I was there to research a book. The curanderas (healer women) of Cuernavaca had agreed to meet with me and discuss the secrets of their trade. They lived in a modest house, and later in the night they offered me a plastic bowl of green Jell-O. Nothing magical. No one was burning incense, burning candles, sprinkling holy water or chanting mantras. A very noisy, very bad ranchero band was playing in the neighbor's yard to celebrate a barrio wedding. The curanderas' TV had rabbit ears wrapped in aluminum foil.
I had never met them or spoken to them: The meeting had been set up by a go-between. Before I left, a Lakota medicine man I knew in South Dakota said he was worried about me. He could not see into Mexico far enough to know whether I would be safe. So he said he was going to send a Sioux warrior's spirit with me, to stand behind me and protect me. In those days, it was all still symbolic to me. But you learn soon enough that shamans often say exactly what they mean.
When I first entered the curanderas' house, they let out shrieks of terror. They had goose bumps on their arms. They had to sit down. The old one, Hermanita Irma, cried out that there was a tall Indian standing behind me. He had long hair held back by a leather thong and he had his hand on my shoulder.
I, of course, looked over my shoulder and saw nothing. It was not the last time I would write in my journal something like: How could this be real? It must have been some bizarre coincidence.
I had been working on this book for 20 years. I was trying to understand a woman known as the Saint of Cabora. She lived from 1873 to 1906 and she was also known as the Mexican Joan of Arc, and as the patron saint of the Yaqui Indians. Her name happened to be Teresita Urrea. She was my aunt -- well, a distant cousin really, but in my family she was Tia Teresita.
I had spent my boyhood thinking she was a myth, taking her place among all the demons, ghosts, apparitions and cads populating the crowded Urrea tall-tale arsenal. But as I discovered her historical trail, I found the documented events more astounding than the lies I'd heard in Tijuana. Here was a woman who could, according to newspaper reporters from Mexico, the United States and Europe, heal the sick with a touch. While exuding the scent of roses, no less.
The more I entered her shamanic world, the less I wanted to write about it. I confessed this once to the Native American author Linda Hogan. I told her my "Western mind" couldn't wrap itself around all this mystical stuff. She said: "Honey, the Western mind is a fever. It will pass."
Like most Mexican American kids, I had been raised among herbalists and occultists, fabulists and miraclebelieving Catholics. I had been the first in my family to graduate from college, and certainly the first to teach writing at Harvard. Western mind? I had a Western hard-shell, and now I had to come full circle and believe that my dirt-street abuelas knew more than all those snarky PhDs.
I landed in Tucson one year, hoping to get closer to the Yaqui people. The Arizona Historical Society, with its archives of Sonoran desert phenomena, was also a strong draw. In Tucson, I learned I had distant cousins who were Apaches. And cousins who were Yaquis. I found out that words I had heard all my life in Tijuana were actually Cahita, the language of the Yaquis. Like "bichi," for naked. I also, like the adept in a Carlos Castaneda book (the Yaquis still want to roast Castaneda over a mesquite fire for lying about them), met my teacher, Cousin Esperanza.
Esperanza is a medicine woman descended from the Mayo, sister tribe to the Yaquis. Her grandmother was the healer of the Mayo village of El Jupare, Sonora, and her name was Maclovia Moroyoqui. She was a descendant of Moroyoqui, the greatest war-leader of the Mayos. Esperanza, then, stood at the apex of two powerful bloodlines -- Teresita's and Moroyoqui's. And one of the first lessons she gave me was this: "White people think what we do is magic. It's not magic. It's science." (Well, she actually said something unprintable about gringos.
When we met, she told me I had something out of balance in me, and she subjected me to a painful massage. When she was done, she said, "In 90 minutes, you will start to cry. But don't worry."
An hour and a half later, I started to sob. I was suspicious. Had she worked some juju on me, or had she merely programmed my mind? Had she just put in a magician's suggestion? When I asked her, she said, "What's the difference?"
Recalling my talks with Hogan, I confessed to Esperanza that I was unsure about writing the book. Not only was I deeply wary of those groove merchants who shopped among indigenous religions to cobble together feel-good New Age tomes, but I didn't know if a man could tell a woman's story. And she said: "You men. If you want to know something about women, why don't you ask? And when we tell you, why don't you listen?"
I tried. To listen and learn. I heard tales of miracles. I saw ghosts. I might even confess all that I saw when I get to know my readers better. But I never saw a single healing. Not a moment when someone rose from a wheelchair and danced. Except on Benny Hinn TV broadcasts. But I learned of a deeper kind of healing. Something inexplicable. It has to do with serenity.
One of the curanderas in Cuernavaca told me, "If you do not want to join us in Teresita's work, then you must heal in the power of your own medicine. You must heal them with words. Literature is medicine too." The band outside started the roosters and dogs going. We all smiled at each other and ate our Jell-O.