My grandfather used to tell me that it is not good to believe, but also it is not good to doubt,” said doña Alicia.
Alicia is the captain of a pre-Hispanic dance group, and every year on September 14, before starting the celebrations for San Miguel Arcángel, she asks God and some saints for permission to hold the festivities, and for that reason people say that she and all the members of the dance group are witches. She said that what she does is not witchcraft because she is communicating with God, and not with evil, as others do—which caused her daughter’s illness.
La Cuadrilla is located next to a hill where all kind of medicinal plants grow, known by the inhabitants as tatalencho, San Antonio, vara blanca, and sangregado, among others. In 2011, María Dolores attended a training course taught by an herbalist, offered by the CDI, where she learned how to prepare healing pomades and soaps. Later, she trained other women from the seven communities. The same commission trained the women to organize, so she decided to form a cooperative to sell their medicinal products. They added some others that they knew how to make, such as candies based on pumpkin or tamarind and water flavored with chía seeds, everything made from raw materials from the area.
The cooperative is made up of almost 50 women, and they have the aim of selling their products not only in the nearby communities and San Miguel and Celaya but also in other states. The organization is called “United Women from El Salto.” Some of the members commented that they know that in San Miguel many fairs are held, but they cannot participate because the spaces are very expensive and they do not have money yet for financing the cost. They have been in touch with local, state and even federal authorities to get support.
Adriana Ramírez is a 30-year-old woman responsible for procuring much support from the CDI for the seven rural communities. Through her efforts almost five kilometers of streets leading from the road to Querétaro to La Cuadrilla, which connects with other communities, were paved with cobblestones. Last year she got 75 sheep for three communities (25 each) and some pigs for others. She also got resources for a beauty salon for people from Guerrero, as well as a stationery shop.
Ramírez, who is the president of the association of women from El Salto, makes a little bit of money from sales of medicinal products and from her work as a beauty technician. She also receives financial support from her sister who lives in the US, but it is never enough, she said. To contact Adriana, call 415-153-2673.