Created August 11, 2008. Revised May 29, 2013; and May 7, 2017.
Copyright 1998-2017 by John W. Allen.

Article copyright by University of California Press 2003.


A native of Contepec, Michoacán, Homero Aridjis came to Mexico City, building from there a life as a poet, novelist, editor, and sometime diplomat, more recently (through the Group of One Hundred, founded by him and Betty Ferber Aridjis) as spokesman for endangered species (animals and humans; ecosystems and deep cultures). Over the years he has become a major presence in Latin American and world poverty, of whom Kenneth Rexroth wrote, “I can think of no poet of Aridjis’ generation in the Western Hemisphere who is as much at ease in the blue spaces of illumination.” He served from 1997-2003 as president on the relation of poetry to questions of ecological sources he writes: “I dream of seeing the face of the earth / the mother of beings and mother of my mother / and the face of heaven / the father of my father / now / its shadow appears in my mouth / its fire in my eyes / carried by time / my body sacred / trembles” (Above comments were translated by Elliot Weinberger).

One February day in 1983 my wife Betty and I were driving down Avenida de Las Palmas in Mexico City when we suddenly saw a headline in an afternoon newspaper saying that Marìa Sabina was sick. We bought the paper and read that one of the best poets, not only of Mexico but of the entire American continent, was dying in poverty.

Then I remembered R. Gordon Wasson’s words about Sabina: “Who knows? Perhaps Marìa Sabina bids fair to become the most famous Mexican of her time. Long after the personages of contemporary Mexico sink back into forgotten slough of the dead past, her name and what she stood for may remain etched in men’s minds.”
R. Gordon Wasson was right in saying this. He had experienced the magic powers of the “wise woman of the mushrooms” on the night of June 12, 1958, when she held a velada with the saint children, a hallucinogenic mushroom ritual, to cure Perfecto José García, a seventeen-year-old boy, who was seriously ill. That night the mushroom sang, “There is no cure now.” Then six weeks later Perfecto died.

Given that this assessment was written by Wasson, a foreigner, the historians of our Hispanic culture were not about to give it any credence. Besides, many of our literary critics, followers of the fashionable Western letters, have ignored the figure and work of Marìa Sabina, even after her death. She was an Indian poet who sang her poems in the Mazatec tongue. Her chants were first translated from English to Spanish, not from Mazatec. None of our literati know this language and few even mention her. This is one of the forms that our cultural discrimination against the Indian world takes. And an ignorance of this world among Spanish speakers is something that can be readily seen, say, if one reads the poem that the Spanish writer and 1989 Nobel Prize winner Camilio José Dela dedicated to her. This poem is one of the most absurd and nonsensical texts that any human being has stitched together in the twentieth century.

I contacted the newspaper to send a message to her through their reporter. To my surprise I received a collect long-distance call the next day from Oaxaca. It was her grand-nephew Juan García Carrera, who told me that he was bringing Marìa Sabina by taxi from Huautla de Jiménez to Mexico City so that I could help her.

So, when they arrived in the Distrito Federal, Betty and I went to pick them up (Marìa Sabina and three companions) at the Tapo Bus Station, because the cab driver didn’t want to go farther than Puebla.

We had made arrangements for her at the National Institute of Cardiology, and at about eleven p.m. Marìa Sabina was examined by the doctors. It wasn’t necessary to hospitalize her so we took them all to a hotel where they stayed the night and the following days.

In the meantime, a journalist attacked me in a Mexico City newspaper, since we had gone to Huautla de Jiménez to interview her, only to find out that she had come to the capital to see me.

Then, thanks to the help of Dr. Cristina León, who had known her for some time before, she was taken to the General Hospital. But when they arrived there, her relatives called me again, telling me that she hadn’t been admitted. She was an Indian and so she needed to have an identity card for the Mexican Revolutionary Party (PRI), and she not only didn’t have one but had no idea what they were talking about. Finally she was admitted.

When other patients became aware of her presence, they sought out her room in the hope that she would cure them. And not only patients came to consult her, but even some doctors and nurses who suffered from certain serious illnesses that Western medicine couldn’t cure.

On one of those days a reporter from Televisa TV put a microphone in front of her and asked her why she couldn’t cure herself if she was such a curandera. Marìa Sabina answered him that she couldn’t in fact cure herself of old age and poverty.

In statements that she made for the Mexican daily Excélsior the night of her arrival, Marìa Sabina complained that “the government has always denied help for the poor, even more for the Indians. Before I die I would like to see my people get help. This is one of my dreams, to see that other Indians like me are rescued from their misery.”

