When magic was medicine.
WORDS: CAITLIN CRUZ | PHOTOGRAPHY: MARCELO GOMES
One way of telling María Sabina’s story is to start with a magazine article.
In May 1957, Life ran a fifteen-page feature titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” the third installment in its “Great Adventures” series. The essay was written by R. Gordon Wasson, a banker from New York who went to Oaxaca with his photographer friend to become, as Wasson put it, “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms, which for centuries have been a secret of certain Indian peoples living far from the great world in southern Mexico.” They were amazed by the power of the mushrooms and by the generosity of the woman who administered them. Wasson’s article didn’t use María’s real name, but it described where he met her in great detail, and included several photographs of her. Life had millions of readers in the 1950s. After Wasson’s feature was published, the “secret” of the mushrooms was out. The world knew about them, and soon it would know about María, too.
But María Sabina’s story began long before Wasson and Life, and even longer before other Americans started to invade her home in search of nirvana, so I guess the story of María Sabina started not with a magazine article but in a field in the mountains of Mexico.
This is the story of a woman who married twice, who was abused, who lived in poverty, who introduced her culture to outsiders and paid for it. It’s the story of how the mountains of Oaxaca were opened up to the world, and how the world trampled all over them. It’s the story of how we—and I mean all of us outsiders—wanted the high of mushrooms more than we cared about where or how we got it. And it’s the story of how the woman who introduced us to all of this died dirt poor because she didn’t feel the need to capitalize on our crassness.
A title card from the 1978 documentary María Sabina, Mujer Espíritusays that, according to church records, María Sabina was born in 1894. In Maria Sabina: Her Life and Chants, written by Àlvaro Estrada, she says she doesn’t know what year she was born. But her mother told her that she was born on the morning that they celebrate the Virgin Magdalene in Río Santiago.
As recounted in her transcribed oral autobiography, María Sabina: Selections, María Sabina’s mother and father were 14 and 20 years old, respectively, when they started living together. They lived together for three years before María was born. They never married, but baptized their daughter right away, and Maria carried herself as a Christian throughout her life. When she was two years old, her mother gave birth to another daughter, María Ana. When she was three, her father died.
María’s mother took the girls to live with their grand-parents. They lived in a hut above the little town of Huautla, and they raised silkworms. “My mother made the tortillas and embroidered,” Maria said. “My grandmother and aunt worked at the primitive loom. Grandfather always hired himself out as a field worker, the same as an uncle of ours named Emilio Cristino.” In her grandparents’ home, life was work, and work was life. Her mother would never remarry. “My only commitment from here on will be to raise my daughters,” she said.
These were the years when María first started to understand the powers of the mushrooms, which those in Huautla referred to as niños santos or “little saints.” When she was six or seven, the woman who would introduce outsiders to the tradition of the little saints saw her first vigil.
A Wise Man named Juan Manuel came to cure her ailing uncle, the aforementioned Emilio Cristino. The Wise Man fed mushrooms to everyone who had gathered for the vigil, and talked and talked in the darkness. Then he sang and sang. He danced and had visions and sang some more. “It was the language that spoke of stars, animals, and other things unknown to me,” she later recalled.
Within two weeks, her uncle was cured. The little saints worked.
A few days after her first vigil, María was out in the field watching chickens with her sister when she saw the same kind of mushrooms Juan Manuel had brought to the vigil. Lots of them. María looked at them closely and said, “If I eat you, you, and you, I know that you will make me sing beautifully.” She stuffed her face, and so did her younger sister. She felt dizzy and wanted to cry, but then, gradually, a feeling of contentment washed over her. “It was like a new hope in life,” she recalled. Whenever they were hungry in the field, María and her sister would eat the mushrooms and ask God for help. These may not have been vigils in the traditional sense, but the sisters were looking for a cure for what ailed them. They were so hungry and so poor and so cold, and they wanted to be anything else. And who can really blame them?
María’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were also Wise Ones, like Juan Manuel. Once, after eating the mushrooms, María had a vision of her dead father. He urged her to pray so her understanding of the mushrooms would grow.
When she was 14, María was sent to live with Serapio Martínez, the man who would be her husband. There was no wedding, no pomp, just a decision by her mother. María says she grew to love Serapio. He was 20. He was conscripted into the Carrancistas during the Mexican Revolution and was a good soldier. For a while, María had no idea what happened to him, as she only received one letter, which she couldn’t read. Rumors spread that he was dead, or alive, or dead again, but she figured “this life of upsets” was just how it had to be.
Eventually, Serapio returned from war. While he was a good worker and not a drinker, his vice was other women, and he brought them into their home for weeks at a time. María described herself as “Serapio’s true wife.” But as Serapio fell in love with a woman in another town, his and María’s connection strained. He spent more and more time away from their home and eventually developed bronchial pneumonia. He died after what María called “three days of agony.” They were together six years. Like her mother, María was widowed at 20.
