Lucky Soap, Chicken Bones & more

The most recent superstitious thing Suegra has brought into the house is this soap. She got this in El Salvador for Carlos.

The soap is supposed to bring you luck in whatever you need luck in, (in our case, dinero.) Carlos said he wasn’t sure he believed in it but proceeded to lather up anyway.

When I laughed at him, Carlos tried rubbing it on me.

“Hey, you better watch where you rub that,” I said.
“Why?”
“Well, I don’t know how it works but what if whichever body part you rub it on is the one that brings in money?” I said.

Carlos stopped rubbing the lucky soap on me after that.

Usually, I try not to laugh at things like this – I try to be respectful of other people’s beliefs, but some of them seem very strange and even silly, (though Suegra and Carlos think I have equally weird beliefs sometimes.)

Here are just a few of the beliefs I’ve encountered over the years while living with two Salvadorans.

Voodoo?

I actually prefer the “silly” beliefs because the alternative is disturbing ones like the time I believe she tried to put a curse on me. I will never forget the time Suegra angrily moved out of our house. During that year that we were “disowned” I was cleaning the house and happened upon something which quite frankly kind of freaked me out.

When I dusted the top of the doorbell box high on the wall, I knocked something down. Whatever it was, it clattered to the floor. I reached down to pick it up and knew immediately that Suegra had something to do with it. It was a chicken bone and I really don’t know why she put it there. She may have put it there as a blessing on the house when we were on good terms – or, more likely, she may have put it there as a curse when she left. I still haven’t asked because I don’t want to stir up anything with her.

The reason I suspect Suegra is the one who put the chicken bone up there is because it’s just too strange for there to be any other explanation. After all, I already know some of her other beliefs, and this wouldn’t even be the strangest. For example, I know that there was a woman Carlos was involved with before he came to the United States. Suegra hated this woman and she told Carlos to stay away from her, but he wouldn’t. This is when Suegra became convinced that this woman had cast a spell on him by putting his photo in her underwear.

Luck & Wealth

Speaking of underwear, I mentioned before that she wears her own underwear inside out for luck.

When one of the children accidentally puts their shirt on inside out, Suegra announces that it’s “Día de San Antonio” and this is also good luck.

Rue plants likewise bring good luck.

A lot of her superstitions revolve around attracting good luck/money and discouraging bad luck/loss of money. She chides me for sweeping in the evening, (the household will lose money.)

Magnets, on the other hand, attract luck/money.

Health

Beliefs that don’t fall into the luck/money category, usually fall into the health category. She avoids quick changes in temperature. If she has been using her sewing machine she says her muscles are “hot” and so she won’t reach into the freezer to retrieve anything – (she has me do it instead.)

Carlos is also this way to some degree though he never explained it. When we first got married he’d come home from work and though he loves to be clean, he would always wait awhile before taking a shower – saying he wanted to rest first. Later I realized that this was part of that same belief. And now that I think about it, I wonder if when Carlos’s Mexican co-workers advised him not to have sex with the ceiling fan on, perhaps the hot/cold thinking is also why they believe that.

Other medical issues – “Empacho” is a gastrointestinal problem which Suegra believes can lead to death. She gets very worried about feeling bloated and will do everything from massaging her stomach to brewing various concoctions to cure it.

Sometimes Suegra also complains of having air trapped in the body. I don’t know if this has scientific merit or not. I don’t know if it has a specific name but she’ll say “Tengo aire” before pounding a fist against her back in an attempt to clear it out.

Other oddities

Suegra believes that if you point at a rainbow, you’ll make it disappear. Also, you should not watch a dog relieving itself or it will cause a sty on your eye.

Have you heard of “Tapa Boca” candles, or “Shut up” candles? If someone is gossiping about you, you light it and by the time it burns out, the person will be forced to stop talking about you. There are dozens of other similar candles for every imaginable problem as well.

In the end, living with Carlos and Suegra all these years has caused some of their creencías to rub off on me.

If the palm of my hand becomes itchy, my first thought is that I will soon come into money. And, if my ears are ringing, I assume someone is talking about me so I bite the tip of my tongue.

No matter how angry I get at someone though, I will not hide a chicken bone in their house.

Links:

A blog post about hot/cold beliefs

Empacho

Lately Suegra has been suffering from “empacho” … This illness has always confused and amused me – And Suegra is equally confused as to how it’s possible that gringos don’t believe in it, and usually have never even heard of it.

“Empacho” is a gastrointestinal illness that many people in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America believe can kill you. I decided to interview her about it for anthropological reasons because it doesn’t seem well documented.

Interview below, (in Spanish.)

