I've divided this long post into the following sections, and you may well want to skip ahead:
- My first trip to Los Tuxtlas
-The social value of forest spirits
-The debate over the medical value of placebos
- Material National Geographic en Español deemed too potentially inflammatory for the published article
THE FIRST TRIP
When I told the editor of National Geographic en Español that I was going to explore the Los Tuxtlas region of Veracruz state over the holidays with my brother, Anson, he asked me to dig around in the small city of Catemaco. He had always been interested in publishing a story on Catemaco’s famed witchcraft, but wasn’t sure there was one to be told; the abundance of stories in Mexican publications touting the witch’s abilities were always one-sided and, frankly, very uninteresting.
So I set about researching witchcraft in a Mexico City library; an important introduction, among other sources, was “La Magia en Los Tuxtlas” (The Magic in Los Tuxtlas) by Marcela Olavarrieta. Anson and I headed for Catemaco on December 31, and arrived just before midnight. We walked straight into our first mystical custom: “quemando el viejo.” (burning the old man). Catemaco’s residents had made effigies filled with hay, newspaper, sawdust and fireworks, and were spraying them with lighter fluid then lighting them afire. The rite serves to do away with the past year, and start anew with a blank slate. Children no more than five years old lit fireworks and threw them at us. The streets were filled with smoke, thorough which we could see flaming body after flaming body between the one-story houses. We escaped to the malecon (boardwalk) along Catemaco Lake, where hundreds of birds populated the trees’ branches and bats wheeled across the water's surface.
In Catemaco’s center we observed the bizarre mixture of Catholic traditions and witchcraft, then took a boat ride across Catemaco Lake to the eco-resort, Nanciyaga. A brief walk through the jungle as the rain soaked through our coats was followed a tour through the mangroves of Laguna Sontecomapan.
Tired of camping in the rain, we opted for a night at the Rancho Los Amigos for a blissfully dry sleep. There I met Sigrid Diechtl, an anthropologist and former Catemaco resident who previously had helped make a documentary about Catemaco’s witchcraft; she proved a valuable resource for the article. The next night we camped at the beach, Jicacal, and awoke with a small pool inside our tent. The day, at least, was mercifully rain-free. We walked to Playa Escondida, above which we camped that night in an utterly creepy abandoned hotel with an amazing view of the coast and volcanoes. Here I came face to face (very literally) with a small, poisonous snake. Thankfully, it recoiled.
Aside from the snake encounter, the trip was wonderful. I was shocked no one in Mexico City had ever recommended I visit Los Tuxtlas; it seemed many people had never even heard of it. This area of biological wealth is the Americas' northernmost jungle, and the closest jungle to Mexico City; however, tourists go almost exclusively to visit the witches, who most locals I spoke with on that first trip believed to be charlatans. (A common refrain: “The witches will give you a cleansing, but of what? Of your pocket”) That was really the seed for this article’s concept: the idea that charlatans, piggybacking on the fame of the legendary witch Gonzalo Aguirre, abound and, as a result, overshadow the abundance of truly impressive natural wonder. The editor gave me the green light to continue, and I spent much of the following months in Los Tuxtlas.
While most locals didn’t seem to believe in the witches, mysticism was in no short supply. Particularly, they strongly believed in chaneques – the forest spirits that usually appear near water in the form of small, nude children. It seemed everyone I interviewed knew someone who had seen a chaneque, and more than a few said they themselves had seen one. Among them, even two biologists! The type of place a chaneque might appear is Poza Reyna - a jungle pool with a small waterfall. I snuck in after it was closed in order to see it alone, swim naked and, maybe just maybe, spot a chaneque.
Nowadays, most people believe chaneques are mischievous creatures who, for example, might steal your keys and put them elsewhere. (I would gladly chalk up the absentminded misplacement of my belongings to a chaneque.) But, as I wrote in the article, their prehispanic significance was to regulate access to natural resources, and punish those who took more than needed or otherwise violated norms that ensured the forest’s sustainability. I found this belief among people the farther from the city and deeper into the wilderness I got. What I perceived as I spent more and more time in Los Tuxtlas was that rampant deforestation had severed people’s relationship with - and understanding of - the natural world, and that perhaps shamanism had somehow evolved into the witchcraft seen in Catemaco today.
