THE PLACE OF MARIA SABINA IN MEXICAN CULTURE
“We were never reprimanded or beaten for eating mushrooms, our grandfather and mother knew that it is bad to reprimand a person that has eaten them, because it can provoke mixed feelings and it is possible to make them feel they are becoming crazy” M.S. “Nunca nos regañaron ni nos golpearon por comer hongos, porque ellos sabían que no es bueno regañar a una persona que los ha tomado, ya que se les puede provocar sentimientos encontrados y es posible que sientan que enloquece” María Sabina’s reception within the mainstream of Mexican culture would seem bizarre any place else. The most publicized indigenous presence between the generation of the great muralists and the Zapatista rebellion, she has been by turns vilified and ignored. There are several reasons for this, and they tell us a great deal about the Mexico of the mainstream imagination. María Sabina emerged into Mexican consciousness in 1956 with the publication by the historian Gutierre Tibón of a brief sidebar to an article in the Mexico City newspaper Excélsior mentioning the experiences of Gordon Wasson in the mountains of Oaxaca. The following year Wasson’s account appeared simultaneously in the English and Spanish language editions of Life Magazine, at the time the dominant American periodical. By 1962 she had become famous enough in Mexico that she was mentioned in passing, with the clear expectation that the reader would recognize her name, in the prestigious intellectual journal Siempre! In 1977 Álvaro Estrada published his María Sabina: su vida y sus cantos, which included his translation into Spanish of the chants Wasson had recorded in 1956. In 1979 the documentary, María Sabina: Mujer Espíritu, was produced under the sponsorship of the Mexican government. A separate, concurrent stream of information was also at play. By 1967 rumors about gringo hippies coming to Huautla de Jiménez, as well as an increasing stream of Mexican jipitecas, were regularly featured in wide-circulation newspapers. Around that time, Abel Quezada, Mexico’s most important cartoonist, published a newspaper cartoon making fun of the María Sabina phenomenon. She had become a fixture of the culture: she had been transformed into a star of La Onda. To understand the hostility of the mainstream to María Sabina it’s necessary to know a little about La Onda, Mexico’s version of American 60’s counterculture. At a time when Mexico was attempting to assert at once its cultural independence and its rebirth as a modern nation La Onda was seen by many as an invasion of American influence: youth culture, and its interest in the indigenous, which in María Sabina’s case had been the result of publication in the United States, were both seen as foreign. Repression was the government’s weapon of choice for dealing with whatever seemed to it to be a threat, most notoriously in the case of la matanza de Tlatelolco, the massacre of perhaps as many as 400 student demonstrators in 1968, and the arrests that followed. It dealt with La Onda in general, and the María Sabina phenomenon in particular, in a somewhat similar manner. In 1967 the government began to jail or deport those who journeyed to Huautla in search of mushrooms. In 1969 María was questioned by the Federal Police. Some of the gifts “foreigners” had given her — books, magazines, recordings, newspaper clippings — were confiscated. And in 1971 hallucinogenic mushrooms were added to the list of illegal substances. María’s co-optation by La Onda was explicitly acknowledged by one of its most notorious symbols. In 1971 at the Avándaro Festival de Rock, universally known as the Mexican Woodstock, a 16 year old girl, Alma Rosa, scandalized the nation by dancing topless. A photograph of the event was widely published, and she became a lightning rod for comments from all parts of the social and political spectrum. In 1972 she allowed herself to be interviewed by the hip journal Piedra Rodante because, she said, she was trying to raise money to visit María Sabina. After Avándaro rock was banned from Mexican radio and television stations for more than a decade, until Televisa, the major pro-government TV network, launched its campaign “rock en tu idioma” in the 80s. María Sabina became a public figure at the moment when the culture had prepared for her the reception I have outlined above. Inextricably interwoven with that reception was a far more profoundly prepared but hidden role within the spiritual history of the various cultures of Mexico since the Conquest and to an extent before. Evidence for this can be found in the writing of two of Mexico’s most influential intellectuals, Carlos Monsiváis and Octavio Paz, as much in what they omit or express indirectly as in their explicit statements. For many of Mexico’s leftist intellectuals (and certainly a large percentage of the most important Mexican authors and artists come from the Left) María Sabina represented the Americanization of Mexican Culture. According to Carlos Monsiváis, the interest in María Sabina was, like la Onda in general, “antinationalist, derivative and non-political.” In “María Sabina’s other family” (“La otra familia de María Sabina”), a section of his famous essay “La naturaleza de la Onda”, Monsiváis presents a memorable and mocking description of Mexican Counterculture. Tellingly, Monsiváis states his position on the use of mushrooms and Sabina’s practices indirectly (aside from the title he in fact barely mentions her), by means of an epigraph from an essay by the important Cuban poet José Lezama Lima on the subject of the French writer Antonin Artaud’s use of peyote, suggesting that the psychedelic revolution was a delusion, creating false visions: “Peyote created, built, a civilization that didn’t exist, raised it up without evidence. The moats of its castles enclosed only their walls. The vegetable kingdom took its revenge upon man.” Paz also dealt indirectly or by omission with María Sabina and the questions she raised. Strangely, although he was undoubtedly aware of her, he never wrote seriously about Sabina, choosing instead Carlos Castañeda’s Don Juan to exemplify shamanism and the proximity of poetry and magic, and to represent “the experience of Otherness.” Sabina would seem the better choice. But perhaps she was, as an Indian and a woman, too much “the Other” for Paz to be comfortable with. Paz also had no place for Sabina’s poetry in his paradigmatic Mexican poetry anthology Poesía en Movimiento of 1966. For him she was neither the true voice of Otherness nor a poet. Paz reports that the French surrealist poet and writer André Breton was somewhat intrigued by the Mexican mushroom priestess. But elsewhere in their conversations they spoke of what Breton called Artaud’s “induced visions”: “I am moved by the poet and the man… but where does the vision end and the perishable vision of the drug start?.” “I think Breton was right,” Paz comments. 7 Significantly, both Paz and Monsiváis express, at two removes, their distrust of the revelatory powers of hallucinogenic drugs by referring, not to the obvious Mexican example, but to the opinions of Lezama and Breton about the influence of drugs on Artaud. The substituted figure, behind whom María Sabina could be said to be hidden, is male, and by discussing her or the phenomena related to her indirectly, by way of a male proxy, Paz and Monsiváis relegate her feminine powers of revelation to the role of token in the exchanges of an intellectual brotherhood. This, as we shall see, fits into a metaphoric scheme that includes Malinche, who became the means of communication between males, whether Aztec rulers or Spanish overlords, and the word chingada, used obsessively in the daily struggle for masculine power, but also as the name for one of Malinche’s, and María Sabina’s, most important attributes. ‘Mexican culture since the conquest has been divided between a sociopolitical patriarchy and a spiritual matriarchy. Mexicans have clustered around feminine, preferably maternal, figures, enormous archetypes to whom we attribute the characteristics of both totems and taboos. As Rosario Castellanos, one of our major feminist writers, put it: There are three figures in the history of Mexico who incarnate in their extremes the diverse possibilities of femaleness. Each represents a symbol, exercises vast and profound influence on large sectors of the nation and excites passionate reactions. They are the Virgin of Guadalupe, Malinche, and Sor Juana de la Cruz. Only positive elements seem to be concentrated in the Virgin of Guadalupe… Malinche, on the other hand, incarnates sexuality at its most irrational, least reducible to the laws of morality, most indifferent to cultural values…because she has not died, because she howls every night, grieving for her lost children…because she still makes her appearance annually, disguised as a giant, in the fiestas of the Indians, she still, seductress of men, exercises the female’s carnal fascination. Of Castellanos’ three great archetypes Malinche will be the focus of this discussion. I reserve my discussion of the others for another occasion. The great mothers of Mexican identity share certain characteristics (and those who preceded them, as well–Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, was in fact a reincarnation of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue-Tonantzin). But it is undoubtedly Malinche who is the most controversial of all the female archetypes, constantly generating new meanings–an evolving symbol. Malinche, who emerged as a symbol in the most decisive moment of our history, the