Note: The use of the word “chibolitas” in Salvadoran Caliche means “little round objects” or “little balls.” (The word has other meanings in other parts of Latin America.)

(If interested in a translation to English, let me know in comments and I’ll see about transcribing it.)

How The Robin Got A Red Chest – According to Suegra

(English translation in comments)

A cute plump little Robin perched on the backyard fence. I watched him out the kitchen window as I washed breakfast plates off in the sink. Suegra appeared next to me.

“Ay, qué lindo, vá?” she said.
I nodded, turning off the water and drying my hands.
“¿Cómo se llaman esos pajaros de la garganta roja?” she asked.
“Robins,” I responded, accepting the loss of my quiet bird watching moment.
“Hay una historia de esos Robins,” she said, “No la conoces?”
I shook my head.
Suegra smiled, for she had a story to tell, and there are few things in the world that make her as happy as story telling.
“Bueno,” she began, “Cuándo Jesús se murio en la cruz, tenía bastante sangre, cómo los soldados estaban apuñalandolo…” she pauses to make sure I understand. I nod and she continues.
“Jesús tenía sangre por todos lados, y aquí en el pecho,” she says putting her hand slightly above her heart.
“Venía ese pajaro…el Robin, me dijiste, vá?… bueno, pero antes de este tiempo estaba sólo cafecito el pajaro. El Robin voló por el pecho de Jesús y posó allí…”

I smile because this is a sweet folktale…At this point I have assumed that the bird came to comfort Jesus, and for that, the blood colored his feathers red… but Suegra isn’t finished.

“Se posó en el pecho, y empezo a picar a Jesús—“

“Picar?!” I interrupt, “Pero yo pensé que este cuento sería algo más bonito… picar?! Qué feo salio el cuento…”

Suegra shrugs and walks away. When I look out the window, the cute little Robin has flown away.

Image: Elee Kirk

3 Elefantes

My youngest son wanted to buy a little toy and it was 2 for $1. He asked if he could buy 1 for 50 cents and they refused so he bought the toy he wanted and picked a little elephant for Suegra.

He went to Suegra and gave her the elephant and she smiled. “I will have good luck soon because of you,” she said in Spanish. My son smiled and walked away, probably not understanding her words but knowing she was happy.

“Why will you have good luck?” I asked.

She explained that in El Salvador some people believe if you have tres elefantes (three elephants), you will have luck – but the way in which you come to own the elephants is important.

“Uno comprado, uno regalado, y uno robado,” she says with a sly smile.

(One bought, one received as a gift, and one stolen.)

Knowing she has one elephant figurine in her room that she bought years ago, and now this one that my son gave her, I asked about the third.

“Do you have a stolen elephant?” I asked.

“No,” she said… “Not yet.”

La Virgen de Guadalupe

Today our church celebrates Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, but the forecast is calling for freezing rain so it may be postponed or canceled since the Spanish-speaking priest comes in from out of the city. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t attend the service, because it’s the one I look most forward to each year.

Raised Protestant, the Catholic relationship with the Virgin Mary was something that I had difficulty understanding at first. Protestants do not adore her the way Catholics do. I also found it confusing that there seemed to be a lot of Virgins in the Catholic faith. There is the Virgin Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, the Blessed Virgin, etc. I later learned that these are not different virgins – they are all the same Virgin Mary, (mother of Jesus). Some of the names are just describing her attributes, (such as Our Lady of Peace), and others are for locations where she appeared to people.

Years ago, during the course of writing one of my manuscripts, I needed to do research on the Catholic faith. While researching, I discovered the Virgin of Guadalupe, and fell in love. There is something about the Virgin of Guadalupe that intrigues me more than I can really put into words.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once said, “…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” And Nobel Literature laureate, Octavio Paz, wrote, “The Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”

If you don’t know the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, allow me to share it with you.

There once was an indigenous Mexican man named Juan Diego. (His birth name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, but Juan Diego was the name he took when Spanish bishops converted him to Christianity.)

Juan Diego was a widower who walked every Saturday and Sunday to church. When it was cold out he wore a cloak-like covering called a “tilma”, a common type of clothing for the people of his tribe. On one particular Saturday morning (December 9, 1531), on his way to church, Juan Diego claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin.

As he passed the hill at Tepeyac just outside of Mexico City he heard music and saw a light. A woman’s voice called him by name from the top of the hill, so he climbed up to see. Near the top he saw a beautiful young dark skinned woman dressed like an Aztec princess. She spoke to him in his native language (Nahuatl) and told Juan that she was the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin instructed Juan Diego to seek permission for a church to be built on that site and in return she would always care for the people there. Juan Diego did as he was told but the bishop asked for a sign to verify that what Juan Diego claimed had really happened.

