Continued from Chapter 4.
“Many mothers and fathers y abuelitos want to teach their children our traditions, our culture, and also about the ancient knowledge of our ancestors. But … some have fears of what they call ‘the old ways.” Tío Emilio
By Richard Juarez
I was trying to make out bits and pieces of the phone conversation my mother was having with Tata. I don’t usually try to listen in, but this time she was almost arguing with him, which she never does. My sisters and I were playing monopoly in the sala on Saturday afternoon. I never liked the game much—it always took too long, and my mind tended to wander between turns. No wandering this time, however. I could tell from the look on the girls’ faces that they were as surprised as I was about what we heard coming from the dining room. I didn’t understand all of what was said, but I did make out that it had to do with me somehow, and she kept saying no to him, over and over, raising her voice. Then she got quiet, and it seemed like they came to some kind of agreement, as she ended the conversation with a few buenos. When she got off the phone she called to me.
“Vincent, they want you over at Tata’s. Tío Emilio is down from Los Angeles. You go put on a decent shirt and get right over there. And … he wants you to bring that leather cover.”
Ah, I thought, that’s what it was about. Finally, the time had come. I had been waiting, wondering when I would get to talk with him again.
“So much for monopoly,” said Gracie in a resigned tone. “And I was winning, too!”
I got changed, picked up the leather binder cover, and headed over to Nana and Tata’s. My mind was churning in a jumble of thoughts as I walked up the street. I had so many questions about the mystery of who Tío Emilio really was. If he was a member of the family, why didn’t the family ever talk about him? Was he really a brujo? And just what was a brujo? Did he have special powers? What were they? How did he use them? And why was the eagle on the leather cover so special? What did that mean? Why did he have to wait until now to show it to me? And what was this thing, this omen he talked about?
Coming up the steps, even before I got to the front door, my thoughts were overridden by a wonderful aroma. My Nana made the best frijoles and flour tortillas in the world. Many people in the neighborhood now bought their tortillas in the stores, or at the local tortillerias. Fewer and fewer people made their own tortillas at home.
“Hola, Vicente,” Nana called as I walked in the front door. “Ven p’acá,” she said, getting up from her chair in the dining room. I followed her into the kitchen. Nana seemed to fit the image of the typical Mexican grandmother. She always seemed to be wearing a big white apron because she was always cooking something. Usually she wore a bandana over her mostly gray hair. Today it was her light blue one, which matched the color of her kitchen walls. I already towered over her by at least six inches, maybe more. As I caught up with her and gave her a hello kiss, she asked, “¿Quieres comer?” Before I could answer, she pointed back to the dining room table, saying, “Sientate y come.” She knew I was always ready to eat.
The thought of Nana’s cooking almost made me forget why I was there. Tata and Tío Emilio were sitting at the old wooden dining table, eating and talking, and paused only briefly to greet me as I walked into the room. Tata pointed to a chair at the opposite end of the table. I quietly slid onto the wooden chair, trying not to disturb them. Just a few moments later Nana brought me a plate of beans, rice, and flour tortillas. “Mmm, boy!” I thought. She made her beans sort of in-between whole and mashed, with delicious thick bean juice. I loved them that way, especially sopped up with her tortillas! And these were pinto beans, not black beans or kidney beans or some other kind—real Mexican beans. Her Mexican rice was always so wonderful too. I smelled that as soon as I walked into the house—so good!
She soon brought herself a plate and sat down at the table just as Tata and Tío excused themselves to continue their discussion in the sala.
“¿Y para tomar, mijito, qué quieres—agua, leche, Pepsi, limonada?”
“¿Tienes Pepsi?” I asked, somewhat surprised that she offered it. She usually wanted me to drink the other stuff that she said was better for me—water, milk or lemonade.
“Sí,” she said, getting up from her chair and picking up Tata’s and Tío Emilio’s empty plates. She came back with a tall glass of soda for both of us, and more tortillas. After a few minutes she noticed that my plate was just about empty.
“¿Quieres más, mijito?” she asked, getting up, knowing the answer.
“Mmmhmmm,” I said, nodding my head while chewing a mouthful.
She brought my second plateful and sat down again. Nana was listening in on the conversation between Tata and Tío Emilio from the living room. I tried to listen at first, but my Spanish vocabulary was limited and they were talking about things I didn’t understand, words I hadn’t heard, and I was losing it. So I just tuned out and focused on the task at hand.
I had gulped down the first plate. With the second plate I took my time. Nana kept bringing me hot tortillas. She always said I was too skinny, so when she had the chance, she fed me well!
“You’re still eating?” asked Tío Emilio, smiling as he walked past. It was more of a comment than a question. I hadn’t noticed that they had stopped talking. “When you finish, come out and join me in the back yard.”