Custom dictates abstinence for four days before and after a vigil, so María had never eaten any of the little saints while she was married. She wanted to preserve her holiness. But now who was to stop her? Especially since her hips hurt. “At bottom I knew that I was a doctor woman. I knew what my destiny was. I felt it deep within me,” María said.
So she took los niños santos and worked to help her heal herself. She knew then that she would be powerful.
Some years later, her sister María Ana got sick. As her illness got worse and worse, María decided that she would eat the mushrooms with María Ana and try to cure her. She gave her sister three pairs and ate 30 pairs herself; she wanted to make sure she got this right.
María felt the saint children guiding her, and the wishes of her youth came true: the mushrooms made her sing beautifully. But as the vigil wore on, stranger things happened. Here is how María described it:
I couldn’t sleep. The little saints continued working in my body. I remember that I had a vision: some people who inspired me with respect. I knew they were the Principal Ones of whom my ancestors spoke . . . I knew that they weren’t of flesh and bone. I knew that they weren’t beings of water or tortilla. I knew that it was a revelation that the saint children were giving me . . . I felt an infinite happiness. On the Principal Ones’ table, a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent. One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said: “María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The book is yours, take it so that you can work.”
Now fully convinced that she should be performing these rituals, María could ask the little saints to bless a vigil, to bring truth and teach the way forward. She had moved closer to her destiny of becoming a healer, but her journey soon came to an abrupt stop.
A new man named Marcial Carrera appeared. I’ll let María tell it: “Really, I didn’t have any need for a man because I knew how to support myself.” But her mother convinced her that a husband would lighten her workload, so María told Carrera he would have to move into her home with her children, with her mats and her food and her pots and her mother and her tools. And he did. But Carrera wasn’t much of a worker, and, worse, he beat her frequently. María started working harder.
She lived with Carrera for 13 years and gave birth to six children. Only a daughter, Aurora, survived the sicknesses and killings that took her siblings. Through all of this, María never took the saint children, observing the abstinence rule. She lost 13 years to a man who abused her. In the end, the sons of a woman that Carrera had had an affair with attacked and beat him, and he died on the side of a path. María never said how she felt about his death, but she talked openly about how little he worked and how he hit her so much she cried. I’m not sure I would mourn someone like that.
María estimated that when she was widowed for the second time, she was over 40 years old. They had been hard years on both her body and her spirit. But she finally could take her place as a Wise Woman, like her great-grandfather and grandfather. It was in her blood to heal.
Frankly, I’m not all that interested in the story of R. Gordon Wasson, the author of the Life article that introduced María and her mushrooms to the wider world. Do you see how much life María had lived before she and Wasson even met? But he’s an important part of Maria’s story, so here’s the short-ish version: Wasson was a vice president at J.P. Morgan who went to mountains of Mexico with his wife Valentina, a pediatrician, to study mushrooms. The Wassons were fascinated by fungi. She was from Moscow and he was from Montana, and, as they learned on their honeymoon, she loved mushrooms and he hated them. They saw this not as a difference in personal tastes, but as a “strange cultural cleavage” between Russians and Americans, and they resolved to figure out where it came from: “Our method was to gather all the information we could on the attitude toward wild mushrooms of the Indo-European and adjacent peoples. We tried to determine the kinds of mushrooms that each people knows, the uses to which these kinds are put, the vernacular names for them,” he wrote. It was an expensive hobby, but they could afford it.
Eventually, the Wassons wound up in Mexico, and María wound up in Life, with its millions of readers. Soon enough, some of those readers came looking for her. Even though Wasson changed María’s name in his article, people found her, and Huautla. They found the mushrooms, too. A few found nirvana, maybe. But the most interesting part of all of this? María saw them coming.
María had been shot in the ass protecting her son from a drunk who had accused him of being a bandit. This happened in her store, where she sold aguardiente, cigarettes, and (later) meals to visitors. She was taken to a doctor—she called him Wise-One-In-Medicine—to remove the bullets. Not long after she got home, María ate mushrooms among friends. That’s when she saw “strange beings” that “appeared to be people but they weren’t familiar.” She was so concerned by these visions that she asked her friends to pray with her. A few days later, Wasson and a few others, all blonde men—strange beings, for sure—arrived in Huautla.
The next night, María agreed to include them a vigil. Cayetano García, the representative of the Ministerio Público in Huautla, brought the foreigners to her, so she didn’t see the harm. Wasson’s first vigil left him reeling: “For the first time,” Wasson wrote, “the word ecstasy took on real meaning.” It didn’t make much of an impression on María. “When the foreigners took the saint children with me, I didn’t feel anything bad,” she said. “The vigil was fine.”
After Wasson published his piece in Life, more foreigners—“people of all colors and ages,” according to María—started arriving in Oaxaca and Huautla. Most came looking for the ecstatic experience Wasson had described. “After those first visits of Wasson, many foreign people came to ask me to do vigils for them. I asked them if they were sick, but they said no . . . they had only come ‘to know God,’” Maria said.
