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  • From Curing to Witchcraft: Afro-Mexicans and the Mediation of Authority
  • Joan Cameron Bristol

In 1618 Esteban Dominguez, a Spaniard, reported to Inquisitors in Mexico City that a mulatto woman named Ana de Pinto had treated his sick friend, the Spanish alguacil (constable) Bartolomé Ruiz. Ana had applied a poultice to Bartolomé’s stomach and prepared special drinks for him. She then sewed a small bag embroidered with a cross into his shirt on the side over his heart, and made “the sign of the cross over the chest and ears of the sick man, at the same time making crosses everywhere in the name of the Holy Trinity God the father God the son and God the holy spirit” while murmuring words that Esteban could not decipher.2 Although Esteban had not questioned Ana’s treatment of Ruiz on his first visit to the sickroom, on a subsequent visit he became apprehensive when he saw the small bag sewn into Bartolomé’s shirt. He cut it off and, finding that it contained loose hairs, concluded that Ana was practicing hechicería, or witchcraft. When Bartolomé Ruiz was called to testify, however, he claimed that he had welcomed Ana de Pinto’s treatments. Even when an indigenous observer had speculated that the drinks that she prescribed contained peyote, a hallucinogen associated with indigenous rituals and prohibited by Inquisitorial edicts, Bartolomé had obediently submitted to her cures, apparently without question.3 In fact, when Ana had asked him if he would drink what she gave him, Bartolomé had responded “that to have health there was nothing that he wouldn’t take.”4

The example of a Spanish official deferring so completely to a mulatto woman, a person who would have been considered far inferior to him in terms of gender, wealth, color, and power, seems to contradict what we know about New Spain’s social hierarchy. Novohispano social identities were expressed through the concept of calidad (literally translated as quality or status), used to define people in order to differentiate Spaniards from the non-Spanish majority. Calidad was based on factors such as skin color, clothing, occupation, personal relationships, cultural practices, and limpieza de sangre (purity of blood, meaning that the bearer could prove Christian ancestry).5 Yet, despite differences in calidad between clients and curers, consultations with indigenous and Afro-Mexican curers were routine events for colonial people of every caste. This was due to various factors, including the lack of trained medical personnel in the colony. Between 1607 and 1738 only 438 people earned medical degrees in Mexico. Such a small number of physicians could not satisfy the medical needs of even the Spanish population of New Spain, which numbered 13,780 in 1646, much less the majority non-Spanish population.6 Furthermore, most physicians resided in cities and were thus inaccessible to people in rural areas. Empirics, licensed practitioners such as teeth pullers, bone setters, and midwives who were trained as apprentices, were also concentrated in cities. Furthermore, lower-class patients could not afford to consult physicians and empirics, whose services were more expensive than those of unlicensed curers. The limitations of academic medical knowledge, based on Galen’s humoral theory,7 also made curers an attractive option for ailing people. Even when licensed doctors and empirics were available they did not always have the tools or knowledge to heal illness, and curers might be called in when physicians’ treatments failed.8 Ideas about calidad also may have created demand for non-Spanish practitioners. Spaniards defined Africans, Native Americans, and their descendants as unrefined and close to nature. The idea that they were more in tune with the natural world may have led many to believe that non-Spanish curers had special abilities that were more effective than the scientific methods of Spanish physicians.9 Finally, curers handled a greater range of problems than trained physicians did, including helping with romantic troubles and finding lost things. Thus curers were necessary members of novohispano society, valued for their skills and frequently consulted for the most intimate problems. Given their importance, how did curers and clients, especially those of different castes, negotiate their relationships? What role did the social identities...

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