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Maria Sabina: Magic mushrooms and silencing the saint children

14 April 2010

I had started to write about the Mazateca curandera and pop culture icon María Sabina — María Sabina Magdalena García (1894? – 1985) — about a year ago, but put it aside, mostly out of annoyance with the “new agey” and/or pretentious academic tone of most of the source material I found.  I don’t really want to read websites with titles like “Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments: An Entheogen Chrestomathy” — not unless I’m on drugs, which I’m not.

But María Sabina’s story is worth telling, not just because it is another example of the common enough tragedy  in Mexico and elsewhere, in which outsiders plunder the indigenous community for their own benefit, but, because the results of that plunder are still felt today and taking on a new significance.

Like most of her neighbors, the Mazateca-speaking woman was a subsistence farmer who had never been  further from Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca than she would walk.   Within her small community, she was a woman of respect,  having been also engaged in the family business  of diagnosing and  curing both physical and spiritual ills.  Having become acquainted with the properties of  various mushrooms when she was about six or seven years old, by 1955 the respected old lady had a lifetime of experience as a physician and religious leader behind her.

In that year, R. Gordon Wasson, a vice-president of J.P. Morgan and amateur fungi researcher, came to Mexico.  Not giving nearly enough credit to his Russian-born wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken — who was familiar with Russian folk medicine (which also uses hallucinogenic mushrooms and fungi for treating various ailments) —  Wasson claimed he had been in search of what early Spanish chroniclers of Aztec medicine and religion referred to as the “flesh-eating gods” .  He prevailed upon the local syndic (the elected head of the autonomous commune of Huatla) to introduce him to Sabina.

Left unsaid, of course, was that J.P. Morgan is an investment bank, and in the early 1950s, investments in the new pharmacopeia that was emerged from experimental chemistry in the 1930s and during World War II — especially those related to treatment of mental illness — offered massive financial returns.

Wasson, who managed to witness various curing ceremonies, not only wrote about them for the popular U.S. weekly Life in the kind of language reserved for explorations of the weird and exotic corners of the globe, also took to the Swiss laboratories of Albert Hoffman, spores from the fungi used by María Sabina.  Hoffman, who had accidentally synthesized LSD in 1938 was able to eventually identify the active hallucinogenic chemical in the mushrooms María Sabina used to facilitate religious experiences — psilocybin.

Psilocybin showed promise for treatment of anxiety and a few psychiatric disorders, but other laboratory-created compounds, like Ritalin and Thorazine, were more profitable and psilocybin was never pursued by the pharmaceutical companies.

Its theraputic uses were limited to what María Sabina and other Mazateca curaneros used it for… curing the soul, which is, perhaps, a kind of psychotherapy, especially when done the Mazateca way, combining the drug treatment with  communal support and rituals… “group therapy” and “facilitated care” to put in in terms insurance and pharmaceutical companies can understand.

All of which Wasson sort of glossed over in his Life article, Seeking the Magic Mushroom.  The result, as Wasson claimed  years later was that “I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for a millennia.” (Yes, the man really did write like that!)

The late 1950s was the beginning of the western (or, as it was called at the time, “first world”) counter-culture movement… which romanticized the indigenous community as more “authentic” and “enlightened” and led the aficionados of a romanticized alternative lifestyle to head for Huautla de Jiménez.  They had no interest in authentic or enlightening activities like bringing in María Sabina’s corn or hoeing her beans, but they did expect her to gratify their search for whatever it was that ailed them… and to short-circuit the process to fit their own schedules.

These young people, blonde and dark-skinned, didn’t respect our customs. Never, as far as I remember, were the saint children eaten with such a lack of respect. For me it is not fun to do vigils. Whoever does it simply to feel the effects can go crazy and stay that way temporarily. Our ancestors always took the saint children at a vigil presided over by a Wise One.

“Saint children” was María Sabina’s personification of the visionary experiences produced during her cures, under the guidance of “a Wise One” — the experienced curandera, or, in our language, therapist.

The improper use that the young people made of the little things was scandalous. They obliged the authorities in Oaxaca City to intervene in Huautla. … though not all the foreigners are bad, it’s true.

But 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. There’s no remedy for it…

In the words of the older sabio , Apolonio Terran… ‘What is terrible is that the sacred mushroom no longer belong to us. The language has been spoiled and is indecipherable to us … “What is this new language like?” “Now the mushrooms speak English! Yes it is the tongue the foreigners speak”

Although I don’t have a romantic notion of indigenous communal life, and don’t see outsiders as necessarily the snake in paradise, there’s no denying the foreign attention had a disastrous effect on the community, and on María Sabina.  More than profaning a sacred ritual,these visitors were an economic and physical drain on María Sabina (whose heirs would later remark that the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan or one of their other wealthy visitors might have at least brought the old lady a  washing machine, if they expected her to do their laundry… which she often did by hand), who never considered NOT fulfilling her duties in performing rituals and giving solace to those who asked.

Worse, the influx of unwanted visitors (who didn’t understand that catering to their needs and wants took the subsistence farmers away from communal duties and a predictable way of life) created social tensions that boiled over.  Sabina’s house was burned down and her son murdered.  That some in the community also sought to profit from the visitors — as guides, mushroom hunters and service providers created still more problems.