Conquest, is universally despised in Mexico. In Mexican intellectual tradition she is “La Chingada,” the violated, seduced by Cortés and a traitor to the Nation. She is the Fuck Goddess. Through the use of chingada as noun and verb in everyday speech she has entered the popular mind: Hijo de la Chingada! (Son of a Bitch!), Vete a la Chingada! (Go to Hell!), Su casa está hasta la Chingada! (His house is Nowhere, man!), Me quieres chingar? (You wanna mess with me?). Chingar is to take advantage, to over-power, to assure violent masculine power over all things. The historic Malinche was given to Cortés as tribute by the Indian leaders in Tabasco, along with 20 other woman, gold and poultry. She later served him as mistress and translator during the Conquest. He refers to her in his “Quinta carta de conquista” as “this tongue that I always have with me.” Because of their inseparability, Cortés was sometimes called by the Indians “Capitán Malinche.” For awhile, thanks to her power as Cortés’ companion and her knowledge of languages, she was treated as a goddess by the Indians. But Malinche betrayed Mexican culture, falling in love with Cortés and turning away from her origins, helping him to communicate with the different Indian groups in order to subdue them. In everyday Mexican speech malinchismo has come to mean all anti-nationalist actions, all treasons, and national self-hatred. Malinche is the Mexican Original Mother, the mother of the first mestizo. Traditionally the birth of the mestizo (the modern Mexican) is explained as the combination of two elements, the white masculine (the Spanish conqueror) and the Indian feminine. In this way the feminine and the indian have become identified metaphorically as a kind of inferior, shameful being. Malinche is identified with this inferior half, and the feminine and the indigenous within us is what we still have of Malinche. Thanks to this identification, everything feminine-indigenous becomes for us a reminder of Malinche and of our rejection of her. For instance, any resurgence of the indigenous is seen as a foreign plot. So, according to a common opinion the rise of Mexican feminism was the result of the misguided influence of gringa feminists. A return, surely, to the identification of the feminine as evil, from which it follows that Mexican feminism equals pro-Yankee malinchismo. According to certain Jewish traditions, prior to Eve Adam had a wife who was created at the same moment as he and was his equal. This was Lilith. She eventually rebelled against Adam and Jehovah and was expelled from Paradise, condemned to flee through the air. She was the First Witch. It was then that God created Eve, a woman submissive to Adam. Malinche is Lilith. Like Lilith, she is condemned to roam as a wandering spirit among men, the cause of nocturnal emissions, an agent of Satan on Earth. Malinche is a black virgin, the opposite of the Virgin of Guadalupe–she represents evil womanhood, evil motherhood, infidelity, whereas the Virgin of Guadalupe is a loving mother, heavenly and good. If Malinche is Lilith the Virgin of Guadalupe is Eve. Lilith-Malinche is the primordial woman, the original companion of the First Man, the night that comes before the day, equal or superior to her mate, the Temptress (according to some versions of the story Lilith is the serpent in the garden). Like Lilith and other black virgins Malinche is implicated in the death of children in her aspect as “La Llorona,” and every night she can be heard lamenting their loss. Since the conquest Mexicans have seen themselves as among the legion of demons spawned by Adam and Lilith and not as children of God–they are the children of La Chingada. And this is why we reject her–Malinche-Lilith may be our mother, but it is Guadalupe-Eve, our adoptive mother, who we love. Malinche-Lilith is our satanic origin. The great shadow that Malinche has cast on the Mexican psyche secretly reappeared when María Sabina was ‘discovered’ by Life and Gordon Wasson, and María’s life thereafter eerily repeated the outlines of Malinche’s story, thereby preparing her for her own legendary status. Like Malinche, Sabina, in an act of cultural infidelity, had betrayed the secret knowledge of Mexican culture to foreigners, and, like Malinche, she was a Mexican Indian woman whose destiny would be linked to the Other, the Non-Us. If Malinche is perceived as having been seduced by Cortés, María Sabina is sometimes seen as having been seduced by Wasson. According to legend, after Malinche was abandoned by Cortés she became La Llorona (Crying Woman), who was condemned to weep eternally for the loss of her children (symbolically, the dead Indians), like Sabina, who spent the last years of her life mourning the loss of her ‘little children’ —her name for the mushrooms. La Llorona is