Last updateFri, 02 Oct 2015 1pm

The zigzagging making of a Huichol shaman and the equally perplexing preparation for a religious ceremony

Something pushed against my pillow of denim jacket and pants rolled around my boots.  I slept near Lea Rosser’s VW station-wagon.  It was parked beside a drying river bed.  Stealthily, I reached for the intruding hand just as it clasped a near-empty tequila bottle rolled in my pillow. 

Chinga!” Rafael Solano, a Huichol shaman-in training, tried to pull away.  

Qué haces?”  I twisted harder, then let go.  “You want more tequila, ask, don’t steal.”  He was swearing in Huichol and Spanish.  I handed him the bottle.  

He was our guide into then remote Huichol country for a ceremonial fiesta.  Lea’s husband, a scholastic Iowa anthropologist, who was financing this event, wasn’t with us.  He had a bad leg.  He recruited my wife and me as Lea’s escorts.  In the 1960s, neither the Rossers nor the two of us had been very far into Huichol land.   Certainly, Rafael said, no gringos had been to the rancho where his family, relatives and associates lived.  

He drank most of the home-made tequila, and handed the near-empty bottle to me.  “Finish it,” I said.  “We can get more tomorrow.”

He emptied the bottle and threw it toward the river.  “We need tequila,” he said.  “Marcelino, his remuda of horses and mules!”  Marcelino, his cuñado (brother-in-law) was supposed to meet us here with four saddled riding mounts, plus pack animals to carry supplies we’d gathered for the fiesta.  

Lea would oversee the Rossers’ interests in this event.  My wife and I were Lea’s horse people.  We admired Marcelino, a savvy horseman.  He brought a sense of care to our party, which would travel to its destination on horseback.  There were no roads where we going.  No foreigners were much welcomed, we were told. It was an “honor” for a gringo to be invited to such a ceremony, Rafael repeatedly said. 

He and I set out on foot to a rancheria called Cofradia to see if anyone had seen a remuda.  At a wattle-sided hovel displaying four bottles of warm Coca Cola, Rafael said, “We’re thirsty.”  I said nothing.  “You have money?” he asked.

“Use the pesos Lea gave you last night.”  He looked insulted.  He had slipped her change into his pocket.  “You were too drunk to be sly, hombre,” I said.  

Just as he bought the Cokes, the remuda – four mules, three horses – whipped past, Marcelino whooping.   I grabbed two of the bottles.  Rafael scowled.  I smiled. “One to make sure Marcelino gets it – and one for me.”  Rafael seemed aggrieved. 

Ignacio Lopez – whom Marcelino hired yesterday – closed the open side of a rope corral he’d made last night.  I stepped into the corral to claim a well-formed dark mule for my wife, and took a tall, buckskin horse for myself.  Rafael chose a long-legged mule.  He and I picked a well-behaved gray mule for Lea.  “A mule?” she said.  Rafael and I spoke in unison.  Words like: “Durable, well-behaved.  It’ll do what you want. It can last in mountains forever.”

Marcelino, Ignacio and I began loading the stock.  Rafael didn’t help or load much on his mount.  Marcelino heavily loaded his mule.  He and Ignacio would be walking.  I took a load the buckskin could carry – along with me – without getting tired fast. 

When we were ready, Rafael changed the trail he and I would take.  “This path will be easier.”  He soon swore that rains had made it worse.   But eventually, whooping, he rode to the edge of a vast, dropping cliff.  It overlooked miles of rock, undergrowth, great splayed patches of forest far below.

“See why the Wixåritari love this land?” (Wixåritari is what Huicholes call themselves.)  The view made you blink, astonished.  It also tempted you to move recklessly closer.

“Careful. Your mujer will blame me forever if you fall.”

“Why is she and Lea on another trail?” 

“It has many trees, more shade.  Ignacio follows them with the remuda.” Startlingly, Marcelino’s’ voice abruptly shouted: “I knew he would bring you here.” “Don’t startle people at the edge of cliffs,” Rafael scolded, sipping his third bottle.

I got out a sack of tortillas and frijoles my wife had prepared for comida.  We shared our food and cigarettes and asked reluctant Rafael for tequila.  Because he had been drinking steadily, his face was bright with perspiration.  

I gave Marcelino food for Ignacio, and asked what trail we’d take now.  Rafael pointed and said he, our guide, will be along shortly.

Marcelino said something sharply in Huichol.  He turned to me, “Ven. I’ll get you started.  Leave him to suck on his maguey.”

The rest of the trip was more of that.  Rafael would show up, give orders about which trail to take, then leave and appear later, becoming increasingly drunk.  In between, I would follow directions, hoping he was right despite the booze.  

We ran into Marcelino again.  Now he had Lea, my wife and Ignacio with him.  None of us knew where Rafael was.  I spoke to Lea about this.  Her response: To look happily at Marcelino and Ignacio.  I gave her a brief critique about what’s happening.  She merely shrugged.  

Several hours later, we arrived at Rafael’s rancho.  Several wooden structures were enclosed by a low stone wall.  A large agile woman, identified as Lupe, Rafael’s wife, came running to open the gate.  Lupe threw the long poles of the gate, two at a time, out of the way, and we rode in.  Rafael whooped loudly, slid to the ground to kiss Lupe who pushed past him to greet her visitors.  She was large for an Indian – for any Mexican, in fact – in those days.  

We unloaded the supplies we’d brought.  Rafael did not offer Lupe any tequila.  He kept the bottles out of sight.  He headed for a well-constructed building that served as the rancho’s tuki (chapel) and as Lupe’s and Rafael’s home when they were in the Sierra.

Lea’s husband took part in Rafael’s advancement as a mara’akame.  In the early 1970s in a “shoot-out” during a fiesta at his Sierra rancho Rafael was killed.

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