My companion asked if I would like to go with her to visit a witch. Of course I said ‘yes’.
There is a witch who lives in a little village some distance away who is very famous and rock stars and disgraced politicians and other great of the Earth come to seek her ministrations, and were my faith but stronger my companion would take me to see her, but given my unfortunate attitude she would take me instead to see Doña So-and-So who sold charms and powders at the market. It was my impression that if she took me to see the famous bruja that she would be, in effect, vouching for me and she did not think we were quite ready for that.
So we went instead to see Doña So-and-So who had a stall at the central market and appeared to me indistinguishable from any other older Indian woman at the market. While our Anglo-Saxon witches are partial to showmanship, Mexicans who traffic with the unseen powers seem to feel no need for theatrical enhancement. More professional, I suppose.
My companion had apparently come in response to some specific problem and quickly became involved in serious technical discussion with the bruja, so I occupied myself with examining her wares and I was immediately taken with small plastic pouches of whitish powder labeled “Polvo Legitimo”.
The small plastic envelopes were stapled inside a folded sheet paper about 4 inches square, printed on one side in what at first looks like the very old-fashioned, traditional label of a folk remedy. The hand-set type is beat-up and irregular. Letters are crooked and inked-in and colors are wildly misregistered. The illustrations appear to be from 19th-Century letterpress slugs for holy cards and religious tracts. Saints are popular, though I also found devils, skeletons and a rather handsome black cat.
Their texts are vague and expansive, as a Romance language can so easily be. Polvos Legitimos de San Cipriano was a Balm of Illness and Exterminator of Curses. Pulvo San Ramon would help you get rid of bad neighbors. Polvo Destierro was not, as I had initially misinterpreted its name, for the relief of the recently disinterred, but to exile someone. Gato Negro will keep a loved one from forgetting you. Another polvo, this one with a rather disconcerting illustration on its label, was a specific to discourage your husband from beating you.
Based solely on the style and presentation, I got the impression that all these came from the same shop, and probably not some wizened bruja out in the hills.
My interest in the polvos had nothing to do with their magic or therapeutic claims, but with their labels as traditional art. One of the things I look for when I travel is printed ephemera distinctive to a place and culture: labels, illustrations, tickets, advertising, old photographs and postcards and so forth, and with global markets it becomes increasingly hard to find these things. The label on a box of laundry detergent in Oaxaca looks pretty much like one does in Omaha. So when I found all these wonderfully labeled little potions I was delighted. I bought a dozen of the most outrageous.
As I was buying these an earnest young man approached and very seriously warned me not to traffic in such malign things. I assured him that I was not a believer, but was buying them only as art, an explanation which I suppose he found lamentably unserious.