Despojos, Azabaches and Other Rituals
Cleansing el Mal de Ojo
There was a beautiful white-robed Santa Mercedes statue in my grandparent’s living room. It was on a wooden bookcase and always surrounded by fresh flowers and a glass of water.
More times than I probably can remember, I was stood in front of it and given a despojo for mal de ojo.
My great-grandmother, Mama Maria, an elegant, little bird-like woman, would say quiet prayers over me, while lightly slapping a handful of basil on my brown head.
I always tried to understand what she was saying in those low whispers. I would listen hard as she prayed, tapped my head and spun me in an effort to cleanse and sanctify me, rid me of el mal de ojo that had allegedly made me sick.
Forty years later, I can’t smell basil without thinking of those despojos.
Growing up Cuban, we’re used to los espiritus and Santeros and rituals and concoctions to protect and cleanse. A Cuban-American baby is most often still in-utero when the future Abuela purchases the black onyx azabache pin that the baby must wear on every single outfit. Dios te ampare if you take that baby out in public without her azabache.
All of that is normal for me.
But, it was a long time before I learned this sort of stuff — this magic, this espiritismo — just isn’t normal for everybody.
I’ve shared these stories with non-Latino friends — from the Midwest to the West to the South — and most go slack-jawed. They laugh uncomfortably. Make a little fun.
“So, your family thought that someone had looked at you badly and you got sick?”
“You believe that someone can give you the Evil Eye because they’re jealous?”
And, no doubt that in the South — where talk of anything beyond the love of Jesus and the power of prayer, can be sticky — at least a few people have probably prayed for my poor, confused, seemingly un-Christian Soul.
I admit, I have been embarrassed by the questions, the surprise, the mocking.
The Power of Belief
It is hard to explain the power of belief, the ties so strong to patterns generations old, to people whose childhoods don’t include water glasses under the bed. You know?
I still won’t walk over any bag in the street. I was taught that someone could have thrown out a trabajo, and I’d pick up the bad ju ju, too, if I walked over the bag.
And yet, I am not crazy.
We’re not crazy.
It’s just what we do.
Just what we know.
Why am I telling you this today?
Partly because the New Year’s Eve rituals of 12 grapes, mopping the house, suitcase by the door, has brought some of this up, and mainly because I’m giving you a heads up about an essay about el Susto coming this week by Angela Fregoso, whose family has owned a Texas-based Botanica for more than 60 years.
She has great stories and information about cleansing rituals and traditional supplements that our culture long has used, long has believed in.
Cuerno ‘Pa Tus Ojos
So, my great-grandmother taught me that when someone offers me an extreme compliment, I’m supposed to say “Cuerno para tus ojos.” Like, whatever you say to me, goes back to you…like a poke in your evil, envious eye. It’s a way to protect yourself from this dreaded Evil Eye.
I have to say, I’ve never been able to go there.
I struggle with the concept of Evil Eye, of believing someone could harm another out of jealousy, envidia — even if they have no idea they’re doing it.
In all, I guess some things are easy to believe in.
And some, are not.
Just don’t make fun of me for the regular house despojos.
Those, I believe in.