In the 1960s, ceremonies led by María Sabina Magdalena García, a Mazatec healer in Oaxaca who worked with psilocybin mushrooms, became so famous that they began to attract foreigners. Bob Dylan and Keith Richards were rumored to be her visitors. The arrival of so many interlopers to the healer’s village drew the attention of the Mexican police, who suspected her of dealing drugs. She was ostracized by her community, and her house was burned down.
Many North Americans learned of her from the ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson, who in 1957 published a first-person account of her ceremonies, titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in Life magazine. Wasson’s trip was funded by MK-Ultra, the C.I.A. program to research mind-altering drugs for potential use in interrogations. He gave the healer a pseudonym but printed her photograph without permission, and her real name appeared in a book he published that same year.
Brenda Lozano does not name Magdalena García in her novel “Witches,” but according to a translator’s note by Heather Cleary in the English-language edition, Lozano drew inspiration from the woman’s life. The note does not dwell on the issues of consent and ethical research brought up by the magazine story, nor does the novel. Cleary’s point is that Mexican readers would be likely to catch the reference. (A very different novel, “Carne de Dios,” by Homero Aridjis, takes a more biographical approach.)
The book is beautifully translated. Cleary advisedly leaves in Spanish terms like curandera, the female form of healer, and the less prestigious bruja, or witch. “A bruja might literally traffic in spells, but the term can also be used figuratively to dismiss a woman as a nag,” she writes. “On the other hand, a woman with a highly developed sense of intuition might admiringly be called a bruja.”
Lozano’s novel is full of brujas. A young journalist named Zoe, whose mother has a highly developed sense of intuition, travels from Mexico City to rural Oaxaca. Zoe has been assigned to write an article about the curandera Feliciana (a fictionalized Magdalena García), whose teacher has just been murdered. The teacher was a muxe, another untranslated word referring to a third gender recognized and even celebrated by some Indigenous communities in Oaxaca. But the murder was a hate crime committed by a man with whom the teacher had spent the night.
Feliciana has attracted wealthy and generous followers from all over the world. She is not particularly interested in fame — though fame does not present a threat to her way of being as it did for the real-life Magdalena García. Feliciana is interested only in healing people with the mushrooms she calls “children.” While telling her story, she draws Zoe’s out of her as well. Both have sisters who were violated — in Zoe’s case, their mother’s intuition protected her from even worse harm — and fathers who died with unfinished business.
This is Lozano’s third book; she has also published a story collection and the more experimental novel “Loop,” her first title to be translated into English. The biggest success of “Witches” is the way she weaves together two distinct voices — one Spanish-speaking, from the capital, righteously angry about gender violence, and the other leaving aside the “government’s tongue” in favor of her own, matter-of-factly explaining life in rural Mexico. “Children in our town do what they like until they can walk,” Feliciana says, “but as soon as they can stand on their own like little cows, it’s time for them to work.”
Though the book chronicles violence against women and those who present as women, it highlights, in both rural and urban communities, an atmosphere of freedom and mobility that is a pleasure to read about. Both of these very different women — the curandera and the journalist — have many people in their lives, especially sisters, who heal and support them even in a hostile world.
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