Huautla de Jiménez: in the footsteps of María Sabina and John Lennon
A couple of weeks ago, after a pleasant overnight stop in Tehuacán in the state of Puebla, I set off for Huautla de Jiménez, a small town high in the Mazatec sierra in the Northern corner of the state of Oaxaca, close to the border with the state of Puebla.
Huautla is famous – or notorious – for being the place where María Sabina lived, worked and died. María Sabina was originally a subsistence farmer from the Mazatec indigenous people who also worked as a respected curandera (healer) within her local community, conducting ceremonies where she used diffeernt local mushrooms, which she called santos niños (holy or saint children), all containing the psycho-active ingredient psilocybin.
She became catapulted to fame when in 1955, a visiting amateur ethnomycologist, Gordon Wasson, whose day job was Vice President of the investment bank J.P. Morgan, together with his fashion photographer friend, became the first westerners to participate alongside María Sabina in a velada – the night-time sacred ceremony involving the santos niños.
Despite being sworn to secrecy by María Sabina, Wasson published an account of his experiences in the May 13th 1957 issue of Life magazine – at that time the most influential magazine in the USA. This article has been claimed to have initiated the psychedelic revolution, as it particularly influenced Timothy Leary and others to start experimenting with these mushrooms.
Soon, all sorts of people – including it is said, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan – started to make their way to Huautla in the sixties to experience the veladas with María Sabina. She became an icon of the counter-culture. Much of the effect of the foreign visitors, however, was negative. They expressed their sixties ideals and customs – for example, making love naked in the maize fields – with mostly no respect for the local culture. In 1967 and 1969, the army was brought in to evict long haired foreigners, or “jipis” as they were locally known, from Huautla and they were prohibited entry to the town until 1976.
Despite, or because of, this rapid rise to fame, María Sabina’s life ended in 1985 tragically and in poverty. She had become ostracised by her local community – through a combination of envy and for having revealed its secrets to outsiders. Her house was burned down, and her son murdered. Towards the end of her life it was claimed she said:
“But from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it…”
Another respected male curandero said:
“What is terrible is that the sacred mushroom no longer belong to us. The language has been spoiled and is indecipherable to us … “What is this new language like?” “Now the mushrooms speak English! Yes it is the tongue the foreigners speak”.
To read a post that explores this exploitative legacy of the West in relation to María Sabina and the Mazatec community in Huautla, click here.
María Sabina has become a very ambiguous figure within Mexican culture. Heriberto Yépez, in an insightful and thought-provoking article about María Sabina and her link with Malinche, the generally despised indigenous woman who was Cortés lover and helped him in the conquista through her ability to translate between Spanish, Maya and the Aztec languages, says that:
“There is no doubt that unconsciously the public at large granted Sabina the attributes of a pop-culture version of Malinche, famous because she facilitated the invasion of famous people from around the world. In this view she was a woman dedicated primarily to helping rock-stars, beatniks, poets and adventurers from the United States and Europe have a nice trip in Language Land – Huautla as a little rural Disneyland for New-Agers. Sabina suffered the stigma of being involved in sell-out tourism, becoming in the popular mind one of those persona of popular culture that, thanks to their friendship with the dollar, are almost non-Mexican:border prostitutes; jumping frijoles; Tijuana; and María Sabina, an Indian healer turned chic guide for crazy gabachos, a betrayer of the nation.”
I was not aware of most of the above when I set off to go to Huautla. A friend of a friend had given me contact details for her cousin who lived in Huautla, and recommended that I get in touch with him if I wanted to participate in a velada, as there are many charlatans offering their services to outsiders.
As others have commented in relation to their experiences of going to Huautla, the drive there is vertginous and spectacular. From Tehuacán to Teotitlán the road is flat as it follows the plain for about an hour, but from Teotitlán, there is a steep and dizzy climb to the heights of the Sierra.
After a long initial climb, the road levels off somewhat and there are attractive views of the Sierra, before a final descent and ascent to Huautla. Overall from Teotitlán it is about 75kms and a two hours drive.