Juan Diego returned to the hill and told the Virgin what the bishop had said. The Virgin then directed Juan Diego to go further up the hill and there he would find roses. He was instructed to gather the roses into his tilma. Juan Diego did as the Virgin instructed. (Remember it is winter time and roses would not have been blooming.) The Virgin then told Juan Diego to bring the roses to the bishop.

Not only was the bishop surprised by the roses because they were not in season but these particular roses were also not native to Mexico. These roses were native to his homeland (Spain). And then as Juan Diego emptied the roses from his tilma, it revealed an amazing image of the Virgin.

Juan Diego’s tilma with the image still exists today. It is on display at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. This is considered yet another miracle because Juan Diego’s tilma is made from the coarse fibers of the maguey cactus. A fabric of this type should have deteriorated after 20 years. (It has been in good condition for almost 500 years and examined by many scientists who can find no explanation.)

For those who take a more cynical view, there are theories that the Catholic church made all this up just to convert the native peoples of Mexico.

Today, many of those faithful to the Virgin of Guadalupe pray to her and ask miracles. Many claim she has healed them or loved ones from incurable illnesses. Some make promises to the Virgin in return for answered prayer. On the day of celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe, some will walk on their knees, (some for miles), to her altar in gratitude and devotion.

Our church usually assembles in the street with mariachi at sunrise to sing “Las Mañanitas” to La Virgen. After misa, there is a procession and a traditional desayuno of pozole, tamales and champurrado.

I hope we will be able to go, but here are photos from last year.

Rear windshield of a car outside the church.

A guy at church was wearing a pretty sweet jacket. He turned around and let me take his photo.

Image of La Virgencita and rosas people left for her.

Mariachi.

Statue of La Virgen.

My youngest hijo asked if they have Cheerios. (He wasn't crazy about eating a tamal for breakfast.)

Faith & The Seeming Unfairness of Life

Today my friend Juan of JuanOfWords.com, wrote about faith. (I encourage you to click over and read it.)

I responded in comments:

“I recently tried to blog about this but the post sits in my drafts because it ended cynically and I don’t like to spread negativity if possible. Faith has never been easy for me but unlike you, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it more difficult.

Not having that belief that “everything happens for a reason” and is part of a bigger plan – that there is someone in charge up there that knows what is going on even when it looks like chaos from down here – having the unsettling feeling that we’re on our own, doesn’t feel good.

Faith is not something that can be bought or forced. If it could be, I’d spend good money to stock up on it just for the comfort it can provide.

The natural optimist in me won’t go down that easily though. There’s a tiny spark of hope that I’m wrong. My heart and mind are in constant battle over this… I’ve had to accept this, and accept that my definition of faith isn’t the solid kind some are lucky enough to stand on. My faith is something fleeting that I must constantly chase.”

As a result, Juan encouraged me to finish this post and hit the publish button… and so here it is – a post that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

___

“It’s not fair!” … These three words of indignation are one of the first phrases we learn as children. We shout it at our parents with a stamp of our foot when we’ve been denied something we want and it’s thrown around on school playgrounds across the nation as much as those bouncy red balls.

“It’s not fair!” was a phrase that was especially easy for me to employ as a middle child. With an older sister who was granted more freedoms and a little sister who was bestowed more mercy, there was plenty to find unfair, and maybe because of my birth order, it’s easy for me to perceive injustice, whether it’s done to myself, someone I love, or a complete stranger.

“It’s not fair!” I’d shout, and my wise mother would calmly respond, “Life’s not fair.”

Middle children are called “peace-makers”, (as well as “trouble-makers”, but that’s another story.) … We are accustomed to being sandwiched in the middle seat of a hot station wagon. We know what it’s like when one person is taking more than their fair share, (“Mom! She’s touching me!”)… and I guess that affects our view on the world. We like to make things fair, for ourselves and for others, and there are few things more frustrating than when the power to do that is completely out of our hands.

Eventually that frustration has to become something. It festers like an infected wound. It can become discontent, depression, cynicism. I look out at the world and increasingly find myself disappointed with the lack of fairness, and unable to shake it off as I used to. When I was younger, I’d wrap myself up in optimism. Close my eyes and think happy thoughts until my short attention span managed to be distracted and occupied by something full of fluffy goodness. People living in poverty… It’s so unfair… Ooo! Cake on a stick!

These days it seems there isn’t enough cake on a stick in all the world to make me forget the unfairness that is life. This is when many people will lean on their faith. The belief that there is a higher power, that it all happens for a reason, that someone up there is looking out for us – it is comforting. Like a child at the beach who walks deeper and deeper into the waves, looking over his shoulder every once in awhile to make sure his mother is there to run to him and pull him out when the tide gets too rough.


