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Latino Esotericism: The Supernatural in Everyday Life

Antonio N. Zavaleta, Ph.D. and Mitchell A. Kaplan Ph.D.

For five hundred years, Indigenous-American and Afro-Caribbean religious beliefs have mixed with highly superstitious sixteenth-century Spanish Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. The emergent ‘combined’ religions are most notably Mexican Brujería, Santeria in Cuba and Puerto Rico, Voodoo in Haiti, and Candomble and Macumba in Brazil. The early 21st century has seen a dramatic resurgence in the animistic beliefs and practices of the world’s native religions. Similarly, many formal religions have declined in membership and participation, in many cases losing members who have returned to the practice of native religions.

Latino cultures include all of the Spanish and Portuguese speaking peoples of the New World.  In Latin America and the Caribbean native beliefs generally form the basis of Latino folk religion. In recent years many Latinos have left Catholicism in favor of evangelical religions and interestingly, most Latinos claim membership in formal religions while simultaneously practicing their folk religions.

Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, folk beliefs and practices are all popularly categorized as magia or brujería. These are based in the practice of magic and are a part of everyday life in Latino culture. For example, the popular spiritual cleansing or limpia is universally practiced. The practice of sorcery or magic called hechicería or brujería in Spanish are accepted occult practices in Latino cultures. The hechicera, or female practitioner of Latino magic, is known as a bruja or a brujo if male. 

Subtle characteristics of Latino esoteric belief may easily be recognized both within and between diverse Latino subcultures. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Americas where diverse Latino subcultures live side by side. For example, all Latino subcultures revere the Santo Niño de Atocha; the Christ Child portrayed as a pilgrim. In the AfroCaribbean cultures of Cuba and Puerto Rico he is portrayed as the African Orisha, Elegua, while in Mexico he is simply the Santo Niño de Atocha.  In Guatemala, the unique Mayan folk-saint, San Simon, is represented in the folk aspect as Masimon, dressed in black sitting on a throne. He is a Mayan shaman known for drinking, smoking and womanizing, similarto the Mexican representation of the hard-living outlaws Pancho Villa and Jesus Malverde.  

In Latino cultures, the practice of brujería does not always require a professional practitioner bruja or witch to cast a spell. Latinos have learned to perform ritual spell making and spell removing themselves. For example, a person may burn a votive candle called a tapa boca (‘do not speak’ candle) to keep a gossipy neighbor from deriding the family. More importantly, with the advent of social media, magical services have become widely available throughout a worldwide network of online Latino witches and psychics called videntes.

Generally, Latino magical arts are grouped into seven categories: common household spells; spells for romance and love; good luck; fortune telling; black magic; folk saint cults and the cults of other supernatural entities such as holy death, la santa muerte.     

Household Spells

The household spell or hechizo is the most common form of magic practiced by Latinos and is a ritual carried out in the home of the person seeking protection. To invoke a spell, a ritual is performed by creating a blessed object or apotropaic for the petitioner to carry in his or her pocket or bag for protection, or the creation of a protective talisman for the petitioner to wear around the neck.  Frequently, a protective incantation is recited before leaving home. The familiar sign of the cross serves a similar purpose. For example, a young Latina mother may pin an amulet known as a ojo del venado (deer’s eye) on the undergarment of her infant to protect the child from the evil eye outside of the home. In another example of sympathetic magic, Latinos may stop to admire a baby and touch the baby’s head. The ritual head touching is performed to magically protect the child from the possibility of unintentional contamination by the evil eye. There is also always danger that an admirer who possesses a ojo fuerte (strong eye) may unintentionally transmit the mal de ojo (evil eye) to the child who then falls ill, requiring the assistance of a curandera (folk healer) to resolve the problem.

Fright sickness or susto is another common Latino folk illness that requires a magical resolution. Magical assistance is required to coax the frightened portion of the person’s spirit back into their body and may require the assistance of a bruja. Brujería (witchcraft) refers to a conjuring intended to favorably influence the outcome of a natural act for the benefit of the petitioner. Spells may include the simplest action performed in the home or a very complicated act, which requires the knowledge and unique ability of a professional. For example, a very common act is to place a clear glass of water under the bed to capture evil spirits and bad vibrations entering the bedroom. There are many everyday household rituals used including the burning of votive candles and the protection and cleansing of the home of negative vibrations, with specially prepared waters to keep evil away.       

Latinos also regularly maintain home altars as a part of their spiritual life. Altars are adorned with religious statues and other paraphernalia honoring both Catholic and folk saints. Depictions of the most revered Catholic saints usually sit side by side with those of the more popular folk saints, to whom offerings are made in exchange for specific types of spiritual blessings. The home altars also contain specially prepared items such as amuletos (amulets), talismans and other related objects having magical powers capable of healing the sick, providing protection of individuals from harm and enhancing one’s lot in life. For example, typically every New Year’s Day, a newly adorned sabila (aloe vera) wreath is placed above the primary entrance designed to prevent evil forces from attempting to gain entry.

Romantic Love

Magic spells to facilitate or end romance are widespread and usually require the services of a gifted bruja who conducts the rites and or produces handmade male and female dolls for this purpose.  Additionally, special romantic services are advertised by professional spell casters on the Internet and are widely available. Magic is utilized to help singles find life partners; to bring people together

and to resolve relationship problems, atraer; to bind them in their relationships, amarrar; or to separate them when relationships are not working, alejar.

Practitioners offer magical services to the Latino community utilizing several types of commercially produced candles shaped like human figures with gender specific genitalia in their spell casting rituals. Latinos seeking magical services will also find a wide variety of promotional advertisements on social media and in magazines using terms like dominar (dominate), atraer (attract), ligar (bind), seducer (seduce) and doblegar (submit) to describe the available menu of rituals that are in constant demand.

Good Luck

The process usually begins when the hechicera petitions the spiritual powers of a folk-saint to attract an abundancia (abundance) of good fortune and prosperity to the petitioner.

One of the most frequently summoned folk-saints in modern-day Latino culture is the La Santa Muerte, the saint of holy death. The petitioner commonly invokes spiritual favors from a folk-saint such as the saint of death to improve or sweeten their life, endulzar.        

Fortune telling  

More than any other culture in the Americas, Latino’s frequent fortunetellers and access to local fortunetellers is commonplace. Fortunetellers make predictions for petitioners who seek their advice and guidance through the reading and interpretation of Spanish tarot cards called la baraja. A similar type of interaction between fortunetellers and petitioners takes place in communities which have more African-based spiritual traditions. In these communities, local fortunetellers may utilize the casting of cowry

shells, tirar caracoles, as a means of making contact with the spiritual world. For example, the fortuneteller is often asked to open the road removing barriers to good luck, abrir camino

Additionally, most Latinos consult a professional fortuneteller before making any significant decision affecting the family, such as changing jobs or taking a trip. However, many common spells are performed by the individual at home without the need of a storefront bruja.

Black Magic

Practices that are more sinister, crossing the boundary between good or white magic and evil black magic, magia negra, are common in Latino communities. Frequently magic is utilized to seek vengeance for wrongdoing, to inflict harm or retribution upon enemies or to seek to neutralize rivals. Latinos approach brujas negras (black witches) to perform sinister spells designed to cause harm or death to those that have committed wrongful or evil actions against them.

Saints and Folk-saints

Many Latinos are devotees of folk saints, such as La Virgin de Guadalupe and El Niño Fidencio.  Saints are most commonly utilized for petitioning milagros (miracles). The saint is propitiated with offerings of prayers and promesas (promises) intended to intercede on behalf of the petitioner for special intentions and blessings. 

Mexican revolutionary heroes such as Pancho Villa are commonly used in the context of protection and the successful outcome of court cases, as in contra la ley (‘law stay away’) candles. Experts are frequently asked to prepare velas preparadas (magical candles) which, prepared with prayers and petitions, are then placed on home altars and burned for special intentions.  A handwritten note containing a spell or incantation along with a photograph of the intended benefactor is often placed under the candle. 

Today, spiritual aromas are prepared commercially and are available in aerosol cans at neighborhood botánicas. Special florid water, agua florida, is used to expunge bad vibes in the form of a despojo, a ritual floor cleansing of the home or business. 

Supernatural Entities

Latino culture is steeped in folklore and belief in supernatural entities. The six folk entities examined here are all well known in the tales that are told to children passed down over many generations, warning them of the consequences of disobedience. 

First, the ever-popular wailing woman or La Llorona who has an ancient history in Mexico and elsewhere since her story has its origin in both Pre-Columbian culture and in Europe. La Llorona is believed to have drowned her children and is cursed to spend eternity searching for them near rivers and streams while snatching up unsuspecting errant children and drowning them as well.

More common in modern urban Latino subcultures is Cucuy, the Latino bogeyman. Known regionally by many names, the Cucuy is the stereotypical old man who roams the streets and alleyways of Latino neighborhoods abducting children to be sold to witches. 

In Latino cultures, a withered old woman is generally thought to be a bruja (witch) and children are warned not to go near the home of old women for fear of being abducted. Many folktales portray the bruja as a shapeshifting transformative creature with the power to change physical shape at will. They are often described as beings who can change themselves into a wandering stranger, lechusa (owl) and sometimes a lobo (wolf) or a prankster elf called a duende.  

By far the most feared supernatural entity in the Latino pantheon of folk-monsters is the diablo (devil). The devil is viewed as a folk creature and the primary enemy of God, who continuously tempts people and especially children to transgress. In one very popular folktale, Bilando con el Diablo (Dancing with the Devil), a young girl sneaks out of her home and goes to a dance she is forbidden to attend. At the dance, a handsome young man whirls her around the dance floor and carries the girl into hell.

Latino supernatural and spiritual practices are a combination of Judeo, Islamic and Christian beliefs introduced to the new world by Spaniards through their interpretation of medieval religions. The two systems, Indigenous and European, were mixed, producing a syncretic belief system in which the supernatural and mystical function, side by side in everyday life.

Biographies

Antonio N. ‘Tony’ Zavaleta, Ph.D.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta is a member of a pioneer family of South Texas and Northern Mexico.  He received a doctoral degree in Anthropology from the University of Texas in 1976 and has spent the last 50 years studying the U.S.-Mexico border.  Dr. Zavaleta has studied curanderos and shaman throughout Mexico, publishing several books and articles on the subject.  He serves as co-editor of Studies in Rio Grande Valley History.  He was selected by the Mexican Foreign Ministry to receive their prestigious “Ohtli” or pathfinder award for his lifelong support of Mexican citizens living abroad.  He was recently appointed Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Sociology by the University of Texas Board Of Regents.  Dr. Zavaleta can be contacted via his webpage at drtonyzavaleta.com or at, tonyzavaleta@aol.com.

Mitchell A. Kaplan, Ph.D.

Dr. Mitchell A. Kaplan is a clinical sociologist with 32 years of program evaluation experience.  He received his doctorate in Sociology from the City University of New York Graduate Center and was the recipient of a postdoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  Dr. Kaplan has worked as a research scientist and professional consultant for several non-profit and local government organizations in New York.  His most recent articles appear in the Journal of Social Work in the Global Community, Journal of Hate Studies and the Rio Grande Valley Regional History series.  You can contact Dr. Kaplan at his email address DrMKaplan@aol.com 

Further Reading

  • Kiev, Ari, Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Psychiatry, 1968, The Free Press, New York.
  • Buenaflor, Erika, 2018, Cleansing Rites of Curanderismo: Limpias Espirituales of Ancient Mesoamerican Shamans, Bear & Company, Rochester, Vermont.
  • Delgadillo, Theresa, 2011; Spiritual Mestizaje, Duke University Press.
  • Devine, Mary, 2000, Magic from Mexico, Llewellyn, St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • Zavaleta, Antonio and Alberto Salinas, 2009, Curandero Conversations, Authorhouse, Bloomington, Indiana.
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