I was pretty hungover if I’m honest. It had been quite a late night, I’d got rather overexcited at the decent cheap wine in the supermarket and I didn’t know if I’d find any more in the village where I was going next. So, it may have been partly that reason that my heart started pounding as soon as I entered the ‘Mercado de Sonora’- the magic market of Mexico City.
Traditional Mexican herbal medicine has been linked to religious and occult practices for centuries. This cheerful yellow building with large, hand-painted letters declaring ‘medicinal and mystical plants’ was built by the government to cater for it and has been around for over fifty years.
In the middle of a massive traditional shopping area, like most markets in Mexico, all the sellers of one type are clustered together in the same area. Here there is a concentration of stalls supplying occult and magical objects. Anything and everything that could have a magical significance to anyone is here. Yoruba, Voodoo, Santa Muerte, Santeria, the Egyptian gods. It’s a bewildering and eclectic mix of influences and traditions.
The area around the outside of the building is busy and full of sellers too- people are milling around with flapping chickens under their arms and huge boxes tied up with string. It’s a rough old place, the broken and potholed paths are filled with puddles of questionable substance and as everywhere here, there are wafts of strange smells.
Stepping from the open, bright sun, it’s a dazzling contrast to the gloomy labyrinth within and it takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust.
It thrums. Two steps in and its obvious. There’s something almost tribal and powerful, it has an underlying erotic intensity. I take a deep breath- my nipples stiffen, my heart starts pounding, sweat prickles my forehead.
Thick with copal and frankincense smoke, the narrow doorways are piled high with stalks, grasses, long branches of fresh leaves and flowers. A woman stands in front pulling herbs from each pile and wrapping in newspaper. Immediately there is a choice of several aisles to go down. I turn right on instinct.
It feels almost medieval, the corridors are tall and narrow and even though the ceiling is high and there are skylights, there is so much stuff hanging over the aisles, not much light is filtering through. It’s intense and claustrophobic, walking through tunnels of magical objects. I realise I am saying ‘Fucking hell!’, and ‘Jesus Christ!’ a lot, in awe of the displays. Knick-knacks are piled in baskets, hung and draped over every possible surface. Everywhere there are huge open sacks of herbs, seeds, chunks of bark and wood, knuckles of ginger, giant black beets and baskets of eggs- some dyed lurid colours.
The smaller booths, lined with shelves, are crowded with gaudy bottles of potions, in vivid purple, lime green and dayglo orange. Row upon row in varying sizes, from large room sprays to smaller boxes of perfume all with graphic, 70’s -style pictures- lots of moustaches- and names like ‘Triumpher’ and ‘The Stallion.’
Shrink-wrapped Voodoo dolls and ready prepared spell bags of various sizes and contents are stapled into handy bags onto cardboard sheets and hang floor to ceiling. They contain some dubious coloured powders, a few seeds, a small amulet, a candle and an instruction on a small slip of paper. According to the illustrations, most of the products seem to be about love- how to find it, keep it, control it.
On my left, a cluster of small plastic bottles contain a bright, oily liquid, with a few colourful pellets and the inevitable chili seeds. On the front there is a black and white photo of a woman with a gag over her mouth and the legend ‘trapaboca’ – ‘mouth-shutter’.
Most stalls are so cluttered with products, you can barely see the people manning them. I just hear the same sentence over and over again, ‘What are you searching for Guerra?, just ask me.’
A few strings of soft green hummingbirds dangle into my line of sight. ‘good for love spells!’ explains the disembodied voice behind the counter.
Amongst all the tiny booths, there are a few larger stalls that display increasingly bizarre stuff. That one has a complete wolf pelt, armadillo shells, shrunken heads and spatch-cocked lizards hanging over the entrance. Skulls of every kind hang on the wall, flanked by sculptures of Santa Muerte in different costumes. One’s a bridesmaid, one’s plastered with dollar bills, the giant ones are at the back, descending in eight sizes. There are small piles of rusty, antique metalwork- padlocks, chains, horseshoes, great fat nails.
A thick black hook holds half a dozen, long, severed horses’ tails, each bound tight at the root with bright fabric and beading. Sat underneath, a white- haired old man has his feet up on a block and is cutting his horny toenails with a machete.
Above him hangs elaborately dressed African dolls in traditional costumes, several sizes of drums and a whole range of wooden instruments. Native American dreamcatchers sit next to classic witches’ cauldrons next to cartoon plastic garden gnomes.
