Magic synthesizes Mexican culture

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Those who travel to Mexico looking for sandy beaches and bright sunshine might be a little surprised to learn what else can be found in some of the smaller of the country’s towns — a thriving population of witches and warlocks, for example.

The New York Times published an article on March 28 about the Mexican town of Catemaco, a known center of witchcraft in the country. The article describes the work of several supposed witches and warlocks, such as Alejandro Gallegos García, a self-proclaimed warlock working in both black (evil) and white (good) magic. Some of his skills as a warlock seem a bit outlandish — he claims to know how to kill a person with a black cloth doll, a human bone, a toad, and, of course, the permission of the devil.

However, past the ability to proclaim death upon another person, magicians such as Gallegos play an important cultural role in the region. Natives and tourists alike approach them for such purposes as healing from physical ailments, issues in love or friendship, and spiritual cleansing. The witch doctors also offer alternative remedies, such as herbal mixtures, in place of more traditional solutions to sickness.

Although I try not to judge, I’m quite skeptical about some of the skills the so-called warlocks boast. The idea that one of these witch doctors can ask the devil’s permission to kill someone, and then carry that act out through the use of a frog, a doll, and a bone, seems far-fetched. I understand that such magic is indeed a part of Mexico’s heritage (according to the article, it has been around since pre-Columbian times). But is claiming to know the formula for murder the best way to represent one’s cultural history?

In addition, the witch doctors can be pretty tricky and cunning. The article mentions that they are known to tell users they have a hex on them, and then offer to remove it… for a fee, of course. Gullible tourists, for example, can easily be caught up in this foreign, “magical” scene.

Tourists, however, are not the only people interested in the magic. Mexican magic combines elements of Catholicism and pre-Columbian traditions, therefore drawing many Mexican followers, as it can give them something to connect to. Many turn to magic as a way to solve problems in their lives outside of organized religion.

The idea that herbs and roots can have “healing” properties is, I agree, a plausible aspect of Mexican magical practices — far more so than eradicating evil spirits or providing spiritual cleansing. While I don’t think I’ll be skipping a visit to the doctor’s office to dig up some plants in Schenley Park the next time I come down with a cold, people have been using herbs as a way to combat sickness since long before modern medicine. The bark of the willow tree, for example, has been known for centuries to relieve pain, as it contains salicin, which, when converted to salicylic acid, is closely related to aspirin.

In addition, the placebo effect should not be neglected — if people believe in the work of black and white witchcraft, and it is part of their culture, then they may indeed feel better from it, even if the actions have no real impact.

We at Carnegie Mellon are not without our own customs that would probably be deemed strange by outsiders. Just as most of us do not understand the cultural power of Mexican witch doctors, foreigners to our campus might be baffled by such traditions as Buggy and painting the Fence. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge, especially the cultural practices of others — that is, as long as the toad, bone, and rag doll stay far, far away.