Suddenly I couldn’t eat any more. I didn’t have much left of that second serving anyway. But I lost my appetite not because I was full. It was because the moment of truth had arrived! Now, finally, I had the chance to talk with Tío Emilio and to get some answers about the mystery. I put my plate in the kitchen sink and took my glass of soda with me.
“Over here, Vincent,” Tío Emilio called, motioning for me to join him inside Nana’s garden shed. He sat just inside the entrance on an old dining room chair with weathered chrome legs and a seat with peeling green vinyl. Nana’s garden shed was a nice size garden room, about eight feet by ten feet, enclosed on three and a half sides. It had plywood walls going halfway up, with the top half made of criss-crossing slats about two inches wide, spaced to allow some sunlight in. The roof had light green plastic panels you couldn’t see through, but which let in light for the plants growing in containers on the shelves.
I walked up to the shed, feeling more and more nervous. Maybe even frightened. I could feel myself breathing faster and starting to sweat. My stomach began to feel woozy. There he sat, this stranger who was a relative I had never heard of, but everyone in the neighborhood knew about. The one they called a brujo, with strange powers that people didn’t talk about. Yet he was respected by the elders and even called don, a title of respect. He was a relative, so I knew I wasn’t going to be harmed, but my body was still tempted to run away to avoid this meeting. I had been waiting two weeks, wanting to talk to him, but now, I was … well, chickening out. Suddenly my legs were weak and I had trouble making the last few steps to the shed.
Tío Emilio was holding one of Nana’s plant containers, inspecting it closely. As I came closer, I could see that it was one of her aloe vera plants, a big one. The large pointed leaves stuck out in front of him like a bull’s horns. Talk about a “moment of truth!” I felt like I was a matador slowly walking up to face the bull who was there waiting for me. Somewhere inside I had the feeling that the “me” I had been up to this point was about to get gored and die. Trying to be brave, I raised my head and chest, and did my fearless vato loco walk the last few steps.
He pointed silently to the old wooden chair across from him and motioned for me to sit, which I did. Much to my dismay I realized that I was sitting in the chair with the low bottom. The yellow foam cushion wasn’t much support, so I sunk way down. Tío Emilio seemed to tower above me from his chair. I felt very uncomfortable and at a disadvantage. I couldn’t think, so I took a big swig of the Pepsi and set it down next to me.
Okay, I thought to myself as I coughed, trying to clear my throat, I don’t need to let my imagination run away with me. There’s nothing to fear. We’re just gonna talk. I had a whole list of questions in my head. I wanted to know so much but didn’t want to seem like an ignorant fool, not knowing what a brujo was. I decided I would listen to him first, and then ask my questions, starting off with what kind of work he did. One couldn’t just venture into forbidden areas and ask loads of questions. I thought it would be best to work my way into it.
He sat there silently, looking at me. My mind was racing. Why didn’t he say anything? Was he waiting for me to say something? Suddenly my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember any of the questions I was going to ask! Nothing! I could feel wetness on my forehead and above my lip. My hands were sweating. My shirt was wet. My stomach was in my throat.
Tío Emilio was about to say something, but then he stopped. He shifted in his chair and leaned forward, suddenly thrusting the plant at me. Oh, God! I tried to jump back from those big horns, but I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes and waited….
“Would you please put this plant on that shelf behind you?”
His words seemed to boom and resonate in the empty chamber where my brains should have been. I felt like a big fool, letting my imagination run wild with me. I decided right then that I should cut my losses by just acting like nothing was going on. I took the plant and put it on the shelf. He didn’t know that I was freaking out. He might wonder why I was sweating so much, but he couldn’t read my mind. I figured I should just ask about the scene carved into the leather cover and why that was made for me. That should be a safe topic to get us started. But even though I wanted to know about the leather cover, my other curiosity got the best of me, and I blurted out, “Tío, what’s a brujo?”
He thought about my question for a few moments. “Mijo, my cousin Miguel said your mamá told you I believe in the old ways of our people. Many mothers and fathers y abuelitos want to teach their children our traditions, our culture, and also about the ancient knowledge of our ancestors. But many of them do not really know much about this ancient knowledge themselves, and some have fears of what they call ‘the old ways.’
“Brujos are a part of the old ways. Some people use the term brujo. Other terms are curandero, sorcerer, holy man, or witchdoctor. Many use the term shaman, which in Spanish is chamán. To some, these words describe a man or woman of honor, and respect, a man of God. Others fear these sorcerers, these witches, as they call them, thinking that they deal with the dark side—with evil. To translate the word brujo, I prefer the term shaman. Others prefer the term sorcerer. I think the words brujo and sorcerer now carry too much negativity.