Malinche in her aspect as widow, weeping not only for her children but also for her abandonment by her male companions–both her Indian consort and Cortés. Malinche and Sabina both become Crying Women, Night Chanting Women. And both were Tongue-Women, interpreters of Language, women who with their power over words guided men on their crucial journeys —one to the Conquest of Mexico, the other to the Conquest of Self. Both were Translator Women of the Book of Language. Both Sabina and Malinche were women-poets, women with power over language. There is no doubt that unconsciously the public at large granted Sabina the attributes of a pop-culture version of Malinche, famous because she facilitated the invasion of famous people from around the world. In this view she was a woman dedicated primarily to helping rock-stars, beatniks, poets and adventurers from the United States and Europe have a nice trip in Language Land–Huautla as a little rural Disneyland for New-Agers. 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 Monsiváis’ phrase, which became the slogan for resistance to the influence American counterculture (the rock concert at Avándaro as Third World Woodstock, English as a groovy-psychedelic drug, etc.) was exercising on an entire generation of what have come to be known as post-Mexicans. Sabina is seen as Inescapable Origin, Evil Mother. Monsiváis, as we have seen, also calls this “first generation of Americans born in Mexico” “María Sabina’s family.” This is I think a play on Paz’ “The Sons of Malinche” (“Los hijos de La Malinche”), title of the fourth chapter of El Laberinto de la Soledad, where he discusses the meaning of La Chingada and Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe. By means of this veiled reference Monsiváis silently equates Sabina with Malinche. Why? Because as the Malinche, Sabina is seen as the mother of a new kind of mestizo. The sons of María Sabina are the young Mexicans influenced by American culture: the new hybrids. If Malinche gave birth to the First Mexican, a mixture of the indigenous and the European, Sabina is the mother of the Denationalized Mexican, a mixture of the Mexican and the American, and with it to what Monsiváis has more recently called “the chicanization of Mexico.”* Malinche and Sabina are seen as the promiscuous mothers of evil hybrids, of a strain of interracial and impure children, progenetrixes of a new and terrible mutation of the Mexican race, which helps account for the ambivalence which Sabina has evoked. This is one of the reasons why much of Mexican public opinion thinks María Sabina somehow deserved ‘what she got’ (death in poverty and obscurity): by revealing the secrets of ‘Mexican culture’ to the Male Other she had called down a curse upon herself. In fact, Sabina felt that she had done something forbidden, as the Life 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. There is a familiar element in this reaction. When the Zapatistas declared war in Chiapas on January 1st, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, it was charged that they were a group of foreigners from Europe and Central America who wore masks to hide their true identity. Another version of that accusation remains popular. In the midst of the drama of the Zapatista entry into Mexico City in March, 2001 television news didn’t emphasize the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets cheering the rebels nor the speeches of Subcomandante Marcos. The big news was the “omnipresence” of a group of foreigners protecting the Zapatista leaders—Italians who were known as “Monos Blancos” —White Monkeys. It seems to be a rule of Mexican mainstream culture that whenever the Indian world presents itself to the public’s attention it is accused, as both María Sabina and the Zapatistas were, of serving hidden foreign interests. Behind this automatic assumption, of course, is the idea that Indians can’t think for themselves: ‘somebody must be behind them giving them bad ideas.’ It is a somewhat pessimistic and premature commonplace about María Sabina that she was to blame for the demise of esoteric shamanism in Mexico. She is declared the Last Shaman, the one who brought the whole tradition of revelation down by revealing its secrets. But even that accusation is culturally determined and needs to be reexamined; it resonates as myth through the history of Mexico’s cultures: before Malinche, according to Pre-Colombian myths recorded by Bernardino de Sahagún, there was Quetzalcoatl’s daughter, whose uncontrollable passion for an outsider destabilized the kingdom and led to its downfall. But it is obviously easier to blame María Sabina and her ‘gringo seducer’ than to put the responsibility where it belongs: on the mestizo world and its economic and symbolic methods of destroying Indian cultures.
