Darcy Lawler experiences La Limpia in an encounter with a witch in the north of Mexico.
It occurs to me, while being beaten mercilessly around the face and trousered groin with a handful of oily herbs, that this witch and her mystical cleansing process are almost certainly going to ruin my nice white linen shirt. This thought has clearly not occurred to the witch however, who now begins to smear a jagged crystal covered in a yellow, mucous-like substance over my face and groin. When she is completely satisfied with my level of mojo, she places the crystal on the purple velvet tablecloth, picks up an egg and, holding it in front of her cupped in both hands like a delicate sacrifice, advances menacingly on me. After a few soothing Spanish words of comfort, she begins to gently caress me with the egg, rubbing it form the crown of my head, down my torso, far too vigorously on my crotch, and over my knees. When she is finished, she cracks the egg into a waiting vase of water, and mutters a final incantation before reading the future written in its eggy depths.
Witchcraft in Mexico has a strange and convoluted history. Not long after the arrival of the Spaniards, the inquisition reached the shores of the New World. This was, of course, almost entirely unexpected for the indigenous people of the area. However, tales of the brutality of The inquisition in Mexico are largely exaggerated. An official edict of the inquisitor’s office noted that given how new the native inhabitants were to the Catholic religion, it wouldn’t be exactly fair to burn them for forgetting to comb their hair in a perfect side part and pull their socks entirely up to their knees or whatever else it is that Christians did to avoid being burnt by inquisitors. Instead, The inquisition in the New World functioned as a political force suppressing the rampant regionalism throughout the Spanish colonies, and leaving the paranoia of the native people, as well as the Voodoo superstition of the slaves, to evolve into a menagerie of folk beliefs and rituals, which are still very much alive throughout modern Mexico.
One of the most visible manifestations of this evolution is the infamous Day of the Dead, which has spawned numerous delicious treats, and countless terrible, terrible tattoos. Another offshoot is the worship of Santa Muerte- the Mexican saint of death and the inspiration for a fair percentage of the world’s heavy metal album covers. The origins of Santa Muerte are rather murky. Some claim that worship of death can be traced to Pre-Columbian worship of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl– the Lord and Lady of Mictlan (The Aztec Underworld). Others point to European images of the Reaper during the Black Death, and still others to the 17th century when a Spanish chronicler noted disgruntled locals dressing up a skeleton in women’s clothing, tying it to a tree and threatening it with beatings should it fail to grant them wishes.
The contemporary history of Santa Muerte owes itself to Doña Queta- a gordita saleswoman from Mexico City who, in 2001 decided to move her covert shrine to Saint Muerte into the streets. Since then, the cult of Santa Muerte has had a… difficult relationship with both the Catholic Church and the Government of Mexico. Although the cult was traditionally assumed to be the preserve of the undereducated and fringe elements of society, it has gathered considerable momentum. Santa Muerte paraphernalia now outsells that of The Virgin of Guadalupe (formally the third most important facet of Mexican society after tacos and oversized hats). The Catholic Church has vehemently denied both the sanctity, and the existence of Santa Muerte (a bold move considering their platform), however, this has had little effect on the cult. This audacious defiance of Papal orthodoxy is somewhat surprising considering the maniacal devotion to the Catholic Church that is evident throughout Latin America. When asked about this, Mexicans typically reply with the supremely pragmatic and fantastically Mexican notion that Santa Muerte is simply more effective than Jesus. Santa Muerte is apparently like Ajax as the Catholic Church is to chemical free, organic, essential oil based cleaning products. That is to say, it is both cheaper, and more effective, but far more harmful if swallowed.
It is considered, throughout the swelling ranks of the devout, that Santa Muerte is capable of fulfilling requests which other saints (and even god-man-spirit-trinities) are either unable, or unwilling to fulfil due to the dubious moral content of such requests. While Jesus might take a dim view of supplications for extortion, murder, and corruption, it seems that Santa Muerte will not bat an eyelid. For this reason, Santa Muerte is the runaway favourite for narco gangs and their concerned families. This potency is the primary reason why the saint is so intertwined with witchcraft in Mexico, and in fact, why it is considered witchcraft at all rather than good old-fashioned Catholic hocus pocus. The rituals themselves are founded entirely upon Catholic traditions, and even tend to include ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’ for good measure.
The lair of the witch is concealed in the labyrinthine alleys of Monterrey’s main market. Disembowelled goat carcasses and sheep’s faces in various stages of dismantlement swing like gruesome piñatas outside butcher’s windows. Stalls selling molcajetes and dried chilies stand next to small, grotto-like shops stuffed full of statues of Santa Muerte, amulets and busts of Jesus Malverde (the patron saint of drug dealers), and lucky charms inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer. The witch’s lair is really a small, grimy fronted shop, crouched between one store selling tropical fruits and another whose windows are crowded with pirated copies of dubbed Hollywood Blockbusters and Mexican wrestling. Out the front stands a stout woman, dressed in the billowy style of Professor Trelawney. She gestures wildly at tubs of wilting herbs and bellows rock-bottom prices at passers-by.
The witch with whom I’d originally had an appointment was a friend of a friend’s mother. Formally, the witch had owned a hair salon in a swanky part of the city. However, realising that she would never make a fortune cutting hair, she had decided to try her hand at the occult. Unfortunately, half an hour before our appointment my witch cancelled. She apparently had been called at short notice to assist a local businessman in finding his missing dog. I was quite disappointed and, upon learning about my disappointment, the first witch had set up an appointment with a ring in.
The replacement witch was a small, mousy mestizo woman with neat, centre-parted hair and a direct, yet vacant stare. The witch asked me what it was that I wanted. The products on offer were cleansings, love spells, curses and hexes, and fortune telling. I selected the cleansing, and after a dire warning, arranged for my translator to stand behind a black curtain to save him from the malignant evil spirits which were going to come spilling from me looking for a fresh victim to latch onto. The black curtain helps with this. He translated the witch’s observation that I had particularly “heavy vibes for a gringo” (no doubt to do with the tacos I had just consumed), and then the beating began.
After concluding the ceremony, my future was read from the watery egg. I was warned, through my interpreter, to beware of a woman of medium height. I was warned to ignore rumours, and to avoid hypocrites, those who wish me ill, as well as Mondays. The egg further suggested that I was a Friday person -embodying both positive and negative elements. I thanked the witch for her suggestions, asked her some questions regarding the process of witching, and left the lair for the steamy corridors of the marketplace, seeking to avoid dickheads, Mondays, and the most statistically numerous type of human on the planet -average sized women.
It is not all that surprising really that traditions like this persist in Mexico. It is not just the old and feeble minded who seek out these ceremonies -while wandering through the market I saw five men dressed in business suits buying statues of Santa Muerte, enchanted candles, and armfuls of lank herbs. These rituals represent something intensely Mexican, not only faith and devotion to superstition, but a ruthless pragmatism which seems at odds with this spirituality. Wherever danger exists in Mexico (and there is an awful amount of danger available for those who would seek it out), the spiritual is also evident. Jesus fish stickers adorn the car bumpers of avowed atheist students, the virgin of Guadalupe is painted everywhere a person could conceivably scrape their knee, and bar owners across the country wouldn’t dream of heading for work without their crucifix chain firmly fastened around their necks. To many Mexicans spirituality is an extension of the principals of luck and good fortune. It is tit for tat.
As I prepared to leave the market, the breathless Trelawney impersonator ran up to me. Could she get a photo of me in front of the shop, for advertising? She asked in breathless yet surprisingly good English. I returned briefly to the lair to pose for a photo and then hurried home. I wanted to try to wash the oil out of my one white shirt.