But what if you don’t have that sort of faith? Those with an abundance of faith may see it as a willful rebellion, but I can assure you, it is not. We are all gifted different gifts, and resigned to accept certain flaws. A doubting mind, a mind that questions, a mind that can not be shut off, is one of those things many of us would trade in a heartbeat. There is no comfort in looking back at the shore and seeing that no one is watching over us as we feel the sand slip beneath our toes.

So, with a lack of strong faith, and an increasingly cynical world view, where does that leave me? Should I simply accept this as my new reality? Am I capable of waking each morning knowing that I’ll encounter injustices in this world that I can do nothing about?

I began writing this without knowing where I would finish it. Something in my heart demands that I dig down deep and find that fluffy goodness that makes everything okay again, but I don’t want to be trite. I don’t want to pretend that there is always a happy ending. For myself, maybe I can truthfully say that so far life has demonstrated to me time and time again, that everything happens for a reason – but it’s not fair for me to say it’s a universal truth. It’s not fair for me to speak on behalf of others who may not see their reality that way.

(Image source: Libertinus)

Salvadoran Folktales

On a recent trip to El Salvador, a friend brought me back a souvenir. Thankfully it wasn’t another painting of The Last Supper, but a book called “Mitología Cuzcatleca: Los Cuentos de mi Infancia y Otros” by Efrain Melara Méndez. (Thank you, Ángel!)

The book contains all of the Salvadoran stories I’m not able to tell the niños since I wasn’t raised on them and don’t know them well enough. My husband Carlos has also been fairly useless in the story-telling department. Most Salvadorans are good storytellers, but somehow this skill escaped my husband. He also only remembers these stories in the vaguest of ways… And Suegra, well, the only reason I know of La Sihuanaba, is because Suegra called me that as an insult during a particularly heated argument a few years ago. (And after I Googled it, my feelings were so incredibly hurt on multiple levels. Needless to say, I don’t ask her about any of these Salvadoran Folktales because I don’t want to dredge up that day.)

So, this book is much needed. It has all the traditional stories from El Salvador, (some of which are known in other parts of Central America as well.) Some of those characters include, El Cipitio, El Duende, El Padre Sin Cabeza, El Griton de Medianoche and some others I had never even heard of before.

by Flickr user jayokossa
My favorite folktale is about Los Cadejos. The Cadejos are dog-like spirit animals. One is white and one is black. The white one follows people to protect them and the black one follows people to kill them.

Which Latin American folktale is your favorite?

(Image source)

Salvadoran Suerte

I’ve come to find that Salvadorans can be very superstitious. Over the years Suegra has warned me away from bad luck in various ways. For example, she’s told me repeatedly not to sweep the kitchen in the evenings because it will cause the household to lose money, (I continue to sweep each night after dinner, maybe that’s why we’re so poor?) She also consults with a palm reader, (who no doubt has told her many terrible things about a certain gringa.)

I’ve also told you before that despite being a strict Catholic who believes in “la voluntad de Dios”, Suegra wears her underwear inside-out (for luck), and carefully tends a “lucky plant”. She doesn’t see it as contradictory at all. When I asked her about how she can be both religious and superstitious, she just waves me off like I’m an annoying bug.

Well, while I’ve come to expect a certain amount of superstition from Suegra, usually my husband isn’t as susceptible to magical thinking – that’s why I was surprised by something I found by accident the other day.

I was cleaning the house during the day and we have this lamp near the front door that gets quite dusty.

Looks ordinary right? Well, when I went to dust around under the shade, something fell on the floor.

I wasn’t sure at first what it was. I decided it was a magnet and figured one of the kids stuck it there when they were playing around. I stuck it on the fridge, went back to dusting, and thought nothing more of it.

Later that afternoon, Carlos came home, kissed me as he came in the door, and went to put his lunch box in the kitchen.

“Hey, you moved my magnet,” he said, taking it off the fridge and returning it to the lamp.

“What in the world?” was pretty much all I could manage.

Carlos explained that it was a lucky magnet and he wanted to keep it there. I thought maybe he was pulling my leg because I had never heard of this in all the years we’ve been married. He insists that his mother always kept magnets around for good luck, and he’s seen other Salvadorans do it too.

Now, from an anthropological point of view, I’m wondering where this superstition came from. Maybe when indigenous people first encountered magnets they found it magical the way that they “attract” things, so maybe they believed it could attract even non-physical things, such as luck?

