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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 fifty years and has a life of its own weaving in and out of mind at will.  When I least expect it, the next part unfolds before me and I am sure that this writing is somehow connected to an unknown part of the puzzle.  The recovery of this document lost for at least 6 years just suddenly popped into my files.

The story surrounds a long-forgotten event chronicled in Mayan documents of a small group of specially gifted Mayan shaman who fled their homes in southern Mexico more than a thousand years ago traveling northward and settling in an area of remote rainforest today known as El Cielo Biosphere in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

This story is important because for more than four decades the Brownsville community and Texas Southmost College students have traveled to the area.  These trips are always remarkable producing unforgettable memories and euphoria.  From the visitor’s stories, there emerges a pattern of strange and unexplainable happenings in the area, somehow connected to The Legend of The Forgotten Ones.

The Legend of Los Olvidados, The Forgotten Ones, is a very common folktale in Mexico passed on from generation to generation in the region of Rancho del Cielo, a biological field station situated deep in the primal rainforest of Northeastern Mexico.  In many ways, the Legend begins around one of the oldest known places in the area, “Ojo Encantado,” the enchanted spring.  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.  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 and hike with them through the verdant valleys listening to their stories.

By 1964, I was a freshman at Texas Southmost College and fully engrossed in Mexico travel and in the lore of the unexplainable and fantastic.  Two years before in 1962, I read with disbelief a series of articles in the Herald about a strange religious cult operating in the mountains of northern Mexico just south of Cielo.  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.  It was.

I had always been drawn to the ethereal voices of magical Mexico.  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 we crashed Professor Warburton’s biology lab in the Gorgas Building and met a short crusty 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 Frank on that day would test fate.  Before Professor Warburton could run us out of the lab, Frank had invited us down to his ranch in Mexico to do some caving.  That first trip did not amount to much.  We rummaged around in a cave and through debris including clay shards, broken figurines and some bones, which we later learned were human remains.  Our guide was the first to tell us of the danger that the caves posed.  We must be very careful because the “living forest,” as he called it, would shift its shape without notice and we would be completely lost.  Nothing remarkable happened that trip and I was not able to return for seven years.

By 1972, Frank had been murdered at his ranch on the mountain by disgruntled ejidatarios and his land came to the college.  That is when the early years of the building phase at Rancho began. 

I was an anthropology graduate student at UT and thought I knew my way around Mexico pretty well.  As a student of Americo Paredes, it was the peak of the Carlos Castañeda craze, and my friends and I were very much in search of a magical experience in Mexico.

During spring break, we once again headed down to Mexico but not to the beaches.  Anthropology graduate students were expected to venture out on short excursions to native Mexico, returning with fantastic tales of 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 around in the forest babbling.  He told a fantastic story about the forest coming alive, of seeing Indians dressed in costumes, he muttered about flying men and about a 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 in Houston, who wanted to know what had happened to his son years ago on the mountain in Mexico.  I did not know what to tell him.

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 seemed to be only cautionary stories passed along to kids in order to scare them into obeying their parents. 

However, in 1975, that all changed for me.  Faced with writing a graduate paper, including reading old colonial documents about the Inquisition in seventeenth-century Mexico, I spent days in the archives reading about how the Church had sent a group of inquisitor priests to the region to investigate stories of an enchanted mountain in the north—a place of the Tamaul Indians.  The most intriguing part of the story was that they were lost and never returned.  They vanished.  I also remember reading about a lost mission in the area of El Cielo, only higher up and on the western slope of the range. The priests of the mission simply vanished.  So now, there was documentation ofthea second group of priests who had vanished and they were known as the lost friars or Los Friles Perdidos.

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

Throughout my graduate school years, I pieced together the stories common to the area: lost Mayan priests lost Franciscans, lost settlers, and finally, in the 19th century, disappearing children associated with flying objects and everything else on the mountain.

As I was about to take my last required class on the history of anthropology a remarkable thing happened. Renowned Mexican anthropologist Angel Palerm, visiting UT from UNAM, was assigned to teach the class at the last moment.  I was delighted.  Don Angel, as we called him took an immediate liking to me.  It was as if he knew something about me that I had not yet discovered.  During our brief time together, in the spring of 1975, he pulled me aside and deeper into the mysterious world of supernatural Mexico.  He wasted no time filling in the blanks.