Hanging above the counter in front of me are some life sized, and larger, cocks encrusted with chili-pepper seeds, in plastic bags. ‘For love’, winked the woman. I couldn’t quite tell what they were made from so I asked how it was used, ‘It’s a candle..’ she paused, ‘…you burn it’, she continued, cackling. I could feel my face redden slightly. I have to move on for some other people coming the other way, jostling for space in the narrow corridors.
A few people are lurking. Leaflets are thrust in my hands from all sides, offering readings of chamalongos, personal cleanings and pacts with ‘holy death’. They speak to each other in Nahuatl, their eyes not actually moving but somehow still darting backwards and forwards between them. Beaded curtains rustle at the back of a stall. There’s a piece of paper with a photograph pinned to it advertising that a dark beauty can read the ‘Spanish Cards’ for a fiver.
I catch the eye of a short indigenous woman with a peaceful countenance. Somehow, I am drawn towards her. She is calm, petite, serious. Silently, she slightly nods and steps aside. In one quick movement she pulls a curtain back and ushers me inside her little booth. It’s a tiny space, barely enough room for the small rickety table with an altar, covered in jam jars and vases filled with plastic flowers and draped with beads. Prominent in the middle is a foot-high resin statue of the national icon, the Guadalupana. On her right, at two thirds of the size is a plastic figurine with a moulded label saying San Miguel in scrawly writing. On the left stands an equal sized, rainbow striped sculpture of the Santa Muerte. In front, between a couple of candles already burning in glass jars is a small package wrapped in a cloth. There’s a low, plastic stool slightly under the table to the left. The blue painted walls have small framed images of angels hanging from a nail, sellotaped newspaper cuttings and naff cartoon angel plaques. The whole thing is outlined with a string of flashing fairy-lights, attached with drawing pins. On the righthand wall are two small shelves covered in a random assortment of dusty jars, packets and bottles.
She points for me to sit on the stool. She has a thin white candle and several strings of colourful beads wrapped around her left wrist and hand and is continuously muttering under her breath. She touches the candle to her forehead and chest in the sign of the cross and then gives me the candle to hold, indicating to clasp it tight with both hands. After a minute, she takes it from me and strokes me all over my face with it. Short strokes on my fore head, cheeks, side and back of my head. Then I have to lightly kiss the wick. She turns to the altar and lights it from a flame already burning. It sputters out straight away – ‘because you have too many tears inside you’, she says. Wordlessly she relights it and places it in a jar on the altar.
She picks up the small package and puts it in her left hand, waving it above and all around me. Carefully, she unwraps the cloth with her right hand, revealing a small battered paperback, a pack of cards and a rosary. She indicates for me to hold my hands out, putting the cards face down and draping the rosary over.
She opens the book at a heavily dog-earred page and reads the few brief lines. She closes it, putting it on the alter, on its cloth, the rosary on top.
I’m asked to shuffle the pack and then to cut into three. She spreads them out in a spiral face down and I have to pick nine that feel right. She quickly lays them in a cross pattern. Straightaway, she says, ‘ah, the only way to cure lost love is with a new love.’ I gulp.
A man comes up. There’s lots of cups, lots of coins- I know what that means, its positive. Another man- ‘but there is a rival too’, she says, ‘there is another, younger man, with money, or an older man with no money.’ I’ll have to decide between them within the next few months.
As usual, there is another side, conflict and dilemma- nothing is ever so simple. There are lots of daggers on the card, it’s all beginning to sound a bit hectic. I feel slightly overwhelmed with it all. Some parts of what she is saying are resonating at a very deep level.
The prescription for this dilemma is multi-pronged. She reaches behind her to the top shelf and lifts down a half-litre plastic wine bottle of a mouthwash blue liquid. Firstly, I need to wash myself daily with this magic lotion –‘ It’s all natural’, she says, untwisting the cap and thrusting the neck under my nose. It smells of the hairdressers in our street when I was a kid so I very much doubt that. She screws the lid back and hands me the bottle to read. There’s a peeling photocopied label on the front with a cartoon of an angel and ‘contra danos’- ‘against dangers’ in large celtic-style font. I turn it round to a prayer on the back with blanks to fill in the missing names. It’s definitely for hands only, if anything, as it looks like it would give you a serious rash. Without looking down I put it on the floor between my feet as she continues. I must also wash daily with this, for love, she says, as she picks up a dusty box from the bottom shelf. She wipes the dust away with one finger and gives it to me. I can see it claims to be a bar of the ‘famous, multi-purpose’ black chicken soap. I somehow feel that surely they’re missing a trick by not calling it ‘black cock’?
I must also keep three whole nutmegs in my bag for the next month and read a copy of a prayer every day for 33 days of which today is the first. All these things will help heal and protect me from the inevitable chaos which is coming.
