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Blessings and Brujería

July 3, 2012

I blessed my first baby the other day. I was getting on a motorcycle to go downtown, and my host nephew looked up at me and said, “Tío! La bendición!” I paused in a second of confusion, then realized what was supposed to happen next and spat out, “Dios te bendiga!” He was satisfied and waved as the motorcycle carried me away.

This is a very religious culture. Even if you don’t go to church regularly—or at all—you routinely thank God that you woke up, and your attendance at a meeting is based on if God wills it. Whenever my family members greet each other, they follow a protocol. If you’re the older, you say “Besa la mano,” which the younger replies to by saying the relationship of the older (mother, father, aunt, uncle, godfather, etc.), and then the older blesses the younger with a “Dios te bendiga.” If you’re the younger you start off with “La bendición!” and you get the blessing in return. It literally happens all the time.

But the blessing isn’t only for family. It’s also a way to avoid the mal de ojo. The mal de ojo is a curse that someone puts on someone or something without intending to or knowing anything has happened. It usually happens when someone compliments something, be it a baby, a house, or a hairdo. It’s interesting that saying “May God bless you.” became a way to avoid some sort of supernatural bad luck. But people say it all the time, because nobody wants to be that guy who accidentally cursed a baby. I recognized how prevalent this is the other day when I was at my neighbor’s house and we were talking about their kitten. One of the kids said, “Look at him, he’s been eating so much and is so big now, God bless him.” It happened almost without me noticing it, slipped in on the sly, but it was there. God bless the cat so he doesn’t get skinny or die.

While it’s true this is a very religious culture, the mal de ojo is evidence of its superstitious side. You can’t always be counting on other people to do their part to avoid the mal de ojo. So parents give their babies what’s called an azabache. It’s usually a piece of string or a few strings braided together and tied around a wrist or ankle. It’s blessed by someone—a brujo or anyone who does spiritual healing. The azabache keeps the babies safe from any curses. I’ve also been told that if your baby is baptized you don’t need an azabache because it’s protected by the Holy Spirit.

This superstition extends into the world of brujería, or witchcraft. Some people believe in it, some people laugh at it, but everyone knows about it. My neighbor Nelson was telling me all about brujería the other day. According to him, Haiti isn’t advancing because people are constantly casting spells on each other to ruin their success. In Haiti, witches eat the smartest children, so you need to make sure your A-students don’t wander too close to the witch’s house. And there’s no reason to fear brujería in the United States because the greatest evil in the world lives in the sea, so island witchcraft can’t cross it. So that’s good news for all you back allá. Just be careful at the beach.

Witchcraft is also bottled up and sold. Stores called botánicas carry all your spiritual needs. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and votive candles sit on shelves with amulets, ingredients for tea, and magic potions for anything you can think of. (My favorite potion so far has been a bright pink one called La Dominadora whose label shows a woman in sexy lingerie with one foot on the back of a prostrate man in a shirt and tie.) And you can find witchcraft at parties. I went to a fiesta de palos the other night. Palos are long, round drums with hide stretched over one opening. The three drummers heat up their instruments by a fire, and then set to playing and singing. People dance around to the frantic music and chanting, and occasionally get mounted by spirits. When someone’s mounted by a spirit, all bets are off. They thrash wildly, their eyes roll back into their heads, they don’t feel pain, and they often wail. My doña says she watches from afar because she doesn’t want to be too close to the demons. I didn’t see any demon-possessed dancing that night, but it might be because I left early to avoid hanging around the steadily growing number of tigueres. When I got home I took off my smoky clothes, bathed in the dark, and slept soundly. Gracias a Dios, of course.

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