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 lost Franciscans and all of the other legends associated with the mountains around El Cielo.  The Mayas were one of the most advanced civilizations of pre-Columbian America.  They were the scientists, the mathematicians, the philosophers, and magicians.  They held the key to unknown and forbidden knowledge and much of their knowledge was believed to be otherworldly.

Volumes and volumes of glyphs and scripts disappeared with the end of their civilization.  During the decline and collapse of the Classical Maya, a priestly caste of “rememberers” foretold the disaster were accused of witchcraft and forced to flee their land.

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 flying vehicles.  The priests were as feared as they were revered and were simply too far-out even for the Mayans.  They were believed to have developed a ritual algorithm 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 stumbles into one of the doorways in remote places like El Cielo and is never heard from again or reappear as mad.

Palerm explained that from reading recently discovered 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 up the coast, to a certain remote cave on a mountaintop.  They would know it by a device given to them and placed in a sacred vessel by the chief of the Flying-Men.

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

Only 1,000 years haves passed since the time of the Maya, and today the signal is strong.  So common is this signal phenomenon in the El Cielo range that the first commercial pilots flying over the area reported an unknown and unexplainable geomagnetic ping over the Sierra Madre Oriental near El Cielo.  In fact, because of its reliability, this marker is used by NASA to triangulate space flights with Houston and Florida and it even appears on some flight maps, although of unknown origin.

The Mayan getaway required the priests to ritually sacrifice their willing servants and common children as they fled Mayaland.  Only the most gifted were allowed to make the trek.  The surviving priests had been promised that once they arrived at the mountain top sanctuary, physical aging would slow to a stop and life and death would be no more.  They would exist between the layers of time.

Once they departed, the Mayan priests were never heard from or seen again.  Except for an incidental glyph on a Mayan stele at Tikal, even their own people forgot 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 describes how these objects should never be moved or touched.  In fact, the locals have developed a set of prayers used in the cleansing ritual of those encountering 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 dream, 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 all around but cannot be seen.  In this way, the events of the parallel world are glimpsed and in rare cases when this happens to a “gifted” 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 are actually aliens search for special sentient humans for the purpose of new colonization, hence, abduction is also part of the legend.

While the physical body remains intact, the spirit is borrowed from the gifted ones.  The Legend states that when this occurs strange facial expressions and uncontrolled giddiness are sure signs that the process has begun.

The people who live around El Cielo have become so accustomed to this that they have learned to live with it and now mostly ignore it.  However, if left unattended, the strange and bizarre dreams develop into a behavior pattern, which is irreversible.  The proper herbal antidote must be administered to the victim within 12 hours of contact or the process of soul extraction is completed.  After which it is too late.  At this point, the cure for fright sickness or susto is attempted, but 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 collect was to be added to his and passed on to the next gifted student. 

I was also to learn of the plants of the forest and among them the sacred antidotes.  This was also part of the Legend and had been told to him, as he told it to me, and I to you.  Failure to comply with the pact of knowledge could result in great 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 the mountain in 1976, I soon resumed my trips to the enchanted forest with new, unsettling knowledge and foreboding caution.

Almost immediately and on my first trip to the mountain, after joining the faculty at TSC, I happened upon Doña Eulalia, “Lala,” who lived alone high up on the mountain.  Driving by her little house on the road to Julilo, Lala was working in her herb garden and as we ambled by, my eye caught hers. 

Instantly, I 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.

Only later would I learn that her neighbors considered her a witch or bruja, however, she referred to herself a healer or curandera.  I apprenticed with her fothe r next five 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 apprentices would stop by or we would trek off through the woods to the home of a sick neighbor.

During those years, I learned the art of spiritual observation and how observation was an important part of the “healing paradigm.”  From my point of view, I was glad that observers are not enactors.  That is, to do by not doing.  I also learned during the next 30 years (1980-2010) about the many hundreds of people who have trekked to El Cielo and the many strange and unexplainable things that happen to them on the mountain.

The Mayan calendar predicted the Flying-Men, or alien Voladores, would return and there would be numerous flying object sightings over Mexico; flying beasts called Chupacabras would appear; there would be unusual markings in the fields; mutilated cattle and bloodthirsty cults would emerge.  All these things have come to pass as predicted.