Heriberto Yépez wrote an article in what apparently was a 2002 publication called “Ethnopoetics” an essay on the larger social issues raised by the magic mushroom craze with the imposing title of  Clockwoman in the Land of Mixed Feelings:  The Place of Maria Sabena in Mexican Culture:

Sabina suffered the stigma of being involved in sell-out-tourism, becoming in the popular mind one of those persona of popular culture that, thanks to their friendship with the dollar, are almost non-Mexican: border prostitutes; jumping frijoles; Tijuana; and María Sabina, an Indian healer turned chic guide for crazy gabachos, a betrayer of the nation. From this point of view Sabina’s betrayal is still more profound: as both propagator and product of Americanization she was seen as converting young Mexicans into native hippies (jipitecas), turning them, in effect, into gringos. She was one of the mothers of the “first generation of Americans born in Mexico” to use [Carlos] Monsiváis’ phrase, which became the slogan for resistance to the influence American counterculture … was exercising on an entire generation of what have come to be known as post-Mexicans.

In fact, Sabina felt that she had done something forbidden, as the Life [article]makes clear. And Huautla’s most conservative people, including other shamans, repudiated her, and her house was burned down. All over the country, intellectuals, politicians and the media concurred with the judgement in Huautla: like Malinche before her, Sabina was seen as the great accomplice to the destruction of Primordial Mexican-Indian Culture by outsiders.

Harassed and questioned by authorities who — pressured by the United States to clamp down on drug users — blamed her for the influx of what were considered undesirable aliens (or at least cheap tourists), María Sabina spent the last years of her life alone, mourning the loss of her family, her “saint children” and the Indigeno-Christian faith that had been the focus of her life’s work.  After her death, Huatla de Jiménez continued to live in sort of a ghostly afterlife, its economy tied to aging counter-cultural tourists.  María Sabina’s image is on the side of local taxis and tee-shirts showing her smoking a cigar — something not at all uncommon among women of her generation (think of Sara García’s “abuela” character in 1950s Mexican films) —  is assumed to be a big joint — making  her an icon among the drug-user culture.

This is what makes her relevant still.  The tragedy was that her community, and its way of life, and perhaps the saint children, were probably doomed to extinction.  But, absent the invasion, it would have been a gradual extinction, with time to mutate into a new and different form — much as the culture had incorporated Christian beliefs into their own indigenous customs.  But, thefForeigners, seeking instant gratification for the ills of post-industrial life and too many goods, saw nothing wrong with instant occupation and conquest. They overlooked the destruction they brought to rural Mexican communities in the name of their needs, met now.  And then, blamed the Mexicans for their perceived ills satisfying those needs caused,  and forced the Mexican state to persecute those who those who  fulfilled the desires of those outsiders.

And, in an odd twist of fate, just as the small tragedy in the small community of Huatla de Jiménez is being forgotten in the national tragedy of many communities, like Juaréz and Tijuana and Durango and Culiacán and throughout the Republic,  the medical doctors in the north are taking a new look at psilocybin as a therapy… too late to teach the saint children to again sing in Mazateca.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 August 2010 3:08 pm

    This is one of those, all too common, sad but true stories of something that is oversimplified to the point of misunderstanding by uneducated people.
    “When will they ever learn…”

  2. Ben Feinberg permalink
    17 October 2010 4:48 pm

    While I fully agree with many points in your essay, including the ways in which a certain class of Mexicans tarred Maria Sabina as another Malinche and your critique of Wasson, I would strongly take issue with your assertion that Huautla de Jimenez was reduced to a sort of “ghostly afterlife” after her death. Huautla’s economy never had much to do with the mushrooms, except for a few hotels and some individual entrepreneurs; its certainly is not “tied to aging counter-cultural tourists.” Huautla’s economy was based on coffee until the 1980s, and it was the home base for a thriving Mazatec merchant class. Since coffee collapsed, the economy has changed – but those taxis with mushrooms on them are NOT carrying foreigners, but other Mazatecs, whose real lives have little to do with the sad and patronizing story of cultural decline you paint here. Maria Sabina’s alleged words, in Alvaro Estrada’s version of her autobiography, are in this case quite direct – “the foreigners ruined everything.” But she often says something else entirely, and to take this quote from Estrada is to ignore a much more complex situation (which is not to say that Huautla’s more direct incorporation into a global economy has had some awful consequences). I am sorry that you did not find some of the more relevant source material out there in your research.

    • radbola permalink
      6 April 2016 8:25 am

      This makes me think of the “aging counter culture” and what a death bringing blight on Western culture they were and are. To every simple point of profanity and destruction, they answer glibly that same answer it always boils down to “So what gringos destroying the whole earth for justified hedonism is the way it is. Join the global garbage machine or die.”…..60 years and we’re still waiting for the hippies to finally die and take their all consuming “me world” with them. You can always tell a hippie. They are hell’s own lawyers.

