by Ellen Johnston
The road was bumpy and the sky was dark. We had just rolled into Catemaco that afternoon, on a stinking second-class bus heaving its way southward from the port of Veracruz. We were a motley crew – a Canadian, an Argentine, and a Spaniard – made even more motley by our newest addition: a one-armed Mexican who worked intersections for spare change, spinning plates up and down the coast. We were sprawled in the back of a pickup truck, heading up the hill above Catemaco. We had come with one purpose, and one purpose only: to see the “Misa Negra”. The Black Mass.
Catemaco is a town known for its witches, or “brujos” as they are called in the Spanish-speaking world. Perched on a lagoon in the south of Veracruz state, the caves in the surrounding area are filled with offerings to the devil in the form of food, candles and alcohol. The paths that lead through the woods are often marked by ritually-purged eggshells, half-burnt out fires, and large white pentangles, drawn in chalk in the sand. In Mexico, it is a commonly known fact that every day can feel more surreal than the next.
Where these rituals come from, it is not so clear. There are hints of indigenous roots, but many customs have also been influenced by European folklore and the beliefs of African slaves who arrived here centuries ago. This is the only part of the country with any visible African ancestry, and its geography exaggerates this fact: aside from its Caribbean coastline, the state of Veracruz is isolated, mountainous, a jungle. Until very, very recently, the people who lived here didn’t (and couldn’t) get out too much. They relied upon local knowledge to heal themselves because there were no other options at their disposal. And so it came to be that there were shamans, who dealt in white magic, and witches, who dealt in black magic, to help them. And it was the latter that we had come to see.
The Black Mass, at the top of the hill in Catemaco, is the opening event of a two-day festival that occurs every March, drawing brujos, their disciples, and curious tourists to the lagoon-side town to see what spells might be on offer. We arrived around midnight to a dark scene, punctuated by the light of several bonfires, and candles in the distance, placed on the edge of shallow caves. The witches, almost all male, dressed in black and overly serious in their demeanor, stood around another large white pentangle filled with small objects: black and purple devils, bottles of mezcal, and a steaming communion bath. Around the edge of the pentangle were five poor black hens, each with one wing staked to the ground so they could not move, the ceremony’s victims. The leader of the witches’ robe was lined with silver trimming, and his hat bore the head of another innocent animal of undetermined origin, perhaps a badger. The speeches began with the somewhat expected dedications to “Satanus”, invocations to the devil, the spraying of Mezcal over the heads of both statues and living people, and the indoctrination of new disciples.
The ceremony’s whole tone was difficult to comprehend. On one hand, the witches were spouting apparently ancient traditions in deep voices, ominously lighting fires while the soon-to-be-sacrificed animals waited silently for their demise. On the other hand, the witches’ costumes could have been bought for 99 cents at your local Halloween supplier. “Charlatan” is a word you hear thrown around a lot in Veracruz, and probably because there are so many of them here. What was ceremony and what was show at the Misa Negra? In some ways it shouldn’t matter.
It’s a basic rule of travel that almost everything you experience while on the road is worthwhile, even it’s contradictory to your own personal beliefs. I am not religious, neither in a traditional nor an esoteric way. But culture interests me, and if rituals are important to a place, then why not go see them? In the stained-glassed cathedrals of France, and the ancient stone temples of Mesoamerica, it’s easy to be lured by the dynamism of religion, even if you have no personal belief of your own. These places contain ‘medicine’ in the purest “Dances with Wolves” way. By that, I mean power. An attraction. Something that is greater than ourselves, even if I choose not to label it as ‘God’, ‘supernatural’ or ‘otherwordly’. It is something that is connected to the mystery that surrounds us all, and makes the world a richer place, and that is all I need to know.
But at the Misa Negra, I could not feel that energy. Yes, there was something there, but it was dark, and it was cruel. It was something that could only have been born of man, not the universe. It was spitting in the face of life, removing all value from existence. And it was ludicrous, too.
After the first incantations and liquor pourings, the witches stopped to announce the next event: a belly dance. What a belly dance has to do with ancient Veracruzano religious rituals, I do not know. The leader of the witches spoke of fertility, of course. What else are women for? “This is for you, Satan”, he said. “I give you this woman’s dance, the representation of the feminine, to please you.” Or at least, that’s what I seemed to comprehend through my not-so-perfect Spanish, and the noise of the crowd. Technically this was a private ceremony, before the public events of the next day. But there was a crowd, albeit a small one, which included many outsiders and at least a dozen professional photographers and videojournalists. As the belly dancer began to shake her larger-than-humanly-possible breasts to the rhythms of the Middle East, I couldn’t help but sigh, and wonder: “do we really need another religion where men wear long black robes and the women are only whores?” Was it really possible to take seriously this ceremony, which was devolving minute by minute into a low-budget circus show?
But, of course, none of these questions really mattered mere moments later, when the witches began slitting the throats of the five black hens, and then a young baby goat who I hadn’t seen or been warned about, as I was slumped in the grass fifty metres away, having run there screaming, hands over my ears to block out the sound of death, crying and cursing their names.
I consider myself an open person. I try to be tolerant and forgiving. But I could not forgive these charlatans for their gruesome show. There was nothing spiritual or culturally worthwhile in the deaths of those animals, killed and then cruelly tossed aside, to be used later only for picture posing. As I sat alone, by the fire on the edge of the enclosure, as far as I could from the ceremony while trying to keep dry in the downpour that had just begun, it occurred to me that the sounds I could not help but hearing were becoming familiar, less scary. There under the cloudy Catemaco sky, I learned a lesson normally reserved for victims of war, or perhaps only those unfortunate enough to work in slaughterhouses. One can become accustomed to the sound of dying. It does not make it any less painful, necessarily, nor did it seem any less cruel when one of the witches appeared beside me with a sixth black hen, spraying gasoline on it, before throwing it, alive, into the open flames. An extra sacrifice, just for him. Or maybe just for kicks.
What was I to make of all this? Was there no irony in the fact that the only person who came to comfort me was Israel, the one-armed Mexican who himself had been a victim of fire? Was I overreacting? Was it wrong that I wanted to slit the throat of the head witch, who when confronted by TV cameras after the ceremony was over, claimed that he had the right to kill animals, because he was more “connected” to the earth? Was I imposing my own beliefs on something I knew nothing about? Was there any way I could possibly reconcile what happened that night with any rationale whatsoever, be it culture, travel or understanding? There in the south of Veracruz I was confronted with the mystery of something that was greater than myself, but not in the way I had hoped. It was not beautiful. It did not reveal profound hidden meanings about the universe. It was simply a reminder of the helplessness of life, of things beyond our control. I stared at the fire and waited for a new day.