Many people I expressed this perspective to agreed. The owner of the store Fractal, in response, told me about the book “Miradas indigenas sobre una naturaleza entristecida” (Indigenous Views About a Saddened Nature) by anthropologist Elena Lazos and ethnologist Luisa Pare. I picked up a copy at Mexico’s UNAM university, and the authors’ study on the region supported my sense. (Larry Lawson, the interview subject I mention in the article, also turned me on to Wade Davis, in particular his book “The Wayfinders” about the disappearance of ancient knowledge; it helped further consolidate my thoughts. I certainly tip my hat to all three writers.)
What has struck me since doing this story is hearing social myths similar to that of chaneques elsewhere in the world. For example, the Greek dryads, the Ghille Dhu in Scotland, or Japan’s Kodama. Likewise, deities similar to the Jaguar God are recurrent. Most recently, National Geographic’s article on the threats posed to wild tigers highlighted Myanmar’s Naga tribespeople as harboring stories of tiger shamans: “Tigers were Rum Hoi Khan – the King of the Forest, with whom man had a thitsar, a natural bond or treaty. 'Naga used to call male tigers Grandfather and female tigers Grandma,' an elderly Naga man told me. 'They believe they are their ancestors.'” These beliefs seem to be disappearing as youths are raised without wilderness and, consequently, without the beings who reign supreme over it. Or, in Roald Dahl's words, "We watch with glittering eyes the whole world around us, because the greatest secreats are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those that don't believe in the magic will never find it."
So this phenomenon of mystical forces protecting the forest and compelling man to respect the laws of nature is in no way exclusive to Los Tuxtlas; it seems it could be that it was a universal human convention. It makes me think of the Santa Claus mythology; children know he punishes bad behavior by withholding presents, so they behave well – at least in December, anyway - and thus learn moral lessons. Ditto, much organized religion. Dostoyevsky said that, if God is dead, then anything is permitted. Simone de Beauvoir countered that, if God is dead, then we are all responsible. I’m inclined to take her side. If people are not going to believe in supernatural retribution for violating social norms, then they have to take their destinies into their own hands by understanding their common environment and applying the best practices to maintain it. That is, unless the traditional belief in rural areas of Los Tuxtlas is true: that in times of threat, the Jaguar God hides all the forest creatures in the highest mountain reaches, beyond man’s grasp, until they can again live safely...
Below is the New York Times review of Japanese film Princess Mononoke, which addresses many of these same issues; I highly recommend it. The review begins with the forest's supreme deity, the Night Walker, who in Los Tuxtlas would be the equivalent of the Jaguar God, being watched by the kodama (chaneques).
Most witches could be convinced to speak to me by simply stroking their egos: telling them I knew almost all witches were charlatans, but that I wanted to understand how the few real witches, like you, operate. But Gonzalo Aguirre’s son Rafael generally refuses to grant interviews, so convincing him was a big get.
His presence commands respect and attention, and he speaks at length. His active and inquisitive mind also made him one of the more interesting people I’ve interviewed… and interview him I did: we spent more than 12 hours together in his small consultation room. As he warmed to me, he also opened up about the fact that really his service is that of dispensing the placebo effect. I was thrilled to have gotten one of the town’s most renowned witches – and the son of the most famous witch in Catemaco’s history – to finally admit to this on the record. But, eventually, I also had to put the question to him: why are you telling me this if you know people will read this and then doubt you? He gave a knowing grin and responded vaguely that he would know how to handle his clients if and when that issue arose. At the time, I thought him arrogant to believe this – though certainly, for the article's sake, was glad that he did.