The people of the mountain have long talked about the forest beast but only recently has it been given the name, 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 that it shreds with its claw-like appendages.  However, beware, these curious beasts are attracted to the ground by flashlights forming beacons of light in the forest night, but 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 that it could shift its shape at will.  She knew well of the Mayan priests and that they lived in a parallel world, walking the same paths, inhabiting the same rooms we do when visiting Cielo.  Lala considered the whole mountain a living being.  We were simply like fleas on its back.

The Legend has it that the Flying-men had discovered this magic forest thousands of years ago on one of their routine visits to this place.  So important is this secret spot that the Voladores-aliens shared these secrets with the Mayans with whom they also shared their genes.

Doña Lala told me about the lost children, and that they and the Maya are all living around us in their continuing parallel world.  Every 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.  The Legend actually refers to them as duendes, a common Mexican folk creature.  Forest dwarfs like to play in the homes and cabins of people who live in the area.  Being mischievous by nature, they frequently move the personal belongings of visitors at Rancho del Cielo.  You cannot leave important belongings laying around. 

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 continued for decades.  It simply became 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 (2000-2001), there was constant spiritual warfare between the primary witches of the region resulting in numerous deaths.  Anyone associated with them was vulnerable.  After my last visit in 1983, I saw her only rarely.  Every now and then, when in Mexico, and it could be anywhere, I will perceive a signal or a sign that I know is from Lala.  Sometimes it is a person that I notice.  A word is never spoken.  It is not necessary; I am happy that she survived all these years.  When I least expect it, she will send me a message.  One day while shopping in HEB in Brownsville, an unknown woman approached me and simply said, “Lala says hello.”

While the spiritual warfare has declined dramatically in recent years, it does continue in different forms. The brujos mayores, or primary witches, and their apprentices still employ the technique of shifting to an animal form.  This is for the purpose of survival but also for 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 still wander the trails of El Cielo and they make 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 most serious.  If you were their 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 the report of a 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 referred to all that goes on up in the mountain forests as the work of Los Olvidados, The Forgotten Ones.

Doña Eulalia, Okx-Chul-lala-na, is an ancient spirit, the master of the living forest.  Like so many who have come before her, she patiently awaits the promised return of the Flying-Men.  The mountain’s visitors amuse her, remarking that the Flying-Men’s zoo needs 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 brief, uneventful and only remembered as the unexpected rustling of branches and leaves in the dark forest.

However, every now and then one of our sojourners inadvertently steps into the unexpected, feeling or even seeing something more.  Sometimes the visitors are actually “gifted” and for them great ambiguity is created.  The Legend says that soon all 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…when next you visit Rancho del Cielo.

Many years after these initial experiences at Rancho del Cielo (1965-1975) I returned home to teach at Texas Southmost College and then become 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 aad the wide range of experiences to the point that my stories were often not believed.

First as Dean and then as Vice President and Provost I made frequent trips to Rancho directing trips 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 and that is how it originally came to be written down.  While not intended to be a scary story it severely frightened several of the people on that trip.

I had researched every detail early in my graduate career at the behest of Dr. Palerm, and as such had all of the details of disappearing priests and strange pinging sounds documented.  Many of things people refused to believe.  Years after my last visit to see Doña Eulalia, 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, since I first met her, and she looked exactly the same not having aged in the least.  When I mentioned this to her my comment was reciprocated with a grin.  She also mentioned 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 on the mountain.

Doña Eulalia was pleased with how I had developed my study of the supernatural especially my relationship with Don Jacinto the Huichol shaman and the publication of my book on medicinal plants.  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 of the study of shaman throughout Latin America, the one thing that amazed me the most about them collectively was their ability to “know” things, to see.

One thing that truly amazed me was her knowledge of the young Mayan prince who had died and was buried on my ranch at Palmito Hill.  She said that the Mayan outpost at Cielo would routinely send parties along the gulf coast and up the Mississippi River to Snake Mound for trade.  As Jacinto discovered in trance, one of this group had been buried on my ranch and his spirit still roams just as his compatriots do at Cielo.  Every aspect of my experiences on the mountain have amazed me especially how they were all connected.

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 all right alright.

Since 2010, the highway from Matamoros to Cuidad Mante and over to Rancho del Cielo has become very dangerous with ongoing battles by the drug cartels.  Much too dangerous for me to drive I can only hope that someday before the end of my time I will be able to visit there once again.   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 not aware that they lived in the past. It gives me solace to know that I have played a minor role in connecting the Mayan Prince buried at my ranch to his kin at Cielo.

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