The return of the killer shamanness“A myth is made up of all its variants” – Lévi-Strauss An outsider’s version of the myth of María Sabina appears very early in its elaboration in Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela’s play María Sabina, written in 1965. In this version Sabina is judged and condemned. She is summoned to court, where she appears as a prophet-prostitute-sorceress in whom the modern world and traditional wisdom, the Molotov Cocktail and the sacred mushroom, converge. She is the victim of the misunderstanding and intolerance of her judges and accusers. “The People want María Sabina hanged.” A decade and a half beforehand Cela imagined her death as a martyrdom, a mixture of aspects of her own story with those of Socrates, Electra, Joan of Arc and the witches incinerated during the Inquisition. He explicitly identifies her with Eve, Andromache, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, Mary Queen of Scots, and Messalina. He constructs for her an idealized death in which María Sabina is the Last Phase, the final representative of the shamanic tradition of initiation. “After four long centuries/ The angel María Sabina was born/ Who eats the bitter mushrooms/ And drinks rum and anisette and pure water/ She was condemned to be hanged/The tears of Valentina Pavlova Wasson/ And the ghost of Antonin Artaud/Were useless.” She is civilization’s downfall, and because she identifies herself with all things–“I am Mary Magdalen/I am a nail in the horseshoe/ I am the aguardiente that stanches hunger”–her death is the death of all things, everything perishes with her–“The teacher has died who searched for crystals of quartz/The pauper has died on whose head lice nested but others remain/ Cleopatra has died/Florita Balaguer has died/The president of the United States has died, assassinated in Dallas.” The chorus (a group of “faggots”) sums up: “All you who see me are dead/All of you have paid to see me die/All of you will leave unsatisfied.” Cela’s play is concerned not just with the martyrdom of a holy curandera (“I am the dying man’s last day of health”) but with the suicide of a culture: her death embodies its final moments (“I wish to be hung from the highest branch of the tallest fig tree…I would wish a bit of mercy though I know I would never use it/I would wish you to speed my death).” In his play Cela revives the rumor that Sabina had killed her husband, which had turned her, in the popular imagination, into a kind of witch–Evil Woman, Husband-Killer. The image of Sabina as a woman who has freed herself from the male so that she may become a woman with the power of magic is the product not only of her declaration that living with a man is incompatible with Mazateca priesthood (“Sexual relations with men annul the power of the mushrooms”),* but of this persistent gossip. José Agustín, a recent contributor to the myth of María Sabina, recounts: “Her husband found out that she was eating mushrooms to cure some of her old friends and beat her in front of them. Perhaps María cast a little spell on him, or perhaps his karma suddenly caught up with him, either way that very night strange noises were heard in the street, and the next morning he was found, outside, dead.” Her portrayal as a man killer is an essential aspect of her myth, in keeping with the myth of the origin of the Evil Woman as the Betrayer, the Unfaithful, the Vengeful. It appears in the stories of Eve and Malinche and even in popular music and in the pornographic pages of the Libros Semanales sold in every newsstand in Mexico. Woman, the cause of The Fall of Man. Perhaps it is this emphasis on the possible guilt of Sabina that bothers the poet Homero Aridjis, who has asserted that Cela’s ideas are ridiculous. But Aridjis’ opinions may also reflect the distrust that Mexicans have traditionally felt for the opinions of foreigners (especially Spaniards– gachupines–and Americans–gringos–both of whom tend to be seen as overlords) about taboo areas of the national culture. It is hard to imagine that there is no element of nationalism in Aridjis’ declaration that Cela’s play is one of humanity’s “most absurd” creations. Cela, according to Aridjis, knows nothing of Mexican culture and reads Sabina out of context. Nonetheless, it is curious to note that this Spaniard (this conquistador) managed, in the first literary portrayal of this Mexican shaman, to invent aspects of the myth that would later be created independently by the popular culture. This is the myth of María Sabina: Woman as Perdition, Woman as dispenser of Death on Earth, Woman as Dire Fate. What is the moral of the story? The feminine quest for power not only ends badly for the woman herself, it brings tragedy and shame to her entire world. These elements have been combined differently in each version of the myth, but they always point to the same meaning: Woman as Dire Fate. One might have conceived of the myth of Lilith-Malinche-María Sabina as the story of the life of a heroine, but as a social narrative it has had precisely the opposite meaning: it demonstrates that it is impossible for heroines to exist. At best the protagonist is saved, but not by her own heroism. It is her condition as mother that saves her–mother of a new and perverse mongrelization or of alternative social identities. In either case, she has been returned to the traditional maternal role. “Not all foreigners are evil, that’s true” “La extraña permanencia de Cortés y de la Malinche en la imaginación y en la sensibilidad de los mexicanos actuales revela que son algo más que figuras históricas: son símbolos de un conflicto secreto, que aún no hemos resuelto” The strange persistence of Cortés and Malinche in the Mexican imagination reveals that they are something other than merely historical figures: they are the symbols of a secret conflict that to this day has not ben resolved.
Octavio PazIt would be straining analysis to equate Wasson with Cortés in relation to Malinche-Sabina. He has, however, been seen by Mexicans as falling into the role first played by Cortés: the intrusive foreigner who disturbs the indigenous world, which he destroys in the act of revealing. This is a familiar role, and Wasson found himself in it at a particularly sensitive moment in Mexican history, as we have seen. He was by no means unique. Perhaps the most important example of the Undesirable Alien in the culture of mid-20th Century Mexico is Luis Buñuel, whose 1950 film Los olvidados, produced in Mexico, revealed the miserable lives of the children of the slums of the capital. It was immediately accused of propagating a false and scandalous image of the nation by focusing exclusively on the gutter. It was specifically criticized at the time as the work of a Spaniard. Interestingly, what most shocked Mexicans was the portrayal of the promiscuous Evil Mother, who denies even food to her offspring. Members of the crew had quit in disgust during the filming, and the film closed after only three days. There were calls for Buñuel’s deportation as an Undesirable Alien under Article 33 of the Mexican constitution; he only escaped deportation because he had become a naturalized citizen.* The Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s experience was similar. His 1967 film Fando y Lis, produced during his long residence in Mexico, was seen as a parody of Mexican society. Its openly erotic imagery shocked the public. At that year’s Acapulco Film Festival Jodorowsky was attacked by a mob, which felt that he had brought disgrace upon the nation. According to contemporary newspaper reports he came very close to being lynched. In the same period the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ study of a poor family in the slums of Mexico City, The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family (published in Spanish translation in 1964) was subject to similar criticism. It was denounced by the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística as an “obscene denigration of our nation,” offensive to the public morals and “injurious to the people and government of Mexico.” Wasson, too, has been said to fulfill the role of the Undesirable Alien. He has never been accused explicitly, but his role in revealing the secret world of Huautla and precipitating its decline, his “complicity” with María Sabina, has made him vulnerable to similar condemnation. He has fulfilled the mythic function of revealer of the national shame by unveiling to view, like his contemporaries Buñuel, Jodorowsky and Lewis, the Other, Secret Mexico, the hidden strata of our culture.
Anemia Woman, Bleeding WomanWhy was María Sabina so painfully punished? Because of some of the peculiarities and ghosts of Mexican cultural history, but also because she appeared to call into question the deep premises of mestizo society. In an era of increasing literacy, she neither knew how to read, nor spoke Spanish, nor cared, and she nonetheless considered herself, and was considered by her peers, the ‘wisest of all.’ She stood in contrast to the process of modernization that preoccupied the nation. Still more dangerous, she led an extraordinary life but had a very common death. Book Woman, Jesus Woman, Light Woman died as Malnutrition Woman, Anemia Woman, Bleeding Woman, her social misery was public evidence of the failure of the Mexican state to maintain even the most basic conditions for the preservation of physical and spiritual life. At the end of the 20th Century, according to the Mexican government’s estimates, 74% of Mexico’s 100 million people lived in ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme poverty.’ Like too many Mexicans, she was blamed, wrongly, because she was poor, a woman and an Indian–because of who she was and what she represented. Who gave away the secrets? Who damaged the magic mushrooms? Not María Sabina, not the Mexican and American hippies. It was the Mexican state, which left Sabina no other choice for survival. And it’s only because of her that we know as much as we do about the Mazatec Book of Language and its Seres principales (Principle Beings).
