Previous posts in this discussion:
PostImmigration, Witchcraft, and the Hancock Nanny (Paul Pitlick, USA, 03/26/21 10:16 am)
Richard Hancock didn't mention his Salvadoran nanny Chila's ethnicity, although perhaps I'm venturing into the land of political incorrectness here.
Is it fair to assume that Chila's background is primarily indigenous (is that the correct word?) vs. a descendant of Spaniards? Does that make a difference in terms of belief in witchery?
JE comments: Richard did send a quick answer to my question about Chila--no, she never again contacted the Hancock family after that first letter. Paul Pitlick's followup question is far more intriguing. We tend to associate "brujería" with the traditional (read, indigenous) cultures, but this might be an oversimplification.
Textbooks on Latin America describe El Salvador as a "mestizo" (mixed ancestry) country--unlike, say, Guatemala, which is primarily indigenous. But as Paul suggests above, such blanket statements about an entire nation may no longer be politically acceptable.
Religion, Occultism, and the Notebook of Don Luis
(Richard Hancock, USA
04/01/21 3:16 PM)
Paul Pitlick's recent post (March 26th) brings me to a related topic. I have had much experience with Religion and Occultism throughout all of Latin America and wish to report on a conference that the University of Oklahoma
hosted at our Mexican conference center, Hacienda El Cóbano near Colima a state just south of Jalisco in Mexico.
It was the year that Carlos Castaneda published his book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in which Castaneda described his apprenticeship to a Mexican healer or sorcerer. This book became so popular that Castaneda appeared on the cover of Time in March of 1973. The manner of Mexican occultism seemed a natural subject for a conference at the Hacienda.
I was aware that this conference could be a touchy subject that might generate complaints to the University, so I wanted to put it in a religious context. With this thought in mind, I contacted Father Dave Penticuff at St. John's Episcopal Church in Norman, Oklahoma. His reaction was positive and enthusiastic. Father Dave had attended seminary with the Episcopal Bishop of Western Mexico. He picked up the telephone and called Bishop Juan in Guadalalara, determined that he would be free for a week in February and the conference was scheduled. Ángel Lara, the director of the Hacienda, and I had visualized this as a sort of "pop" course in Mexican occultism. Ángel had been raised in a rural village and had a good fund of stories about magic and supernatural happenings. We felt confident that the Bishop of Western Mexico was a pretty big gun for this conference.
My first inkling of a problem came when we received several letters and audio tapes which warned us that we were endangering our immortal souls by dabbling in the occult. I took these letters and tapes to Fr. Dave, who reassured me, stating that this kind of protest could be expected from his more fundamentalist colleagues. He felt that the presence of an Episcopal Bishop would be an effective shield against this type of criticism.
Our enrollment had surpassed the minimum necessary for the program to be an economic success, and Fr. Dave, Ángel, and I were greatly looking forward to the conference. That was when my level of anxiety was raised another notch because three priests enrolled in our program: a Catholic from Guatemala, a Jesuit from Mexico City and an Episcopal priest from Guadalajara. I called Fr. Dave, saying that I feared that the "students" might be more knowledgeable than the "professors." Although he reiterated his belief that Bishop Juan in Guadalajara would be a powerful presence at the conference, I could sense that he too was worried.
We had previously discussed the possibility of his getting a curandero, a healer, to attend our conference. The Bishop said that he had been unable to get a healer because "they are too shy." He said that Don Amado, the Director of Indian Affairs for the state of Jalisco, was going to attend. I was not impressed; I took it that the director was most likely a professor of social studies and I wanted a real "Don Juan" if possible. I asked the Bishop if he objected to my attempting to obtain the services of a healer, saying that I knew Don Luis in the La Libertad market, whom I deemed to be an impressive personality. The Bishop agreed with this plan.
I went immediately to the healers' section of this mammoth market. The healers' section is about the same size as a large grocery store in the US. There I found Don Luis with his intelligent eyes and his drooping grey mustache. I had become acquainted with Don Luis several years earlier when I had bought a small clay dog, an artifact of an ancient Indian tomb, which he said was a fetish for the protection of my home against burglary. He said that the dog formed a magic circle around your home and that a thief trying to break in would hear the fierce barking and growling of a large dog. I later bought a clay image of a genuine Aztec "jaguar general," a seated figure with his face appearing through the mouth of a snarling jaguar. "This is an authority fetish for a man who lives in the city," said Don Luis.