They did not seem particularly reverent to María—the “young people,” especially. On the contrary, their behavior was “scandalous.” They didn’t observe the abstinence rule or wait until nightfall. Sometimes they didn’t even wait for a Wise One. “These young people, blonde and dark-skinned, didn’t respect our customs,” she said. “Never, as far as I remember, were the saint children eaten with such a lack of respect.” They were seeking highs instead of healing.
Throughout the 1960s, the hippies—as these young people would come to be called in the U.S.—kept arriving. By 1970, their mushroom pilgrimage was established enough to get a write-up in the New York Times. The Times noted an increased law-enforcement presence in Mexico, but portrayed the hippies mostly sympathetically. One of them, “David, from San Francisco,” put the mushroom craving this way: “The difference between LSD and the magic mushrooms is the difference between a stale hamburger and a T-bone steak.” Not exactly the pursuit of health or holiness, and certainly not communion with los niños santos.
It’s possible that David and others like him were seeking their own kind of healing, but they hurt the people of Huautla. “From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity,” María said. Grabbing and eating mushrooms wherever they grew, the hippies disrupted the ecosystem and the community in Huautla. “[The mushrooms] lost their force,” María said. “[T]hey spoiled them. From now on they won’t be of any use. There’s no remedy for it.”
Not all the visitors realized that they were doing considerable damage to the area. Some seemed completely oblivious. A Texan named Ronny told the Times that the mushrooms created a bond between the visitors and the locals. “We are brothers by the power of the mushroom,” he said. “They share with us, we share with them. When we are sick, their women look after us.” It’s not clear what the American tourists gave in return for such kindness.
María died penniless in 1985 at a hospital in Oaxaca. While there, María was approached by everyone—patients, doctors, anyone whose illness wasn’t being cured by Western medicine—for help. During her last days, and in what I can only imagine was a desperate attempt to reconcile the fact that we all die, a TV reporter asked María why a Wise Woman couldn’t cure herself. According to poet Homero Aridjis, who visited her there, María responded “that she couldn’t, in fact, cure herself of old age and poverty.” She was intelligent and empathetic until the end.
Because María was poor and illiterate, because she lived in shacks with dirt floors, it’s easy to regard her as a relic from an earlier era—to fling her story and our sins way back in time. But María’s is not a story from way back when. María lived and died in the near past. She was a twentieth-century woman who was holding vigils while Elvis was giving concerts and the Kennedys were giving speeches. She couldn’t read the stories about herself in the magazines that she hung on her walls, but she knew they were about her. And she had a lasting impact on Huautla, becoming an icon, an institution—like Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, or the Alamo in Texas. Today, images of María cover the town, just like they used to cover her walls.
Turns out you don’t need to know how to write to change the world.
The documentary María Sabina, Mujer Espíritu features a scene in which María heals a woman who has burned her foot.
There are candles beside María’s altar, where she has placed photos of herself and of saints, a crucifix, and what looks like a mirror. She chants and sings and eats the holy children and prays and rubs healing mushrooms on the woman’s foot. There is puking and heavy breathing and singing and silence.
There is healing. And the whole time I watched, I felt like an invader.
María and her company at this vigil aren’t taking the mushrooms, the holy saints, to get high or even to commune with God, and it feels like those of us who do take them for those reasons—or just about any other reason—have gotten everything wrong. And as grateful as I am for learning about María, I mostly feel angry. Maybe we aren’t supposed to know everything in this world, and maybe this one thing should have been left to these people. Even though she consented to be filmed, I still feel like I’m exploiting her generosity. But I can’t declare the camera’s presence too much or invasive. How else are you supposed to tell a story? Maybe I’m being too precious about all of this. María’s moral duty was to heal, and the mushrooms were her holy water. Maybe I should feel lucky to watch her fulfill her destiny.
For María, the little saints were part of a familiar ritual. For Wasson and his many followers—from the hippies who flooded into Huautla in the 1960s to my friends who, 50 years later, go camping in the Arizona desert to trip—the mushrooms were a revelation, a stunning new experience. Novelty can be thrilling, but I’m not sure it excuses what happened to María, or Huautla.
When María is preparing to heal someone, she asks them a series of questions. One sticks in my brain: “When you dream, where do you go?” I’m haunted by this question because I’ve been having incredibly violent dreams lately. They aren’t nightmares, exactly, but they’re there, night after night. As I sit in my silent apartment, I ask aloud, “Where are you going to take me tonight?” half expecting María to reply.
The only answer is the humming of my refrigerator. It’s time to go to bed and pray that thoughts of María will lead me somewhere peaceful. But I know that when I close my eyes, I’ll see more violence, and I’ll have no idea where I’ve been taken. “Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God,” María said. “The little mushrooms were always taken for the sick to get well.”
I hope that María Sabina is well.