Fast Changing Woman: The pop afterlife of María SabinaAt the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, María Sabina was seen as potentially dangerous by different levels of the Mexican government. By the late 70s and early 80s the government had changed its position, and, rendered harmless, Sabina had become a pop star, a cultural icon, but she had not been given her due as poet, female archetype and spiritual force. Her legend has continued to grow and change, from obscure sorceress to hippie counselor, from corrupter of youth to Malinche; from pop star to National Treasure; from oral poet to T-Shirt. Interest in her life and methodology enjoyed a revival after the 1996 publication of La Contracultura en Mexico by José Agustín, historian and former leader of the La Onda generation. If Monsiváis had seen her as a symptom of the ‘mental colonialism’ of the sixties gone wrong (gone north) in books like Historia General de Mexico and Amor Perdido (a classic not only of satiric prose but also of Latin American Cultural Studies), from José Agustín’s end-of-century perspective María Sabina was a part of the social revolt against Mexican traditional morality and metaphysics. She was now the mother not of Mex-American jipitecas (who Agustín judged positively) but of border cholos, chavos-bandas and punketas. Sabina had become the inspiration for all alternative popular cultures, the mother of all socio-political oppositions. María Sabina still generates social myths and urban legends: in a Tijuana gay and lesbian bar I once heard a drunk young woman screaming “María Sabina was also bisexual, así que no me chinguen (so don’t bother me)”. A few minutes later I asked her why she thought this. She explained that she was sure that María Sabina had had threesomes with her husband and the women he brought home (an extension, possibly, of Sabina’s account in the fourth chapter of her Life). Whatever the truth or falsehood of this assertion it surely illustrates the ongoing re-creation and re-appropriation of the María Sabina myth by the popular culture, as does the theory, developed by Mexican ufologists, that the ‘Seres Principales’ who gave María Sabina the Book of Language were extraterrestrials, and her appearance on hip T-Shirts, and the special issues of mainstream magazines like Viceversa devoted to the Saint of Huautla, and that the extremely popular TV program Ocurrió Así from the Hispanic-American network Telemundo ran as a major feature several minutes of a videotape showing María Sabina clapping and chanting, and that one of the leading rock bands in the country is called Santa Sabina. In 1993 the disco-bar “María Sabina” opened in Oaxaca and became one of the most popular places to dance, bringing in as many as 1000 customers a night. Sabina as Hip Goddess of the All You Can Drink Party. But this disco named for the hallucinogenic curandera proclaims from its napkins and by internet the Mexican equivalent of “just say no,” “Vive sin drogas. Las drogas destruyen” (Live without drugs. Drugs kill). Inextricable and devious are the paths of consumer society. These are only a few instances of the sometimes bizarre and unpredictable Pop Afterlife of María Sabina. Undoubtedly Mexican popular culture will keep María Sabina alive. Our ambivalence about her will keep her myth developing in richer and perhaps stranger ways. To an increasing number of Mexicans, half a century after her ‘discovery,’ she is María Sabina Great Power Woman, Spirit Woman, Doctor Woman, Psychedelic Woman, Comics Woman, Feminist Woman, Clock Woman whose time is just beginning. Heriberto Yépez is a Mexican poet, translator and essayist, whose writing has been gaining recognition on both sides of the north-south divide. Working from a home base in Tijuana, B.C., he is the author of several books in Spanish, and some of his pieces in English have appeared in American magazines like Tripwire, Shark, XCP and Chain. Other writings on María Sabina and on ethnopoetics can be found elsewhere in this section of Ubuweb Ethnopoetics.
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