home Indigenous, Mexico Huautla Pilgrims: The Shapeshifting of Tourism

Huautla Pilgrims: The Shapeshifting of Tourism

Photo: Doña Ines Textile

From our archives (1998, revised 2003)

By Ben Feinberg

In his home in the central district of Huautla de Jimenez, Don Pedro is celebrating the completion of an important agricultural task with a few drinks of aguardiente, a locally-produced sugarcane-derived moonshine.

His wife Julia is telling a visitor about her work as a ritual healer when he feels compelled to intervene in the conversation.

“The truth is here,” he says. “Right here in this house.”

He talks about how the other healers, like Don Ricardo Rocha of the neighboring village of Santa Cruz de Juárez, chant and sing but don’t know anything. “They are pure lies,” he says, raising his voice. “Pure deception. Ricardo is sick and cannot even cure himself. People come to this house from all over the world, from Europe. I can communicate with any government in Europe. Through communication. Through knowledge.”

As if to illustrate his point, the phone rings. Pedro talks for a minute and then returns, beaming. “People call from Germany to say when they will come here! Does Ricardo have this? “Es bueno!” And he laughs and laughs.
“Huautla de Jimenez” and “Sierra Mazateca” are not words that tend to evoke any recognition in the United States, but in Mexico the utterance of these syllables usually produces a light bulb over the head of the Mexican with whom one is conversing, whether it be a PGR policeman at a roadblock in Chihuahua, a student or waitress in Mexico City, or a carousing rancher in coastal Tamaulipas. The light bulb quickly changes shape and resolves itself into a very familiar form, the shape of a mushroom. “Hongos,” they say, and “María Sabina.”

On the map
Since the 1950s, when the banker, self-styled “ethnomycologist,” and all-around quack R. Gordon Wasson put Huautla on the map with a sensationalistic Life Magazine article describing a shamanic ceremony involving the use of hallucinogenic psyllocybin mushrooms, outsiders have journeyed to the remote and forbidding Sierra Mazateca, in the coffee-growing far north of Oaxaca where the state glides into Puebla and Veracruz, between the Miguel Aleman lake to the east the arid Cañada to the west. Today these pilgrimages continue — with most visitors searching for the opportunity to ingest the more powerful varieties of ndi shee to (little ones who spring forth), especially the derrumbes or “landslide” mushrooms, in the context of a “traditional” curing ceremony overseen by a man like Pedro or his wife Julia, powerful curers who often claim some sort of spiritual lineage from the famous María Sabina, the woman who so dazzled Wasson.

Urban mushroom seekers, often influenced by the likes of Carlos Casteneda, take the mushrooms for different reasons than the locals. For the Catholic Mazatec Indians, this rite is no “deviant” activity or archaic survival; it is a core component of their view of the world. One takes the mushrooms with a shaman, alone or with one’s family, to discover the cause of a medical or psychological malady or other troubles; this cause is usually rooted in the malevolent ENVY felt by another towards the victim and transmuted into the form of a disease, intentionally or not. Outsiders, not clued into Mazatec theories of disease and witchcraft, seek more general or abstract types of experiences — to “find themselves,” “find God,” or simply to enjoy the overpowering visions and sensations for purely recreational purposes.

María Sabina was puzzled by these motivations, but other curers, such as Julia, Ines Cortes Rodriguez, Ricardo Rocha, or her descendants still living in the shadow of the sacred neighborhood called El Fortin, have adapted these centuries-old rites to the new situation, often in quite creative ways. Ines (who happens to be my comadre) oversees mass trips (very unusual for Mazatecs) undertaken by groups of up to 20 European therapists every summer, singing and chanting in the traditional style next to her altar, which is bedecked with flowers, images of the saints, cacao beans, and copal incense, as assistants allay participants’ fears by sprinkling their foreheads with holy water or rubbing powdered hoja de San Pedro on their stomachs and elbows. I am told that the grandchildren of María Sabina, who have had the most contact with outsiders (the great curer’s most famous visitor was allegedly John Lennon), take still greater liberties with the ritual’s form, holding ceremonies in brightly lit rooms (most local rituals are held in pitch blackness, illuminated only from within the mind) or even outside. Curers now charge cash for ceremonies, sometimes profiting handsomely. In the old days this was out of the question; the custom was for the patient to leave some trade good, such as a chicken or a bottle of aguardiente.