Since then, though, I’ve come to see that he understood far better than I the true power of the placebo; a study published by Time Magazine showed that placebos work even when people are aware they’re receiving a placebo. The New Yorker also published a fascinating piece about the possibility of using placebos clinically that featured the director of Harvard University’s recently-created Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. One thing the New Yorker article mentions, and which is more extensively discussed in this Atlantic Magazine article on alternative medicine, is the importance of the patient-doctor relationship that is virtually absent today in most healthcare. (I would say the Atlantic article is required reading for anyone and everyone.) It seems the ability to heal can often come from within, but must be unlocked by such a relationship that provides vital trust, stress relief and also can amicably guide patients toward healthier lifestyles. So maybe Rafael Aguirre wasn’t wrong after all when he said, “The magic is me.”
I’m fairly cold-blooded, but the witch’s sacrifice of the black cat in the Devil’s Cave was one of the most disturbing things I’ve reported on. The photo from this sacrifice that National Geographic published online was tame, and the magazine did not publish any photo in print; the editor ultimately decided that the gruesome images might unnecessarily shock, repulse or incense readers. I can understand why they were not suitable for mass consumption, but I think those exclusive images are worth displaying, both to reveal the ritual itself and because they are impressive photographs. Below are Rodrigo Cruz's photos with accompanying audio.
(NOTE: The audio below is nothing short of horrific. I really debated uploading, because I fear someone will put it to improper use, but it brings home the terrible reality of these sacrifices. For the faint of heart or stomach, I strongly recommend you do NOT listen.)
Rodrigo had photographed many witchcraft rituals previously, but said this sacrifice was the first and only time he ever felt “bad vibes”. I felt progressively dizzier and queasier as we schlocked through the knee-deep muck of mud and bat guano to bring the offering deeper into the cave. However, my physical response could easily be chalked up to the fact that witches apparently pour ammonia in some areas to prevent others from entering the cave. Interestingly, upon leaving I noticed that my silver bracelet had turned a yellowish-brown that washing with soap afterward failed to remove. I thought it could have stemmed from sulfuric gasses in the cave; Gato Negro told me the devil’s presence had caused the stain and that, had he not carried out the prayer to protect Rodrigo and I beforehand, that it would have turned black and I would’ve become sick. His watch, which he wound up insisting I take from him, had no discoloration whatsoever. I reluctantly accepted his gift, but know I’ll never actually wear that thing. Deep down, at least to tiny extent, I have to admit that it still gives me the creeps.
Worth mentioning is that we had left the offering at an altar supposedly halfway into the cave’s depths. Gato Negro said he would return to the cave alone later that night - at midnight - and find the devil himself had brought the offering to the cave’s very end, where the two of them would speak until morning light. I asked if I could come along, and he told me sternly I could not. It was rather exceptional that he had allowed us to observe the sacrifice, so I didn’t feel comfortable pressuring him. But, reflecting later that day, I realized I had the unique opportunity to expose him as a charlatan if the offering were still in the same place we had left it. On the other hand, if it had indeed been transported to the cave’s end, well… your guess is as good as mine. So, without telling Gato Negro, I returned to the path that leads to the cave at about 10:30pm intending to insist on joining him to the cave’s end. I waited, and I waited, and I waited. At about 1am, I gave up. Perhaps he had put it off until later than originally planned, or maybe he never planned to come at all. I thought about venturing into the cave on my own, but remembered how sick I'd felt inside and, truth be told, couldn’t muster the courage. I went back to my hotel to sleep instead and, when I woke up the next morning, my silver bracelet had regained its luster.
I just want to add how much I appreciated the community of Catemaco’s environmentalists, which really is what gives me hope for the Los Tuxtlas region. In other threatened areas that I’ve visited, it seems there are a few people separately fighting the good fight. In Catemaco, people are all engaged in their own projects, but it did seem to me – particularly at two celebrations I attended in Nanciyaga the first Friday of March – that these people are united for the common goal of protecting Los Tuxtlas. I want to highlight Jessica Swanson and her husband for the tireless work with Los Tuxtlas' communities by her NGO, Dematac, and Francisco Gomez, who works at the UNAM’s biological station within the reserve and whose NGO, Selva Toztlan, is working on reforestation projects. He especially helped me understand the natural world of Los Tuxtlas and its threats, and his enthusiasm for conservation was nothing short of inspirational.
Below, a recording of the jungle at the UNAM station at night: