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Los Olvidados: The Forgotten Ones of Rancho del Cielo

The story you are about to read is true. It details a personal fable that has followed me through life and, at times, directed me.  So far, it spans more than fifty years and has a life of its own, weaving in and out of my life.  When I least expect it, the next episode unfolds before me, and I am sure that this writing is somehow connected to an unknown part of the fable, not yet revealed to me.  The recovery of this document is a mystery; it was lost for at least six years not found in my Word files, and then it mysteriously reappeared, probably downloaded from the Cloud.

 The story surrounds a long-forgotten event chronicled in Mayan documents of a small group of gifted Mayan shaman who fled their homes around Palenque in southern Mexico more than a thousand years ago traveled northward, settling in an area of the remote rainforest known today as El Reserva de la Biósfera de Cielo, located in the southern part of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas.

This story is remarkable because, for more than 50 years, members of the Brownsville community, Texas Southmost College students and many others have traveled to the area.

The Hunter family of Brownsville once maintained a cabin in the rainforest, this small parcel of land high on the mountain came to be known as Rancho del Cielo.  Trips to Rancho del Cielo were arduous and nearly always remarkable, often producing unforgettable memories and a lingering sense of the strange euphoria of having been someplace very special. 

From my documentation of many of the visitor’s stories, emerged a pattern of otherworldly and unexplainable happenings in the area that seemed somehow connected to The Legend of The Forgotten Ones, the Lost Mayans.

The Legend of Los Olvidados, The Forgotten Ones, is a well-known folktale in Mexico passed on from generation to generation in the region of El Cielo. For many decades Rancho del Cielo, was a postage stamp sized, biological field station of Texas Southmost College (TSC) situated deep in the primal rainforest of Northeastern Mexico.  For many years Professor Warburton would take her biology students there.

In many ways, the Legend begins around one of the oldest known places in the area, “Ojo Encantado,” an enchanted spring, where a group of Mayan priests are believed to have settled long ago.  Archaeological house foundations are still found there.  This is because it is believed that this mountain watering hole provided a resting place and served as a marker for people coming through the area in ancient times.

My travels to the region near El Cielo began in the late 1950s.  My father’s cousin owned the Hotel Mante in Cd. Mante on the old Pan American Highway, and when we visited during the rainy season, we would always have a picnic on the banks of the clear waters of the Rio Sabinas, north of Cd. Mante, near the turn off to the village of Gomez Farias.  In 1958, while I was still in junior high school, I first heard about the mysterious events that the area was renowned for.  I would hang around with the kids in the villages at the base of the El Cielo Biosphere and hike with them through the verdant valleys listening to their stories.

By 1964, I was a freshman at TSC and fully engrossed in Mexico travel and the lore of the mysterious, unexplainable and fantastic.  In 1962, while still in high school, I read with disbelief a series of articles in the Brownsville Herald about a strange religious cult operating in the mountains of northern Mexico north west of Cielo this made the stories about El Cielo even more enticing especially when I discovered that I was unknowingly connected to one of its members.  From the little I knew of Mexico at the time, I imagined the location was near the area I had come to enjoy so much, and it was not far off.

I had always been drawn to the ethereal voices of magical Mexico, and I was introduced to Anita Brenner’s Idols Behind Altars at a young age.  The following year, 1965, with a small group of college friends in tow, we decided to take a trip to El Cielo.

One sweltering spring afternoon, my buddies and I crashed Professor Warburton’s biology lab in the Gorgas Building, today the TSC Board Room.  There we met a diminutive, crusty old man named Frank Harrison.  He was waiting for the professor.  We were not in Barbara Warburton’s class, but our girlfriends were, so we were always close by. 

This chance encounter with Mr. Harrison that day would test fate.  Before Professor Warburton could run us out of her lab, which she did, Frank invited us down to his ranch in Mexico to do some caving and hiking.   We jumped at the chance and became the first Texas Southmost College students to visit Rancho del Cielo. Later the entire rainforest was named the Cielo Biosphere by the United Nations.   

That first trip did not amount to anything unusual, although the rainforest was breathtaking.  We rummaged around in a walk-in cave, and through debris in the cave, which included pottery shards, broken figurines, and bones, we later learned were human remains. 

We had a local guide who was the first to tell us of the danger that the jungle and the caves in the area posed to unsuspecting spelunkers and hikers.  He said that we must be cautious because the “living forest,” selva viva, as he called it, would come alive and shapeshift without notice, leaving us completely lost if we were not careful.  He said that as we walked through the rainforest, we must always take note of exactly where we are.  Nothing remarkable happened that trip, and I was not able to return for seven years and by that time I was studying anthropology at U.T.

 By 1972, Frank had been hacked to death at his ranch on the mountain by disgruntled ejidatarios, and his land came under the stewardship of Texas Southmost College. That is when the early building phase at “Rancho” began.  The construction of primitive but functional barracks and other buildings constructed of native lumber served every need.

 As an anthropology graduate student at U.T. and thought I knew my way around Mexico pretty well.  I was a folklore student of Dr. Americo Paredes, the father of Mexican American folklore and it was the peak of the Carlos Castañeda era.  My friends and I were very much in search of otherworldly experiences in Mexico, I was always searching for curanderas.

During spring break of 1974, I once again had the urge to head down to El Cielo. anthropology graduate students were expected to venture out on short excursions to native Mexico, hopefully returning with tales of fantastic adventure.  One member of our group, a young undergraduate student, and photographer, wandered off from the group and was lost for an entire day.  We finally found him wandering in the forest, incoherent.  He told a fantastic story about the forest “coming alive,” of seeing Mayans dressed in ancient garb, and most importantly, he muttered something about flying men-Voladores and the sacred cavern.  We passed his story off to hallucinations induced by the magic mushrooms (psilocybe mexicana) he ate along the way.

 I lost touch with him soon after that.  He did not return to school and was rumored to have been institutionalized.  Eight years later, I received a call from his father, a wealthy doctor, who wanted to know what had happened to his son years before in the mountains of Mexico.  I did not know what to tell him, I didn’t have an answer.

While I was in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin from 1972 to 1976, I would, from time to time, pick up pieces of information about El Cielo, the region, and its people.  Until then, the Legend of the Lost Maya seemed to me to be a simple cautionary tale that parents tell their kids in order and to keep them from getting lost in the jungle. 

In 1975, that understanding changed for me.  Faced with writing a graduate paper, which included reading a set of colonial documents about the Inquisition in seventeenth-century Mexico, I spent days in the archives reading about how the Church sent a group of inquisitor priests to the region to investigate stories of pagan rituals on an enchanted mountain in the north—a place inhabited by the Tamaul Indians. 

The most intriguing part of the story was that they never returned to their home base in San Luis Potosi.  They simply vanished, leaving no trace.  I also remember reading about a failed Mission in the area of El Cielo, higher up and on the western slope of the range.  Years later, I was able to locate the remains of the abandoned Mission.  A second group of priests sent to the Mission also vanished.  I discovered documentation of this second group of priests who had also vanished from the area known as the lost friars or Los Friles Perdidos.

 As I discovered from the chronicles, one of the lost friars did make it back to San Luis Potosi, and was thought to be mad or possessed by demons.  He told a strange tale of a living forest, of trees and stones with eyes, and a society of witches in league with strange flying objects and of beasts with wings and red-eyes.

 Throughout my graduate school years, I pieced together the stories familiar to the inhabitants of the area: lost Mayan priests, lost Franciscan friars, lost settlers, and finally, in the 19th century, disappearing children associated with flying objects and a variety other mysterious event on the mountain at El Cielo.

As I was about to take my last required class on the history of anthropology, a remarkable thing happened.  A renowned Mexican anthropologist Dr. Angel Palerm, who was a visiting professor at U.T. from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), was asked to teach the class I had registered for at the last moment.  I was delighted. 

There were only eights doctoral students in his class.  Don Angel, as we called him, took an immediate liking to me.  In the spring of 1975, he pulled me aside and during our brief time together, initiated me into the mysterious world of supernatural Mexico. He was particularly interested in northern Mexican folklore and asked me to study it in my career.

Dr. Palerm was the first to introduce me to the Legend of the Forgotten Mayans, Los Mayas Olvidados.  He was also very much aware of the tale of the lost Franciscans and all of the other legends associated with the mountains around the El Cielo biosphere. 

The Mayas were one of the most advanced civilizations of pre-Columbian America.  They had advanced scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, astrologers and magicians.  They held the key to largely unknown and esoteric knowledge, and much of their knowledge was otherworldly.

Volumes and volumes of glyphs and scripts disappeared with the end of their civilization.  During the decline and collapse of the Classical Mayan civilization, a priestly caste of “seers and rememberers” who warned of impending disaster were accused of witchcraft and their story not accepted, they were forced to flee their land.  The priests were as feared by the Mayans as they were revered and were simply too “far-out” even for the Maya, predicting the return of Quetzalcoatl.            This very special sect of “gifted” priests, possessing “sight,” formed the cult of the “Flying Men.”  This was done in honor of those unusual beings that visited the mountain in their flying machines.   They were believed to have developed a ritual that opened passages to parallel worlds.  Unenlightened people call this the spirit world, but actually, it is a parallel world.  The two parallel worlds exist today as they have always existed one beside the other.  The key to gain entry has been long forgotten.  Every now and then, some unsuspecting visitor to El Cielo, stumbles into one of the doorways in remote places like caves and is never heard from again or reappears as mad.

 Professor Palerm explained that from reading recently discovered Mayan texts in southern Veracruz, this small group of extra-mystic Mayan priests and their families had been instructed by the Flying-Men to seek refuge by escaping northward from the area around El Tajin and Papantla, Veracruz, today renowned for the Voladores whose legendary feats are regularly re-enacted by trained dance performers.  They would travel up the coast to the northern rainforest.  They were to search for a remote mountaintop cavern in the jungle.  They would know it by a device given to them and placed in a sacred vessel by the chief of the Flying-Men, who visited El Tajin.

A similar device was hidden deep inside the cavern on the mountain, which draws energy from an unknown technology combining ores and calcite crystals native to the mountain, producing a perpetual beacon of energy.  The Legend states that this “beacon” would function for thousands of years, but eventually would grow weak and then finally fall silent.

Only 2,000 years have passed since the time of the Maya, and today the strange signal in the El Cielo range remains strong.  The first commercial pilots flying over the area reported an unknown and unexplained geomagnetic ping over the Sierra Madre Oriental near El Cielo.  I verified this fact with a pilot friend of mine who regularly would fly low over the range.   In fact, because of its reliability, this marker is used to triangulate many sorts of flights, and it even appears on some flight maps, although its origin is uncertain.

To carry out their escape from southern Mexico, the priests had to abandon their servants and families as they fled to the north.  Only the most gifted were allowed to make the journey, and establish a new homeland in the north.  The surviving priests had been promised that once they arrived at the mountaintop sanctuary, physical aging would slow to a stop, and death would be no more.  They would exist between the layers of time forever.

Once they departed, the Mayan priests were never heard from or seen again.  Except for an incidental glyph found on a Mayan stele at Palenque that mentions them, even their people forgot about them.  They disappeared into the northern mountains as if they were swallowed whole.

In the area of El Cielo, physical evidence of their existence has been found and documented in the form of circular house foundations, middens, and stone and clay pottery artifact, including ritual figurines.  The evidence is plentiful and revealing.

The Legend of Los Olvidados warns that these objects should never be moved or touched.  The locals have developed a set of prayers used in a cleansing ritual for those who have encountered these unusual objects.  The slightest brush against the unprotected human skin produces a strange and unexplainable sensation.  The inferior human sensors become energized, and the doors of perception are flung open.  The most commonly reported effect is a strange and unexplainable dread and the feeling of being lifted away and of floating in the air. 