Relationships with outside mushroom seekers have not always been amicable. María Sabina made Wasson promise not to reveal her story. After his betrayal, Huautla — at that time an almost entirely monolingual Mazatec-speaking backwater only accessible on a barely passable dirt road that wound forever (60 kilometers in 8 hours) from Teotitlán — was inundated by bizarre foreigners. These “jipis” didn’t speak the language or respect the cultural taboos surrounding the sacred mushrooms, which, some say, grew up from the Earth where the blood of Christ, the Sun, hit the ground. They tripped publicly, in the daytime, without guidance or shame, and smoked marijuana, which the locals regard as a decadent and dangerous drug used by urban criminals. One well-known story from this period involves the hippie who ran about the town square trying to devour a live turkey until he was vigorously restrained. Perhaps worst of all, these outsiders did not observe the “diet,” a four day period of mandatory sexual abstinence, among other restrictions, following mushroom use. The sight of outlandishly dressed pot-smoking foreigners fucking in their milpas was too much for Mazatec sensibilities, and in 1967 and again in 1969 the town president called in the army; the hippies were shorn and deported, and a roadblock kept them out of the region until 1976.

Some Huautecos profited off the foreigners, mostly the wealthy businessmen of the town center who already controlled the economic life of the community (and, ironically, had been ashamed of the “backward” religious practices of their poorer neighbors). Others, like Alvaro Estrada, then a teenager, made themselves guides for the tourists. In his absurdly self-serving book, Huautla en Tiempo de Jipis, he describes how he learned to play a few Bob Dylan songs on his guitar and soon enjoyed the benefits of the hippie girls’ more open attitudes towards sex.

But María Sabina did not profit from the throngs who came to see her. As a result of her notoriety she was shot by an envious neighbor and briefly jailed by overzealous police. This powerful, revered figure, this “lord clown woman,” died in 1985, bitter that so many people — hotel and restaurant owners, film makers, writers, anthropologists — had gained so much off of her name while she remained poor. She lamented that “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” (Alvaro Estrada 1981: María Sabina: Her Life and Chants, pp. 90-91).

Outsiders are no longer discouraged, but they tend to be more discreet and culturally sensitive than their 1960s forebears. While the first wave of hippies was overwhelmingly American, the new pilgrims are mostly Europeans and urban Mexicans seeking to discover their heritage. While the sixties crew dressed in hippie style and were anything but big spenders, preferring to camp out in caves by the river, the trickle of 1990s drug tourists tend to carry and spend larger sums of money, and they are serviced by several respectable hotels and restaurants.

The nature of change
There can be no doubt that Huautla has been changed, like thousands of other tourist destinations, by its unusual collision with the outside world. The jury is still out on the nature of that change. Some claim that the whole business of the mushrooms is a minor footnote to the broader processes of capitalist penetration and nation building that have wracked native economies and cultures all over the third world. Others see the change as negative; following María Sabina’s pessimistic outlook they site the degradation of local culture and religion by a crass and commercialistic popular culture. A third view suggests that the attention given to local culture by outsiders has contributed to a growing sense of ethnic pride. For once, outsiders value poor Indians, and the images of mushrooms that decorate schools, stores, and basketball courts may be the first sign of a Mazatec revitalization movement.

All of these points of view are at least partially correct. But one thing is certain; drug tourism is now a permanent part of Huautla’s summer landscape and economy, and if the outsiders sometimes have their worldviews influenced or jarred by their mushroom experiences, they have also changed the meaning of the ritual for the local people. When Ines chants, deep in a ceremony, sometimes she intones the names of powerful spirits and places whose power may assist her and her patients. She names the holy mountain, sacred Nindo Tokoxo, but does not stop there. She continues with the names of neighborhoods and cities where her benefactors live, from Mexico City to Veracruz to Barcelona to Texas.

Notes for those of you hoping to use mushrooms in Huautla
Fresh hongos are only readily available in the rainy season, which usually begins in late May or early June and continues into September. They may also be found after a rain during another season. Some curers preserve mushrooms in honey for consumption during dry periods. The efficacy of child saints preserved in this manner is debated.

As you get off the bus, enterprising youths may try to lure you to their cabañas or try to sell you mushrooms. These cabañas are generally extremely cramped and uncomfortable. They are inexpensive, but not overly so. And many travellers report underwhelming experiences with the mushrooms purchased in this manner. Wait until you have settled in before beginning your search. You might start by visiting Ines, who lives in a humble house above the casa de la cultura. She will not deceive you.

Although you must pay for the child saints for yourself and the curer; real shamans will not set a fee for the ceremony. You should leave some cash on the altar at the conclusion. Leave what you think is fair, but remember that these veladas, or “stay-awakes,” are a great deal of work. The offering should start at about US$20 and go up from there.

Don’t wander in public while intoxicated, ever. Remain in the room with the altar, in a comfortable position. Some curers have assistants or children who guide intoxicated patients to the bathroom when it is necessary. Always be discreet.

Guard the “diet.” You cannot engage in heterosexual relations or offer any kind of gift (ie coffee, a cigarette, a beer) to anyone for four days after the velada. If you violate this rule, you could well go insane.

Don’t try to take any mushrooms out of the Sierra. You could well be stopped and searched by police, and if this happens away from Huautla you will be violating federal drug laws and find yourself in big trouble.


Ben Feinberg is an anthropology professor at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. CV.

Ben wrote his dissertation on Huautla. His book, Devil’s Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico was published by the University of Texas Press


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