Those words now seem more timely than ever, like the conversation we had in my home around that time and which I have finally decided to publish. My perspective on her has not changed since then. I still think she is one of the greatest Mexican poets of the twentieth century and a great Shaman. Her language is still present in my mind, different from the one we Mexicans use in our daily lives---that magic language she heard for the first time when she was between five and seven years old and the wise man Juan Manuel came to cure her uncle Emilio Cristino. ()See above Page 11) [In Marìa Sabina Collections, edited by Jerome Rothenberg].

After this experience, she would come to revelations of her own through the mushrooms: “They were the same mushrooms that the Wise Man Juan Manuel had eaten. I knew them well. My hands gently tore up one mushroom, then another. I looked at them up close. ‘If I eat you, you, and you,’ I said to them, ‘I know that you will make me sing beautifully.’”

The initiation into the world of ecstasy came to Marìa Sabina in the midst of terrible poverty that accompanied her throughout her life, oscillating between physical hunger and spiritual insight….Through the mushrooms Marìa Sabina learned to see and talk with the dead, and she leapt eating them until she realized that “the mushrooms were like God.”

As a sign of gratitude for what Betty and I did for her, Marìa Sabina gave us a copy of her Vida signed with her thumbprint. She didn’t know how to read or write. She never went to school, nor did she learn to speak Spanish. Her parents only spoke Mazatec.  Although she confessed that she didn’t know what a school was or even if one existed. “If there had been a school, I wouldn’t have gone, because there wasn’t time. In those days, people worked a lot,” making tortillas and doing domestic chores, she tells us in her Vida.

As a twenty-year-old widow of someone called Serapio, and with three children, Marìa Sabina continued a life of hunger and poverty; she supported herself working the soil and cutting wood, planting beans, picking corn, and harvesting coffee.

Marìa Sabina would later cure her sister by eating mushrooms. While she was curing her, the Mazatec seer---like Hildegard of Bingen, the sibyl of the Rhine---had a vision: “some people appeared who inspired me with respect. I knew they were the Principal Ones of whom my ancestors spoke. They were seated behind a table on which there were many written papers… On the Principal Ones’ table a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person… One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said: ‘Marìa 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.’ I exclaimed with emotion: ‘That is for me. I received it.’“

“I had attained perfection,: Marìa Sabina tells us, “I was no longer a simple apprentice.” And during that same midnight velada, after having two visions—in one of which the Supreme Lord of the Mountains, Chicon Nindó, came to her riding a white horse, and in the second on a kind of god of vegetation---Marìa Sabina, besides during her sister, discovered the Language of God: “Language makes the dying return to life. The sick recover their health when they hear the words taught by the Saint children. There is no mortal who can teach the language.”

Marìa Sabina gave Betty and me a gift of coffee and a cloth she had embroidered with mushrooms, and she indicated to us that she didn’t want to do any more trips, because she was afraid that she wouldn’t return from them and because so much strength was needed to take the mushrooms, but she would be more than willing to do it for us. We couldn’t go to Huautla to do the trip with her. But even now the temptation of that lost vision haunts us---especially me, who never took mushrooms or any drug, although as a young poet myself I knew the Beat poets who came down to Mexico in the late fifties and the beginning of the sixties searching for the beatific, and many times drugs were made available to us at literary parties.

Marìa Sabina returned to Huautla de Jiménez and died on November 22, 1985, maybe at the age of ninety-seven (nobody ever knew her real age). It wasn’t known precisely when she was born. Even she herself wasn’t sure: “I don’t know in what year I was born, but my mother, Marìa Concepcíon told me that it was in the morning of the day they celebrate the Virgin Magdalene, there in Río Santiago, an agencia in the municipality of Huautla. None of my ancestors knew their age.”
In a brief communiqué, the Doctor Derna Nila Nodales reported that “her age, pernicious anemia, pulmonary emphysema, advanced malnutrition, chronic bronchitis, and nose bleeding were the causes of the death of the Mazatec woman.”

“The kingdom of the dead is silent, dark and warm…there is no coldness there…there is no need for fear, one must be close to the dead, we are closer to them than to the living who swindle and cheat us,” Marìa Sabina declared before dying. “I don’t see my face, I don’t see it. I see peace in that world, and yet I feel sad. I see people whom I knew in my childhood: my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my parents.”
At dawn in her house (where the velada took place), after the cock crowed it was passed over her stiff body. From the sierra dozens of Indians came down to accompany her on her way to the town cemetery. According to the Mazatec ritual, her soul was received in heaven by San Pedro.

Translation from Spanish by
Laura Jáuregui and Heriberto Yépez.

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