Her mellifluous voice has started to make me feel sleepy. I’m almost in a trance like state. It’s making me feel pretty uncomfortable and I think I’m having a hot flush. I’m a widow of three months and suddenly feel every bit of it.
I get up intending to head towards the shopfront, to try and get some fresh air. I stand up too quickly and get a headrush that my grandmother would describe as going all ‘swimey’. The copal incense becomes cloying and my throat has dried into a squeak. As I stand, I jog the table and the sculptures and candles wobble, threatening to topple. I hold my arms out, trying to steady them, silently mouthing an apology. I fish out a 100 peso note from my pocket and hand it to her. I try to turn, pull aside the curtain and step out into the rest of the market all in one movement. My clumsy feet catch on a large sack of corn on the step, scattering the contents in a loud whoosh. Spinning, I snag a small pile of ceramic cups with my bag, clattering them loudly from their basket. I hold my hands up in apology, feeling completely disorientated. I have a really bad sense of direction and take a wrong turn almost immediately and find myself in the live animal section. In the distance ahead though I recognise the small outline of an ajar door with bright sunlight streaming around it, so I stumble towards it. Before I get there it becomes darker and dingier with thick dust swirling in the beams of light from the meagre skylights. Ramshackle wooden pens begin to line the wall and there’s straw and pine twigs on the floor. The corridor is filled with live chickens and turkeys standing on and in boxes and crates. They’re quiet and passive as I walk past, aside from the fluster of feathers when they get sold and are unceremoniously grabbed by their feet and held upside down. There are pens filled with ducks and geese, cages of budgies, parrots and peacocks. Single exotic birds are crammed, their long tails leaving no space to turn around.
Certain areas are dedicated to particular types of animals. It feels like an ark, it’s almost shocking because of the sheer number and variety of animals on offer in such a small space. Cage upon cage, piled high with eerily quiet and very young drooling puppies, bundles of baby bunnies and some exotic rodents like giant rabbit-sized gerbils in a long tank. Huge trays hold docile doe-eyed kittens lolling in little piles. They seem like they have been drugged, or perhaps it’s the herb Melissa, to make them so peaceful. It seems slightly unnatural and a little bit sinister.
There are tankfulls of toads, turtles and terrapins. Axolotls, lizards and snakes. A little boy cradles a turtle, but sadly it’s easy to imagine not all of the animals are destined to be pets. A man is kneeling in a straw covered pen and peels bananas and feeds them whole to a dozen boisterous kid goats. I ponder their fate, noticing a hook with a load of pelts hanging from it. Shakespeare pops into my head – ‘Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog’. Are they for ritual sacrifice? To make potions and spells and cures? I read somewhere that the market has been raided a few times in the past by the police for dealing in animals in danger of extinction. Unwittingly, it reminds me of a market I found myself in, in China once. Horrible: swathes of cute kittens and puppies for sale, right next to stalls selling kittens and puppies split on sticks and dried and fried.
I feel slightly nauseous at the thought of it. The hangover is kicking in a bit now. It feels like the smell round here has suddenly become more feral, greasy and visceral.
A woman stands on the corner with a plastic bowl full of cooked chicken feet. She picks one out and starts chewing on the shank causing the foot to claw grotesquely.
The reptiles start scuffling, slapping their tails against the side of their tanks. A squabble erupts. The avian section all seem to start squawking and flapping at once, swirling up the dust in the light. There’s a scurry to gain control. It feels as though something surges, all the animals wake together. The spell is broken. There’s yapping and mewling and bleating – the noise level goes up more than a notch.
I am sweating like a pig- its roasting hot in here and my head is thumping. I need some fresh air more than ever. I am at the wide rectangle of a doorway. I am out. I lean on the wall, my mouth watering but I’m not actually sick. I jump in a taxi, get back to the flat in a blur, sleep for 12 hours straight and wake up starving.
Later on, I read in a free magazine how Mexico’s development means humungous shopping complexes so traditional market areas are being razed. The next page has an article on a bar in the city that has turned tarantula venom sourced at the market into a cocktail ingredient. Another creative bar owner uses the ritual herb for a spiritual cleanse as a distillate in their concoction, with a tarot card garnish. In the wider world, there’s a chef in Chicago, inspired by a stroll through Sonora, who has taken a native grass back to incorporate into his dishes, providing a taste of home for his Mexican customers. As these things become absorbed into a wider culture and are losing their meanings, isn’t this real cultural appropriation? In such an atmosphere, I wonder how much longer such an original place as Sonora can survive.