This out-of-body experience is accompanied by reports of being watched by ancient people who are all around but cannot be normally seen.  In this way, the events of the parallel world are glimpsed, and in rare cases, when this happens to a sensitive person, actual communication with an alternate reality is possible.   

The Legend is also a cautionary tale since it is believed that the flying-men who some believe are aliens, search for unique sentient humans for new colonization. This explains the part of the Legend about souls being “borrowed” while leaving the physical body alive and intact.

The Legend states that when this occurs, strange facial expressions and uncontrolled behavior are sure signs that the process has begun.

The people who live around El Cielo today, have become so accustomed to these dangers that they have learned to live with them and now mostly ignore them.  However, if left unattended, the afflicted ones will experience strange and bizarre dreams and develop irreversible and destructive behavior patterns.  The proper herbal antidote must be administered to the victim within 24 hours of contact, or the process of soul extraction will be completed, after which it is too late for it to return.  At this point, a cure for fright sickness or susto is often attempted, but is never successful.

I remember long ago, Dr. Palerm telling me that as a “native” anthropologist, I would have a responsibility to continue his work in northern Mexico and to document what I could during my time.  Recounting this story is part of that fulfillment.  Most importantly, he told me it was my responsibility to see that the information I collected was added to his and passed on to gifted students of the next generation. 

I was also to learn of the plants of the forest and among them the sacred antidotes.  This was also part of the Legend as told to him, as he told to me, and now I tell to my readers.  Failure to comply with the pact of knowledge could result in significant harm to he who disregards it.

After graduate school, I joined the faculty of Texas Southmost College and for a short while forgot the words and admonitions of my old anthropology professor.  However, drawn back to El Cielo in 1976, I soon resumed my trips to the enchanted forest with new, unsettling knowledge and foreboding caution.

On my first trip to El Cielo after joining the faculty at TSC, I happened to meet Doña Eulalia, “Lala,” who lived alone high up on the mountain above El Cielo.  I was driving by her little house with my companion on the road to Julilo, I encountered Lala working in her herb garden, and as we ambled by, my eye caught hers. 

I instantly recognized the variety of plants in her garden, which were both magical and medicinal, and I was compelled to meet her.  From that first encounter, it was as if we had known each other all along.  I introduced myself, and she remarked, “I’ve been waiting for you.”  I replied, “I got here as soon as I could.”  We went right to work, and I became her apprenticed for many years.

Only later would I learn that her neighbors considered her a bruja. However, she referred to herself as a healer or curandera.  I apprenticed with her for several years, looking for every opportunity to visit.  Sometimes I would spend as much as a week learning about her plants and their use.  Occasionally, other Mexican apprentices would stop by, and we would trek off through the woods to the home of a neighbor in need of medicinal plants.

During those years, I learned the art of spiritual observation and how such observation was an essential part of the “healing paradigm.”  From my point of view, I was glad that observers are not enactor because I never wanted to be a practicing curandero.  That is, it is essential to do by not doing.  I also learned during the next 30 years (1980-2010) from many hundreds of people who visited Rancho del Cielo, hearing and experiencing many strange and unexplainable things that happen to them on the mountain. Many were my students who shared their experiences with me quite openly.

The Mayan calendar predicted the return of the Flying-Men or alien Voladores.  According to the Legend, we would know of their return by numerous flying objects sighted over Mexico, as well as appearances of the crypto-beast known as the Chupacabra; there would be unusual crop-circles in the fields; and cattle mutilations. All these things have come to pass as predicted.

