Las Brujas

January 18, 2013

Most people who meet my casual acquaintance struggle with where to place me. Many file me with “must be Native American.” A few ask point blank if my parents were hippies. When I lived in southern Arizona, I was surprised (and a bit disturbed, because I wasn’t used to it) to discover that many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had me pegged right away. Some (actually the majority) carefully avoided me. Others cajoled me into telling their fortunes or even asked for charms. My landlady had trouble getting repairs done because the Mexican construction workers she employed refused to enter my house. A friend of mine, also a brujo, had an even more disconcerting experience: some Spanish-speaking landscapers he hired reported him to the sheriff.

In Brujas, Bultos, y Brasas: Tales of Witchcraft and the Supernatural in the Pecos Valley Nasario Garcia interviews los viejitos, the old folks, in rural New Mexico about the witches. The book reminds me of ghost story compilations from the Ozarks or Appalachia. Witches and supernatural occurrences are portrayed in wholly malevolent ways. The line between witches and healers is firmly drawn, something which contradicts my own observations in southern Arizona and in another part of New Mexico. The familiar story of folk healers defaming rival healers with accusations of witchcraft sounds like it might be part of the subtext in these reminiscences, although this is reading between the lines. Another possible parallel with other folklore of European derivation is the description of ghosts or witches as points of light – brasas or embers. In some cultures the fairies are described as sparks of light.

The viejitos often talk about El Mal Ojo, the evil eye. According to Viviana Tapia, “You treated it by spitting wild pie plant with cachana, a root used to ward off evil. You had to spit it – spit in the face of the afflicted so that the evil eye could be lifted, so that it would go away. It’s cachana, that’s what the medicine is called. The same persons who would spit it are the ones who would chew it (the root). And it had to be a Juan or a Juana in order to cure the victim, got it? Any other way was not possible.”

Another common theme in the interviews is La Llorona, The Wailing Woman, for those who like to collect these stories. I won’t go into this legend here today, but if there’s some interest I’ll do a post on it later.

Most of the people interviewed do not appear to know anything special about witchcraft (although you never know), but there is one woman I would like to have talked to. The interviews happened about twenty years ago, so it is unlikely that any of the storytellers are still alive. I appreciated having both the Spanish and the translation. Academic researchers have a hard time understanding magical concepts, and what they interpret is highly suspect. Although my Spanish is not the best, I think the translation is dependable.

I wonder if some day a folklorist in the Sonoran Desert will be collecting stories about La Bruja Gringa. I did NOT put El Ojo on anybody, just so you know. I will haunt you with a thousand brasas if you say I did.

MLK Day 2012

January 13, 2012

Nurses march in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone.

I had the good fortune of living for 12 wonderful years in Arizona. There are many good people there, and scenery is unparalleled in its variety and beauty. Discerning citizens agreed, however, that leaving the state for a visit elsewhere was one of the (many) downsides. It was embarrassing. People would invariably ask about felonies committed by elected Arizona officials that would make a Chicago mayor blush. They would ask about boneheaded actions of these officials, like refusing Federal health-care dollars on the principle that it was socialism or refusing to implement the results of public referendums. And of course they would ask about Arizona’s refusal to adopt the Martin Luther King holiday.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of the King holiday, but the first effective push for a paid holiday commemorating Dr. King came from labor unions as a part of collective bargaining agreements. Later Representative John Conyers introduced legislation to make King’s birthday a Federal holiday. The road to acceptance of the King holiday was rocky in many places, but none more so than in Arizona, the only state where the holiday was established by public referendum. Lawmakers punted the issue to the voters, citing concerns about “cost,” effectively hiding their racism behind an anti-labor stance. Labor unions responded by making the issue costly indeed, particularly when Pro football players successfully lobbied to change the venue for the 1990 Super Bowl, which had been slated for Arizona. Following a second referendum, Arizona celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1993 as a state and federal holiday.

If the commemoration had not been so bitterly fought for, I probably would find myself disliking the holiday altogether, because it seems to me that the further we go in celebrating the man, the further we retreat from his vision. King fought with the African-American people who found themselves at or near the bottom of the have-nots, and at the same time saw beyond this to the evils of having classes of disenfranchised people at all. Ending poverty became an obsession with him, and he said “I’m as concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty” (July 4, 1965, Atlanta). He said “Our only hope today lies in our….declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism” (April 4, 1967, New York).

Today the income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% is the largest since the 1920s. The US military now has the power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial. Alabama has joined Arizona in a law harassing immigrants for documentation papers. And speaking of documentation, new voting laws disenfranchise the poorest voters, many of whom are African- or Mexican-American, by requiring papers that are difficult for the lowest income people to acquire. All in one year. It’s an anti-Dream trifecta.

I understand there’s a popular Broadway play right now about King, and his place as one of the great men in American history remains assured. Nothing wrong with that. Yet there’s something going on here that rubs me the wrong way. How can you exalt a person’s life and at the same time ignore everything they stood for? That’s what we do for one day, every January.