By Heriberto Escamilla
In early November, I stood awestruck before the carefully crafted and ornate altars left behind by medieval Spaniards. Last night my face was aglow with the warmth of Tatewari, our Grandfather Fire. Don Marcelino was recounting how Tao, our Sun was born. Sitting to my immediate left in the circle, he turns frequently to address me. I feel uncomfortable taking so much of his attention. My face unconsciously looks away toward my companions around the circle, as if to direct his words out to them; “Don Marcelino, share your words and your attention with them as well.” But I listen carefully for meaning as he internally translates from his native Wirrarika into a labored Spanish. Half way through the story, it occurs to me that I am hearing words that have been passed down orally, from father to son, virtually unchanged for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. In the light of Grandfather Fire, we are hearing sacred words that have probably never been recorded, nor will they be by this humble servant. My friend Alejandro says that I am too superstitious, or maybe too catholic; that my resistance is based on an irrational fear of retribution. There is perhaps some truth to each of these observations, but I’d like to think that not repeating the story is more out of respect and a desire to conserve. I know in my heart that I can not faithfully recount the story.
To the people of Mexico, Don Marcelino and his nephew Luciano are Huich-oles members of an indigenous group of people that lives in the Sierra Madre Occidental. They are mostly concentrated in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit. The people call themselves Wirrarika, which according to those that study these matters means something like “prophets” or “healers.” In his book Toltecs of the New Millennium, Victor Sanchez tells us that the Wirrarika have more than any other indigenous group, preserved the lifestyle and practices of the ancient Toltecs that inhabited Mexico between 300 B.C. and 700 A.D. He, as well as other researchers note that in Nahuatl, Tolteca also means “man of knowledge,” or “healer.” I trust Victor and had pretty much accepted this notion as fact, but spending time with Don Marcelino and talking to others, has added more weight to that theory.
When I asked directly, Don Marcelino tells us he has never heard of or talked to the Toltecas, and that he does not understand Nahuatl, but adds that his people are probably related to the Mejica. Sometimes we lose ourselves in detail and debate, missing the obvious. No matter what he calls himself today, or what people in the past may have called themselves, Don Marcelino’s is intimately connected to the forces that sustain him, in much the same way our ancestors were ages ago.
Thursday morning after the circle and as the roosters in my back yard began their daily and annoying ritual, we prepared ourselves for a walk up Cowles Mountain. It’s not much I tell them, a little embarrassed as I remember that these guys live around 9,000 feet above sea level, but it is the highest point in San Diego County, a good place to greet the Sun.
As we reached the top, Don Marcelino was already talking to the four directions. He welcomes us into the fold, brushing us with his eagle feather and sprinkling us with water he has brought with him from a spring near his home. It’s sacred water, he tells me and I wonder what makes it sacred. I have a lot to learn. After the blessing, we silently bear witness as the Sun emerges through a sheet of wispy red and orange-yellow clouds. We stay for a while, gathered around the monument that marks the peak’s apex. People, mainly older men excuse themselves as they walk by us to touch the monument that Marcelino has just blessed. I wonder what they are thinking, but no one speaks to us. It’s just a ritual, I think to myself. Touching the stone reassures them they have completed a task.
On the way down, Don Marcelino tells us that Cowles Mountain is sacred. When the Sun was born, and before reaching the ocean, he stopped to rest. I wonder how many people know this little mountain on the edge of the great ocean, is sacred? I doubt his words were meant to console me, but I accept them and feel a little better about having to stop on the way up. If the Sun has to rest once in a while, then who am I to feel a shame or guilt?
To most Mexicans, Don Marcelino is a curandero, a man with supernatural powers that can heal diseases. His calling is shrouded in mystery, respect and sometimes fear. To others, he is a brujo, a sorcerer that can cast spells. When I ask him directly, Don Marcelino reluctantly refers to himself as a Mara’akame, “well, some people say I am a Mara’akame, a singer, someone that speaks with Grandfather Fire, with Tatewari.”
On Thursday afternoon, I slid one of my lawn chairs next to his as he was resting under the sprawling avocado tree in my backyard. I approach him with mixed feelings. I would like to feel that we share a common background, at some point at least. After all, he reminds me of my father and he “feels’ familiar. But, I don’t want to come across as a disrespectful tourist. But the truth is that I do not have a Mara’akame in my backyard everyday. And since beginning this “quest” for solid ground, I’ve reached out a little more than has been my habit. Foregoing respect, or as Alejandro would say superstition, I allowed myself, at least for a moment to sit next to him and ask a question.
Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984.