We passed through the open door into the courtyard of the corner house that sits at one of the numerous back street crossroads of the village. Behind the tall wall that protects the house from the street was another world, but it wasn’t evident to begin with. Stepping in off the street, I entered a small store filled with neighborhood necessities: chilled soft drinks, beer and wine, packaged snacks — chips and cookies, bathroom tissue, laundry soap, small bins of avocados and mangoes, a stack of commercially packaged tortillas made in the city, jars of salsa. The convenience store is ubiquitous in Teotitlan. They exist on every other corner.
A woman greeted us in Zapotec expressing the traditional welcome – a tonal and gutteral tongue-twister that I have yet to master — her two hands outstretched to clasp my two outstretched hands. Her face was seasoned, creased, serious. Her hair was braided with red ribbon and wrapped around her crown. Her over-dress was the typical embroidered apron (mandil) that is the uniform of village womanhood. I would guess her age to be somewhere between 50 and 60, but she could have been older and it was hard to tell. She led us into the altar room and did not turn on the lights. It was dusky gray and the open door to the courtyard was back-lit with light that gave the aura of otherworld smokey, ethereal existence. She told us she learned her healing from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on and so on. We were in the process of beginning to expunge the demons from our bodies. Through association, any of us who had a relationship with those who had been in the car accident were ripe for the curandera. It was interesting for me to understand that interrelationships, emotional well being and support, and how something of significance that happens to one or two people can have an impact on many. When all heal together, the healing is faster and has greater benefits and results.
It was an honor and a responsibility to be invited to this very intimate and personal ceremony. We were there to get past the accident and move forward with our lives. Sitting in a semi-circle, we waited. The woman left the room. We looked at each other in silence wondering what was next. There were whispers and a giggle or two. In 30 minutes, she returned with glasses and a glass pitcher filled with a green, foaming concoction that looked like spinach blended with soap suds. She offered each of us a full glass and asked us to drink. Someone asked, what’s in it? A family secret, she answered. Herbs I pick from high in the mountains that are only available in the spring. They drank, I sipped. After each person finished their drink, the woman took a mouthful of the liquid, stood facing him/her, and spat the mouthful onto his/her face with such surprise and force that it propelled each of us backward a step. She murmured something, and went on to the next person. When the circle was complete, the eight of us thanked her and left. The family would make three or four more return visits to complete the cleansing process.
I went with curiousity, mild anticipation, and a sense of wonderment at being invited into this sacred and special space to share in this ancient ceremonial folk tradition. I came away with a sense of awe and respect for how important it is to honor what goes on in our minds. The stories we tell ourselves about “good and bad” are powerful. Standing together in this small community of family and friends, we could acknowledge the pain together, and strengthen our bonds of support through this ancient custom.