Huautla is a sprawling town set into the hillside with steep streets. My first impressions were not good. It is one of the ugliest Mexican towns I have been in, full of corrugated-iron roofed houses. In places, it smelt of sewage, dog shit, rotting vegetables and garbage. After I parked my car and walked around the narrow, enclosed streets trying to locate my friends’ cousin, everywhere seemed dark. The people were minimally courteous and there seemed none of the infectious enthusiasm and spontaneous warmth that I have found before in other small Mexican towns.
I finally located my friends cousin. He explained to me that he was no longer involved in giving ceremonies but he recommended two people to me, so I set off to locate them. The first person, Ines Cortes, was known to me from two blogs on the internet (click here and here). Her house is located above and behind the Casa de la Cultura.
I had intended to visit both people recommended to me, but on meeting Ines I decided to participate in ceremony with her. She emanates warmth, compassion and humanity. In addition, she has been a curandera for 40 years, working first with her uncle and then with María Sabina for nine years. She told me that John Lennon had indeed visited Huautla for five days in 1968 – I had suspected it might be a myth – and that she had met him.
She also said I could stay in her house in a simple room on the third floor for 70 pesos a night. I really enjoyed my stay with Ines and her family, and ended up staying for three nights. As time went on, and I got to know her family better, I felt very welcomed and well looked after. Although we had not talked about food, the family naturally invited me to eat with them, though I was mostly fasting in order to participate in the ceremonies.
Her husband Juvental, when he heard that I was keen to go walking, invited me to accompany him to the land he works. Our walk took us past a brand new building, never used, which Juvental explained to me was meant to be a new university in Huautla. His view was that APPO, a social movement in Oaxaca opposed to the former state governor, and initiators and organizers of the widespread rebellion in Oaxaca in 2006, had prevented this building ever being opened. I was surprised by this, as I had always been an instinctive supporter of APPO, and it gave me a glimpse into the complexity of Mexican politics.
The walk was part of my preparation for the first ceremony, which started at around 8pm. I was the only person present apart from Ines. Later, her husband joined her with the singing and at one point her grandson popped in. Ines gave me six mushrooms to eat. Fresh mushrooms are only available in the rainy season between June and September. Ines told me that there are three types of mushrooms used in the ceremonies and that the most powerful can only be found in June. Whilst I started to feel the effects of the mushrooms, Ines gave me a cleansing, a reading using the burning of copal, said prayers and sung songs in Spanish and Mazatec.
The ceremony is a syncretic mix of indigenous and Spanish catholic elements. Ines’ altar (which is the first photo on this entry) is an extraordinary and eclectic collection of religious and non-religious images from all over the world, including pictures of her family, and proudly displaying a plastic Mexican flag.
It was a real treat to have the ceremony directed just at me as I was able to ask Ines to sing more songs in Mazatec, rather than Spanish, and also to ask her to include the names of my family in a beautiful and simple song she sang which mentioned different peoples’ names.
My experience finished around midnight. Ines then gave another ceremony to two people who had just arrived by bus from Oaxaca and were to go back to Oaxaca early the following day. This seemed a crazy and overly-rushed way to participate in a ceremony of this kind.
Initially, I had only intended to participate in one ceremony, but as I felt the process I had been through was still incomplete, I asked Ines if I could participate in a ceremony she was running the following night with four other people and she agreed. This time the experience was very gentle, and the following day I felt I had been through an important cleaning process.
As I got to know them better, I talked to Ines and Juvental about the unfavourable first impressions I had received of Huautla. I had begun to think that maybe María Sabina’s tragic story hung heavily over the town. They told me that, first, many of the people there did not speak Spanish well, as Mazatec was their native language, so they were reluctant to talk to Spanish speakers. In addition, they said the people were, in general, very closed. When I later read about the town’s history with outsiders and the “jipis”, I could see why they might have reason to not embrace foreign visitors.
I would wholeheartedly suggest that anyone going to Huautla to participate in a traditional ceremony look for Ines. I am sure there are other good curanderos in the town, but there are also people selling mushrooms and offering ceremonies, even as people get off the bus from Tehuacán, Oaxaca or Mexico City, who have no real training and experience of the traditional healing processes.
Postscript: see here for an interesting New York Times article about the renewed research interest in the use of psilocybin to treat people with terminal illness in the USA.