Rivalries Brew In Mexico Witchcraft Capital

Reuters/March 24, 1999
By Michael Christie

Catemaco, Mexico - In Mexico's capital of witchcraft, rivalries are brewing and bubbling.

On the shores of Lake Catemaco in southern Veracruz state, shamans who commune with Lucifer in snake-filled grottoes are pitted against "charlatans" who perform for tourists while white-clad virgins chant in the shadows of jungle stages.

"There are many charlatans here, people who stand in the streets and say 'I'm the chief wizard,' but they don't deliver," said veteran shaman Jose Luis Martinez.

Catemaco, a town of 20,000 filled with the chatter of tropical birds near the Gulf of Mexico 260 miles (420 km) east of Mexico City, has been famous for witchcraft since Olmec times at least 2,000 years ago, local legend says.

Nowadays, tourists are greeted with shouts of "brujo?" (wizard?) by young tour guides with official municipal identity cards. They can eat at the "Siete Brujas" (Seven Witches) restaurant and bar. A market on the lakeside promenade sells plastic witches on key chains and supposedly powerful amulets.

On the first Friday of March, local tourism authorities promote the "Annual Convention of Wizards," charging fees for visitors to rid themselves of evil spells as the moon sends a yellow glow across the smooth waters of the lake.

"We're at a center of the energy, which we channel through the world," Arsenio Ixtepan said with dramatic pauses and theatrical gestures, dressed in a white doctor's coat in the waiting room of his spiritual consultancy.

He then refused to answer more questions about his trade, telling a correspondent to find the wizards-for-tourists syndicate's leader, whom it turned out did not exist.

But Martinez and a handful of other shamans who say they can barter souls to the Devil for wealth or power as well as intervene with God for good health or love say most practitioners are just putting the tourists on.

"The charlatans and blabberers hold their convention but those who have a pact with the Devil don't need conventions," Martinez, a third generation shaman, said. "There's nothing special about this place. That's just the product of television, the press. They come here and dress it up as a great place for witches because it's good for business."

But that does not mean demons and magic do not exist. Many locals appear terrified by strange goings-on on the Mountain of the White Monkey, which rises darkly behind Catemaco, and by the powerful forces apparently swirling overhead as wizards weave their magical webs.

"There's a lot of evil here. There's much more evil than good," a teenage tour guide named America said earnestly, leading a group around the Nanciyaga ecological park. In the park, tourists can purify their skin with natural mud or cleanse their souls in the wooden hut of a "house-wizard."

The main business of the 50 or so sorcerers, healers, shamans and wizards who have set up shop in Catemaco are "limpias" (cleansings) -- freeing peoples' auras of bad vibes -- and fortune-telling through the reading of cards.

But the magic can also be far darker.

Martinez has two houses. In one, where his family lives, a bleeding Jesus swoons on a cross over a white altar lighted by white candles. In the other, near the town's cemetery, where Martinez keeps ancient tomes of dark magic like "The Supreme Book" (El Libro Supremo) and "The Anti-Christ" (El Anti-Cristo), a furious red devil rages above a black altar.

"I could not take you to the dark house for a cleansing because you would be terrified by such a gloomy place," Martinez said.

The dark side of wizardry, known in the trade as the esoteric arts, is full of danger. Politicians seeking political revenge, the avaricious who desire unlimited wealth and the hate-filled who want an enemy to die in a car crash have to sell their souls to Lucifer.

As a shaman, Martinez said, he acted as an interlocutor, taking clients to a cave in the mountains filled with vipers where they could strike a personal deal with the demon. But it requires a lot of strength.

"The evil spirit is so ugly, with long hairs on his face and fingernails as long as this (about three inches), that you cannot look him in the eye because you would be paralyzed with fright ... and then he would take you away," Martinez said.

In a conversation full of legend and lore, he sighed at the sacrifices a shaman has to make to serve the dreams, both evil and good, of his clients. Sitting in the waiting room of his house, the walls decorated with tinsel Valentine's hearts, a photograph of the sacred mountain and a small notebook with a bosomy girl on its cover, he said he had had to offer the souls of seven of his family to gain the powers he possessed.

He spent his nights in the dark house as a servant of black magic and his days attending a stream of visitors seeking spiritual help. All the time, he has to guard himself against the snakes and monsters sent to terrorize him by Lucifer.

"It's a hard life, so full of sacrifice," he said. But he insisted there was more good than evil in his trade, saying God created the Devil and therefore God was dominant.

It is not usually a trade for women because of the rigors, he said, and women have frequently cheated the demon out of their souls, making the evil spirit accept bets he cannot win. "He is afraid of women," Martinez said with a broad grin.

Nevertheless, his 20-year-old daughter Alondra Martinez Martinez is following in her father's footsteps, toiling through three years of study. "There are very few of us willing to take the risk," she said, adding she was one of only two genuine female witches in Catemaco and the only one to live a pure spiritual life without a husband and children.

"But I was born into it. And I like it," she said. "I like helping those people who are suffering."

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