    • 25 January 2017 4:47 pm

      Ben: Excellent response to the article. I was there in 1988 with my wife. We needed healing. We approached our quest with respect and that is what we got in return (Healing and respect). The name of my guide has not been repeated by me since that is what she asked. One must approach with reverence. Thank you for your response to the article.

      • nancy permalink
        11 September 2019 6:09 pm

        Hi Ben, my name is Nancy, i was wondering what article are you talking about, i am very interested in knowing more, since i am desperately in need of healing in regards to my health , any insight would be greatly appreciate it

  3. Rose Mesec permalink
    14 April 2012 1:41 pm

    The people that sought Maria Sabina out were not just Americans but middle class Mexicans and other nationalities. I was met a group of these seekers on a train from Mexico City to Oaxoca in Feb 1984 and my friend and I accompanied themt otheir visit to the famous curandera. I can’t remember the Mexican woman’s name but she went to be healed so she could have a baby. In our group of 9 people there were 2 or 3 Mexicans, 1 or 2 Spanish, a man from Argentina, a man from Japan and another from Korea, plus us two Americans.

  4. Belen Espinoza permalink
    1 June 2012 12:42 am

    i dont mean to sound racist but anglos do seem to ruin everything. Some things are better left alone…its called respect. Which they dont have for cultures as old as ours. They ran from a terrible king only to come to a land already populated and claim as their own…tried to ride of our roots with much success. Sadly. Like a disease.

    • Victor Luis Antunez Perez-Abreu permalink
      4 August 2012 8:39 pm

      Belen Espinoza,

      With a name like that you must be of Spanish European descent so to hear you criticize Anglos for killing indigenous peoples in the New World seems highly hypocritical to me. Remember it is the Spanish who destroyed the Aztec and Inca empires.

      Your comment is also doubly disturbing since it is your people jumping the border to go North in order to escape to America’s “ruined” country.

      As for the rest of the article I am not surprised to hear of the shenanigans the 60’s hippies pulled while in Mexico. Those are the same losers who today sit around camp fires smoking dope wearing Che Guevara t-shirts talking about how they are going to change the world when really all they want is to get high and point fingers at the producers of this world.

      BTW Belen be honest. You do mean to sound racist.

      • Eshara permalink
        7 May 2013 3:22 am

        Remember, indigenous people were killed by the anglos and continue to be killed by the descendants of those anglos. Racism = power +prejudice. As far as I can tell, most of the world’s wealth is concentrated in places where ~anglos~ and other western europeans live. It looks like the only person who is racist is you. And keep hiding behind the quasi ethnic name you fabricated to make yourself sound like you aren’t racist. It’s absolutely true. The foreigners, the europeans really have ruined everything.

      • Victor Luis Antunez Perez-Abreu permalink
        7 May 2013 8:57 pm

        Nothing quasi about it Victor Luis Antunez Perez-Abreu is the name my mom gave me.

  5. Tony Lopez permalink
    27 May 2013 5:59 pm

    One can shorten or extend time its still there you can spend it wisely or foolishly but in the end its not yours to keep

  6. butch permalink
    1 June 2013 2:40 am

    rose is right ,people didnt have to travel to the mnts. of mexico to schroom. they went for a life changeing experiance.its in our nature to explore and to experiance new things. i’m 3rd gen irish in the u.s.40+yrs. old and eat mushrooms a handfull times ayear, keeps me focused on my wife , kids ,and career. very religious experainces.gov’t and $ = oppurtunity enlightenment has no borders.

  7. butch permalink
    1 June 2013 2:43 am

    anglo schmanglo

  8. accidental tourist permalink
    9 April 2014 10:24 pm

    I love Mexico. But, I do very strongly feel that. I feel that just by being there, I am changing it. But that only makes me want to go back more and more and to envelope myself in it before it is gone. Beautiful enchanted place. Beautiful enchanted people.

  9. 27 May 2014 2:58 pm

    I wonder about stuff like this with all this new interest in Ayahuasco.

  10. 9 September 2015 8:54 pm

    just getting started ……ls

  11. Iris permalink
    2 October 2015 6:09 pm

    where can I find the name and contact info of the author?

  12. Juliana Meowth permalink
    20 October 2016 10:01 pm

    Hi, thanks for the insightful read about the life of Maria Sabina. Can I ask what is your source material for the information about her later life, and the comments her heirs made about the celebrities who visited her (and expected laundry service as well as healing)?

  13. Dylan thomas permalink
    23 November 2019 9:02 pm

    Ppl need to stop acting like big babies. Any race of ppl can be racist,not just ‘anglos’. We can’t change the past we can only try to make the future better. I am a descendant of william clarke the explorer,who had great respect and admiration 4 the native ppls,they hated andrew jackson for what he did to the natives. In the end each persons sins are their own and each person will receive what they deserve for what they do to others,good or bad

Trackbacks

  1. Huautla de Jiménez: in the footsteps of María Sabina « livingandworkinginmexico
  2. All the Yage? | The Mex Files
  3. Maria Sabina: Magic mushrooms and silencing the saint children | Xica Nation
  4. Trippin’ for treatment — why magic mushrooms might be the next breakthrough mental health drug – Berkeley Political Review

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