The people of El Cielo Biosphere have long talked about a forest beast, but it has only recently been given the name, the Chupacabra.  This creature is mostly harmless as it leaps through the forest canopy.  Its favorite delicacy is the juicy treetop bromeliad common to the forest, which it shreds with its claw-like appendages.  Many think it is a monkey and it may be.  However, beware, these curious beasts are attracted to the ground by flashlights forming beacons of light in the forest night. Most often, they will not attack anything their size or larger. Over the years, many of the local dogs from isolated forest homes and errant children have been fair game for the Chupacabra.

Doña Lala, being very familiar with the Legend of Los Olvidados, knew indeed that the forest was alive and could shapeshift.  She knew well of the Mayan priests she claimed were still alive in a parallel world, walking the same paths, and inhabiting the same rooms we do when visiting Rancho del Cielo.  Lala considered the whole mountain a magical living being.  We were simply like fleas on its back.

Legend has it that the Flying-men had discovered this magic forest thousands of years ago on one of their routine visits over the mountains of El Cielo.  So important is this secret spot that the Voladores-aliens shared some of their secrets with the Mayans.

Doña Lala told me about children who had disappeared from their homes, and that they and the Maya are all living around us in their continuing parallel world.  Now and then, when we least expect it, we catch a glimpse of them. 

The children usually take the form of forest gnomes called duendes which the Legend refers to as a familiar Mexican folklore creature.  These forest gnomes like to play in the homes and cabins of people who live or visit the area.  Being mischievous by nature, they frequently remove personal belongings of visitors to El Cielo.  You cannot leave essential items unattended. 

Around 1983, Doña Lala asked me not to visit her until I was told to because she was caught up in a “War of the Witches” that had continued for decades and had recently flared up.  It was simply too dangerous for an outsider to be there.  The war had to do with the Mayan millenarian prophesy.  During the time of the war leading up to the changing of the millennium (1999-2000), there was constant spiritual warfare between the primary witches of the region resulting in numerous deaths.  Anyone associated with the warring sides was vulnerable. 

After my visit in 1983, I could only visit her rarely.  Now and then, when in Mexico, and it could be anywhere, I would perceive a signal or a sign that I knew was from Lala.  Sometimes it is a person that I noticed.  A word was never spoken.  It was not necessary; I am happy that she survived all these years.  When I least expected it, she would send me a message.  One day while shopping in the grocery store in Brownsville, an unknown woman approached me and simply said, “Lala says hello.” Before I could ask her any questions, she was gone.

The spiritual warfare in the region, has declined dramatically in recent years, while it does continue in different forms. The brujos mayores, or head witches, and their apprentices still employ the technique of shifting to an animal form.  This is for survival but also spiritual combat.

Most often, witches’ apprentices take the form of birds, while the “maestro” or master, always prefers the form of a large jungle cat, such as a jaguar.  These magnificent and sacred Mayan cats wander the trails of El Cielo, making no sound.  They see us and only if they want to be seen, do we see them.  Jaguars appear or disappear into the forest, and any encounter with them should be considered serious.  If you were identified by one of them as an adversary, you would not know it until it was too late.

When one of these shape-shifters, or naguals, has been near, there is often a report of sweet nauseous feeling.  A feeling similar to that of a captured soul as it leaves the spiritless body.          So feared are these highland witches that the lowland witches hesitate to even speak of their existence.  They simply refer to all that goes on up in the mountain forests as the work of Los Olvidados, The Forgotten Ones.  

I have come to believe that Doña Eulalia, Ox-Chul-Lala-na, her Huastecan name, is an ancient spirit, a master of the living forest.  Like so many who have come before her, she patiently awaits the promised return of the Voladores.  The mountain’s visitors amuse her, and she remarks that the Flying-Men need all kinds.  For the most part, the Americanos do not get in the way and are mostly unaware of their close encounters with the supernatural at El Cielo.  Encounters are usually brief, uneventful, and only remembered as the unexpected rustling of branches and leaves in the dark forest.

 However, every now and then, one of El Cielo’s sojourners inadvertently steps into the unexpected, feeling, or even seeing something more.  Sometimes gifted visitors experience these encounters of considerable ambiguity.  The Legend says that soon all the “gifted ones” will gather to welcome the return of the Voladores.