“Shamans—they can be men or women—are keepers of a very special body of knowledge about the unseen forces of the universe, and how the energies that make up all things in the universe are connected. Shamans know how to use these forces and energy connections to improve the lives of people they work with, and life in general on this earth.”
He peered at me intently. “Now to the other question lurking there … am I a brujo?”
I felt my face flush hot. It was probably red. He knew I had wanted to ask him that.
“Yes, I am. And, as I said, I prefer the term shaman, but I do not care what people call me. I just go about doing my work for those who request my help.”
He sat there looking at me, waiting for my next question. I was so shocked that he read my mind that it was hard for me to think straight. This stuff was all very strange and didn’t make sense. No one had ever talked like this to me before. It was a moment before I could speak.
“Are you saying that you help people?” I asked, finally. As he nodded, I continued, “Then why don’t they want to talk about it? Why do they keep it all so quiet?”
“Well, perhaps it is because some people are afraid of the unknown. When the energies and connections between all things are studied and our ability to perceive them nurtured and developed, the result can produce amazing feats of power which some call magic. But the connections are a natural part of the universal energies that exist, so I do not call it magic. In fact, I call it natural! But sometimes, the results shock people who are not ready for such experience. In the past many people turned away from the brujos’ ways and taught their children not to speak of them, and not to believe the stories people told.
“Your Tata lived most of his life unaware of what a brujo or shaman really is, how they work closely with God and the energies of the universe. Even though I am a shaman, because of our age difference, your Tata and I didn’t interact much over the years, until a few years before you were born. When he visited, he mostly spent time with my father. As I grew to know my shaman nature and abilities, it took time before I was able to share that with him.
“Years ago, your Tata had his own special connections with animals and crops, which I think helped him to be open to what I have shared with him about my work. Yet he still has his doubts about things that he does not understand.”
“You’ve been teaching Tata about your work?” My mind struggled to keep up with this surprising news.
“Yes, and he wants you to know these things. But he doesn’t know enough to teach you.”
Just then, I noticed Tata standing just outside the shed, listening. I hadn’t heard him walk up. He appeared to be deep in thought. Then he spoke, in Spanish.
“Vicente, I asked Emilio to visit us so that you could meet him. I want him to teach you some of what he knows. I have seen many children grow up in this neighborhood, and have seen many boys, mine included, get into trouble. This happens, I believe, because something is missing in their lives.” Tata’s eyes filled with tears. “If it can help you in your life, then I think you should be made aware of it. Do you understand me?”
I nodded yes, even though I was struggling to keep up with his Spanish. I lowered my eyes, embarrassed by his tears on my account. Then it hit me! That’s what this is all about! He asked Tío Emilio to come here to teach me this shaman stuff to keep me out of trouble. My mother thinks a lecture by Tío Marcos will do it. Tata wants Tío Emilio to do it. Hell, I don’t need no shaman from Mexico to keep me out of trouble!
“When we look back at our ancient ancestors,” said Tío Emilio, speaking English, “we find that from the very young to the very old, people were connected. They had their roles and responsibilities. Every person contributed to the well being of the village. They lived in a manner that acknowledged their connection to each other, the earth, and God, the Great Spirit. There was a balance in each life and between members of the community, and a balance with the environment around them. There was no need for criminal rebellion among youth.” He repeated this again in Spanish for Tata, who nodded his head throughout, indicating that he had understood most of it the first time in English.
Then Tata spoke again, in Spanish: “We must find a way to bring back this balance. I think a way to do this is by teaching the young people about the connection between all living things, their connection to God, and the knowledge of the shamans. If we could do this here, I believe that the young people would find the support and strength they are looking for within the power of our own ancient culture, rather than the negative power of gangs and drugs.”
Again I was shocked to hear Tata talking about this. Tío Emilio just nodded his head in agreement with Tata. Tío Emilio started to speak, and then paused, looking at me.
“Did you get all that?”
I nodded yes, I understood the Spanish. But what were they saying? I’d never thought about these things and I didn’t understand them. Why should I care about how people lived hundreds of years ago? They want to get the vatos into a culture class? No way!
“Real learning, learning about life, takes place right here in the community,” continued Tío Emilio in English, as if in response to my thoughts. “A shaman teaches by doing and his students learn by example, practice, and through deep contemplation or focused attention, connecting with guidance and information from God or spirit guides and teachers.”
My head was spinning again. How did he keep reading my mind? Was that part of his power, his magic?
“One of the first things we focus on in our shamanic training,” said Tío Emilio, looking directly at me, “is how to increase personal energy. Once a person increases his energy or vibration, and stops leaking his energy, he may begin perceiving more than what most other people perceive. With practice, he may become skilled at extra-sensory perception—being able to read thoughts, anticipate actions, sense events happening in other locations—things like that.”