I recall a program conducted by the OU Medical College in the Hacienda where the Oklahoma medics visited medical installations in Colima. A psychiatric nurse asked our guide, a Colima doctor, "How many psychiatric patients do you refer per month?" He said, "We have one about every three months." Then she asked, "If that is the case, how come we have so many Mexicans interning in psychiatry in the US?" The doctor replied, "Oh, we're getting ready for the future." The truth of the matter is that many Mexicans seek psychiatric advice from healers.
I tried to recruit to Don Luis to participate in our conference. He replied, "I am just a simple man who sells the products of Mexico that we all know." I said, "That's just the point, we Gringos don't know these products and we would be most interested in learning about them." He finally agreed to attend the conference and I said that I would pick him up at the market at 2:00 PM on Monday. When I arrived at his booth, there were several customers waiting to see him. When I caught his eye, he said, "I'm sorry, amigo, I can't go to your conference. As you can see, I am too busy." He must have seen the disappointment in my face. He handed me what appeared to be a school child's notebook. I opened it and saw and that it was filled with crude drawings which appeared as symbols of some sort. He said, "I had a vision of your conference on Saturday night. I saw all of you standing in a square patio surrounded by the heavy adobe walls of an old building." (I was struck by the coincidence of this description with that of Hacienda el Cóbano.) "There was a priest standing in your midst and I want you to give him this message," he said, pointing to the crude little notebook.
Somewhat downcast by Don Luis's rejection of my invitation, I went to the airport to pick up our "students." Soon, all 19 of us were loaded on the bus headed south to Colima. I became acquainted with Fr. Andres Lionnet, the Jesuit from Mexico City. I learned that he was a Frenchman who had spent 10 years with the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua. I thought to myself, "And we are supposed to teach him about native magic!"
When we arrived at the Hacienda, the Bishop was already there and introduced me to Don Amado. My professor of social studies turned out to be a full-blooded Huichol Indian from the mountains of northern Jalisco. I said to the Bishop, "It is urgent that we have some time to plan this conference. " He replied, "Send the people down to get acquainted with Colima tomorrow morning and you and I will stay home and organize this conference." "By the way," I added, laughing, "Don Luis from the Guadalajara market sent you this message," and I handed him the small notebook.
When I met the Bishop for breakfast the next morning, he said, "That was some message you laid on me last night." "Do you understand it? "I asked. He replied,"No, but Don Amado does. He says that these symbols are magic and that he has never seen them written down before." "Can Don Amado interpret the message?" I asked. The Bishop replied, "I am sure that he can." I said, "Then we have our conference. Don Amado can interpret the message from Don Luis!"
We copied the message on a flip chart, and that afternoon our sessions with Don Amado began. "That scary old man," as Ángel called him, was a perfect stand-in for Castaneda's Don Juan. He told us of white and black magic, of the ability of sorcerers to project their image in two places at the same time. A skilled sorcerer could assume the shape of an owl to guard his field of ripening corn, while at the same time he was conducting his affairs in human form in downtown Colima. It chanced that I took a walk that evening just at sundown and chanced upon an owl sitting on a stump.
Don Amado seemed steeped in the wisdom of both Christianity and Indian lore and saw no conflict between them. When one of our four priests asked a question, he answered with simplicity and confidence. For three days, he held us in the palm of his hand, quoting freely both from the Bible and from his large storehouse of native tradition. Space will not permit a discussion of Don Luis's message. Suffice it to say that it conveyed a whole different philosophy of life and, as the days passed, the absent Don Luis became an almost palpable presence among us.
Ángel had arranged for a spiritualist from the Pacific coast to give us a lecture. I had the responsibility of translating his words into English. This speaker was a man of immense eloquence, well-informed on his subject. I was almost immediately overwhelmed by his rush of unfamiliar names, terms and almost poetic style. I stopped him and asked him to speak in short phrases interspersed with frequent pauses to give me an opportunity to translate. After that, we got along quite well and I was able to do an effective job of translating. Afterwards, during dinner, I couldn't help commenting on how well the translation had gone. He replied, "Oh, yes, the spirits will frequently assist one in translating."