I’ve searched the internet to find out more and I’ve come up empty-handed, so that’s only my own personal theory. What do you think? Do you believe magnets are lucky or know someone who does? Are you superstitious? Which superstitions do you believe?

Go to the doctor? Nah. We have a bunch of guys from Veracruz, Mexico for medical advice.

My husband started having back pain the day after we picked Suegra up at the airport. I think he pulled something lifting her enormous suitcase into the car. When I mentioned this possibility, Suegra gave me la mirada that means she is cursing me inside her head, and she responded that if he hurt himself lifting then he is “más débil que yo” – and so therefore, it was his own fault.

Ni modo, back pain or no back pain, my husband has to work. The guys he supervises, (all from Veracruz, Mexico), eventually noticed that his back hurt and they asked him about it. They began trying to help him by asking some rather personal questions, which I think even our doctor has not asked my husband before. Ultimately they all agreed on a diagnosis. My husband has been instructed to stop having sex with the ceiling fan on. Apparently the cold air on his bare back while he’s…um… exerting himself… is not good for him.

Remedios (a guest post)

Mi gran amigo, Joe Ray, is back with another entertaining guest post. (You may remember his first guest post here on Latinaish.com, “Spanglish…El bad boy de linguistics“.)

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!


El Remediosphere®
by Joe Ray

My mother was raised on a rancho in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. When you got sick, you had remedies that worked for everyone, you went to a sobadora or a curandera. And if things were really bad, you were taken into town.

This is old school. No pinche WebMD for research. If you wanted to know something, you asked your comadre about it. You were part of the Collective Comadre Network.

One common herbal remedio is yerba buena. Yerba buena’s great stuff, it’s used for everything from stomach ailments or flavoring mojitos. My mom also kept around a glass jar filled with rubbing alcohol that contained marijuana, which she would rub on her varicose veins. Aloe vera was always around as well.

Having asthma as a kid, my mom would rub Vicks (AKA vaporu, vivaporu, or el veex) all over my chest, usually along with other very nasty smelling herbs/weeds. Not yerba buena but my guess is that it was probably more along the lines of yerba mierda. After rubbing it on my chest, she’d make me put on a heating pad over my shirt and blanket. I can’t stand Vicks. I knew some kids ate the stuff. I like the smell of eucalyptus, which she would also boil leaves into a tea but I still find Vicks to be quite repulsive.

Growing up in Arizona, we were only 2 hours from the Mexican border, so we would go visit family, shop and so forth. I recall going to a yerberia for dried rattlesnake strips to eat daily in order to cure my asthma. Never having seen a snake cough, this made perfect sense to me. The meat tasted okay (like jerky), but didn’t really cure me.

Prior to that trip, Doña Yoya in San Luis once gave me a little black bunny. I think the rabbit was supposed to absorb the asthma and I’d be cured. She lived a couple of houses away from my aunt and was a curandera who had a bunch of animals. Anyway, that didn’t work. This rabbit was the first pet I ever had. The rabbit proved to be quite the trouble maker, and eventually we ate it

I also remember one family friend using bleach for everything from ant bites to other skin ailments. That always had a nasty smell to the rub. Every once in a while I smell bleach and think of that. But it still doesn’t repel me the way Vicks does.

I went online the other day and asked friends a little about what type of remedios they remember from their childhoods.

Here’s a small sampling of what I heard back:

Suzi: We all know what cures-VICKS and 7-UP!

Veronica: I thought all cures came from a lil shot of tequila

Tony: Lemon honey and tequila for coughs-Mexican Nyquil. Olive and castor oil after a hot bath in the winter.
Note- Tony also remembers his father using the pot in the alcohol for arthritis.

Celeste: Vaporu. That with some salpicot y una limpia con huevo and whatever weeds grew in the backyard. Santo remedio! Anything that was sting related had saliva in it: aver que te pongo ajo, con un poco de saliva.

Gennaro: Mi madre used to pull the skin on our back really hard to cure empacho, until today I don’t know wtf that was about.

Lonnie: Mentholatum smeared under the nose. My suegra would shove it up her nose. I think she used a couple of tablespoons.

……….

Culturally, we have a lot of herbs, beliefs and rituals that we relate to. These range from lighting candles, to a limpia con huevo (go ask about that one), to rhymes. Think of that little kiddie healing rhyme:

“sana, sana,
colita de rana…”

Before the internet, before WebMD, there was the Collective Comadre Network, which will always be around. Many of us continue these healing traditions. They are part of who we are and where we come from. It’s all part of the Remediosphere®. What are some of the remedios you remember?

Author Bio: Joe Ray is a Latino painter and printmaker living in Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as Creative Director and President of Estudio Ray, a visual branding/marketing agency in Phoenix.