Now I was freaking out. He was reading my mind! Yet, he was calmly telling me that this was part of the shaman training.
“I do not want to scare you, Vincent. I simply want you to know that some of what people refer to as power or magic is a basic part of shaman knowledge and our native culture. Your Tata wishes for me to teach you about the spiritual side of our ancient native Mexican culture. That is, if you want to do this. But first your Tata will have to convince your parents. Right now your mother is opposed to my teaching you about ‘the old ways.’ She was taught by her tías that the ‘old ways’ are evil or against the teachings of the Church.”
Well, if my mother is so against it, I thought to myself, maybe I shouldn’t be so fast to say no. What does she not want me to find out? Why has she been so secretive about this relative?
Tío Emilio got up and walked over to me. He gave me a grandfatherly sort of pat on the head. Suddenly, I had this weird tingly feeling and goose bumps all over. As that feeling faded, I became aware that someone else was here with us. I turned around and saw through the shed slats that Gina was standing by the side of the house. Her hand was up to her mouth and she looked afraid to interrupt. Tata and Tío Emilio turned to see what I was looking at.
She yelled to me. “Mama said to come and remind you that you got some chores you’re supposed to finish before dinner. She said you have to get home and get started.”
“I have plenty of time,” I called back.
“Oh yeah,” she continued. “Mama said that Doña Rosa called. She hurt her ankle and can’t walk over to the church. So mama wants you to go over there and help her. She needs you to pick up some altar cloths and take them to the church right now, before you come home.”
This sure sounded like her! She agreed to a new chore to get me away from Tío Emilio.
“You go ahead mijo,” said Tío Emilio. “You have some church business to take care of.”
“But Tío,” I said, “what about the leather cover? When will we talk about that?”
“We can talk about that story tomorrow,” he said. “Come over in the morning after breakfast. I am not leaving until eleven o’clock.”
I walked out the back yard and through the alley to Beardsley Street. From there it was just a short walk to the pedestrian bridge over the freeway. Doña Rosa’s home was right on the other side of the freeway, just a few doors up the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe church. Doña Rosa and Nana were good friends, having known each other probably longer than I’d been alive. So Nana and my mother didn’t hesitate to send me over whenever Doña Rosa needed any help.
I walked up to Doña Rosa’s door and rang the bell. She had grandchildren who could have taken the linens to the church, but she probably couldn’t track down any of the boys. They didn’t let women or girls into the sacristy, past the communion rail, except for nuns and women who did volunteer work for the parish. Doña Rosa did a lot of work for the church, cleaning, starching and pressing the altar linens, laundering the priests’ vestments, and growing flowers for the altar.
Her granddaughter Gloria opened the door, grinning with a big smile. I’d known Gloria for years. She was in some of my classes at school, and was taller than most of the girls in our classes, but just a little shorter than me. Her long brown hair was up in a ponytail.
“Hi, Vinnie,” she said sweetly, looking intently at me with her big brown eyes. “Come in.” She and a couple of the other girls at school liked to call me Vinnie when they felt like making me blush. I think it worked. I could feel my cheeks and my ears getting red. Doña Rosa was sitting on the living room couch. She was about Nana’s size, and having been friends for so many years, may have been about the same age, although there was less gray in her mix of gray and black hair. I think she could see I was embarrassed, for as she greeted me, she emphasized my name the way she preferred to say it.
“Vicente. Buenos tardes, Vicente. Thank you for coming to help with the altar linens. I hurt my ankle a little, and can’t walk over to the church myself.”
“I don’t know why they don’t let girls go onto the altar,” said Gloria, jumping into the conversation. “It would have been very easy for me to walk over and put these on there.”
“Shhhhh.” Gloria’s grandmother shushed her. Like many other older Mexican women who are devout Catholics, she didn’t like people talking bad about the church’s rules, even if they didn’t seem to make any sense. She continued with brief instructions, aware that I already knew what to do with the altar linens, having done this for her before. I nodded and reassured her that I wouldn’t drop them, and everything would be in its proper place on the altars.
Doña Rosa got up off the couch and walked slowly with a limp toward the dining room table. Gloria quickly walked over to help. There on the table they gently folded the long white linen altar cloths, careful not to make creases after so much work by Doña Rosa starching and ironing them. Together they carried them to me, placing the stack of linens gently in my outstretched arms. Gloria softly stroked the underside of my arm as she released the linens. Doña Rosa didn’t.
“Cuidado mijito,” Doña Rosa cautioned me as they walked me to the door.
“Yes, Vinnie,” purred Gloria, smiling at me with those big dimples as I walked past her, “be careful.”
I didn’t turn around or say anything, just flashed her two red ears. As I turned to walk down the sidewalk toward the church, I thought I heard her giggle.
Copyright © 2013 Richard Juarez
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