The spiritualist was very well informed; he mentioned books by several spiritualists in Argentina and also those of Edward Cayce, the famous American spiritualist. He said that almost all people are senders of psychic messages, but that only a gifted few are receivers. These few have no control over their psychic powers. They cannot turn them off and on at will. Those that claim to do this are charlatans. All our priests were unanimous in praising this man's lecture.
The final event of the conference was a visit to a healer's residence high up on the slopes of the Colima volcano. When we arrived, we noted that a group of the healer's adherents were present. We moved into a sort of chapel which served as a locale for the healer to hold his ceremonies in. He worked with a medium, who presumably was able to communicate with God.
The healer went into a sort of chant, telling us that a large black bird was circling around our humble temple and that his wings were shutting out the sunlight. As he spoke, the room darkened perceptibly; did a cloud pass across the sun? The medium, a person who appeared to be a rural housewife, groaned, stood up and walked unsteadily to seat herself in a raised chair in front of us. Apparently in a coma, she began to speak in a husky voice in phrases reminiscent of the Old Testament.
Ángel and I were seated near the front of the room and were rather enjoying the spectacle, thinking what a good show this was for our audience. Suddenly, a man arose from the audience and asked me if I would like to ask a question of God. My mind went blank. I looked at Ángel, whom I knew was equal to almost any occasion, "a cool dude," as the young people would say. He was staring fixedly at the floor and I knew that he was feeling the same panic that I was.
Then I had an inspiration; I asked if I might translate what was transpiring to our group. On receiving the healer's assent, I explained to my colleagues in a serious, matter-of-fact manner that God was speaking through the woman on the raised dais, and that now we had an opportunity to speak with God. No one answered and there was a long, heavy silence. Finally, I said, "Come on, folks, we need to participate in this ceremony."
At last, a man from Lawton, Oklahoma, said, "I will ask God something. I have a little dog of whom I am very fond. He was sick when I left and I am worried that he will die. I wish to ask God to heal him." I thought, "Out of twenty people in our group, including several priests, the only thing that we can think of is to ask God about a dog?" With great misgivings, I translated this question for the medium. She replied in her heavy voice, "Peace be with you; your little dog is healed." Our informal master of ceremonies said, "It is appropriate that we seek God's assistance for animals, for we are descended from them and even from the stones in the fields."
It was a privilege to be able to talk with Father Andrés about the 10 years that he had spent with the Tarahumaras in Chihuahua. He had gone directly to Chihuahua from France and had learned of the Tarahumara view of religion before he went to Mexico City to teach math in the Jesuit University there. He said that the Tarahumaras prayed to God, Christ and Mary for things pertaining to the hereafter, but to Indian gods for assistance with matters of this life. He stated that in this they differ little from modern Mexicans, who pray to that holy trinity for things not of this world but to the saints in regard to the here and now. When I asked him about the matter of the unbaptized not being able to enter heaven, he said that there is a holy force in every person that attracts them to God and that, while the ceremony of baptism was important, no precise formula exists for determining whether or not a person has access to heaven.
He also related a supernatural experience that happened to a group of mestizo teamsters traveling through the Sierra Madre. As they traveled, one of the group began making fun of a superstition expressed by another member. Despite the warning of an elder Tarahumara that the spot where they were making camp for the night was haunted, they went ahead and made their camp. In the dark midnight hours, they were awakened by a scream and they saw the man who scoffed at superstition struggling with a dark bulk. By the time they had lit torches, they found their comrade in a dead faint. When they were able to rouse him, they found that he had been struck dumb and could not speak. When he regained his speech, he remembered nothing of his encounter with the supernatural. Father Andrés had talked personally with the men who had experienced this incident and he was convinced of their truthfulness and reliability as witnesses. He did not attempt to affirm or deny their story, but he did say that man's psychic perceptions are deadened if not destroyed by modern civilization.
If one sentence could sum up my experience holding conferences at Hacienda el Cóbano, it would be the expression of the French Jesuit Fr. Andrés who said, at the end of our memorable conference on religion and occultism, "Mexico is a treasure house of spiritual riches."
JE comments: This story, while extraordinary, is no April Fools' prank--promise! Richard Hancock first brought up this 1974 conference in a WAIS post five years ago. Click below for a refresher. (Richard's 2016 post was in the context of a wider discussion on Castaneda.)
Richard, you never told us if the little dog back home was actually healed. I assume he was! And your account inspires me to pose a deep question to everyone in WAISworld. If you could ask God a question, what would it be?