I share this story with you only because I am bound to.  In addition, so that you will know and be aware of the unexpected if you are ever lucky enough to visit El Cielo.

 Many years after my initial experiences at Rancho del Cielo (1965-1975), I returned home to teach at Texas Southmost College and then became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.  That was in 1991, and people were amazed that at the wide range of my Cielo experiences, to the point that my stories were often not believed, so I stopped telling them.

First, as Dean and then as Vice President and Provost, I made frequent trips to Rancho directing tours of board members and other dignitaries.  On those many, trips there was never a time that something strange or unexpected did not occur to someone in our group.  On one trip with development board members in tow, I was asked to tell the story you are reading now, and that is how it originally came to be told but not written down.  While not intended to be a scary story, several people on that trip who listened to it became severely frightened because they had sensed something there.

I had researched every detail early in my graduate career at the behest of Dr. Palerm, and as such, had all of the accounts of disappearing priests and strange pinging sounds documented.  Many of these things people refused to believe and I felt no obligation to convince them.  Years after not visiting with Doña Eulalia, I was able to see her again in 2010.  I was able to make a trip to see her, and once again, I was received with open arms and with the comment, “I’ve been expecting you.” 

We caught up on the history of our friendship and events since I first met with her.  She looked exactly the same as she had 27 years earlier, not having aged in the least.  When I mentioned this to her, my comment was reciprocated with a grin.  She also said that she had sent her emissary to greet me in the grocery store in Brownsville.  Lala informed me that the “War of the Witches” had ended with the death of her opponent and that all was now peaceful at El Cielo.

Doña Eulalia was pleased with how I had developed my study of the supernatural, especially my relationship with Don Jacinto, the Huichol shaman. It didn’t surprise me that she knew so much about my life because she had always been able to intuit obscure and sometimes very private details.

Over the course of more than 50 years my study of shamanism throughout Latin America, the one thing that has amazed me the most about shaman collectively is their ability to “know” things, to “see” the unknown.

It has now been close to a decade since I last saw Eulalia, but every now and then, she will pop into my head, or I think I see her in a crowd, and I know that is her way of telling me she is still all right.

Since 2010, the highway from Matamoros to Cuidad Mante and over to Gomez Farias, has become very dangerous due to ongoing battles among drug cartels and the Mexican Army.  It is much too risky for me to drive. I can only hope that someday before the end of my time, I may be able to visit there again but it’s doubtful.   I long to walk the trails of the tropical rainforest atop the Sierra Madre Oriental, where the Jaguars roam and ancient Mayan spirits go about their daily work, unaware that they lived in the past.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and is a member of one of the 13 founding families of northern Mexico. He is the nephew of Dr. Joe Zavaleta and Prax Orive, each of whom served on the TSC Board.

Dr. Zavaleta graduated from Saint Joseph Academy in 1964 and entered Texas Southmost College, graduating and transferring to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1976. Moving back to Brownsville in 1976, Dr. Zavaleta began teaching sociology and anthropology at Texas Southmost College and at Pan American University at Brownsville. Dr. Zavaleta became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for UTB/TSC, and also served as the Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and Technology. He next served as Vice President for Partnership Affairs, where he coordinated all of the work between the TSC Board and UTB, and then became the Vice President for External Affairs, which included governmental relations and all external programs such as Workforce Training and Continuing Education. Dr. Zavaleta served as Interim Provost, the chief operating officer of UTB/TSC, and then as the Associate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2011 he retired from the administration to return to full-time teaching. Dr. Zavaleta retired in May 2016 after 40 years of service.

Dr. Zavaleta is regarded as one of the top experts on the US-Mexico Border, and frequently speaks throughout Mexico and the U.S. Dr. Zavaleta was appointed to two Federal commissions by Presidents Reagan and Obama, and he served two terms on the Brownsville City Commission, followed by a term on the City of Brownsville Civil Service Commission.

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