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The Curandero

by Adriana Teitelbaum

An essay from the Spring 2019 issue.

By Adriana Teitelbaum | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Mikaela Fishman

The story always starts the same way, with the curandero—our nameless, mythical, ancestral patriarch. We wouldn’t have a story at all without him. Since his time we have forgotten his name and precisely where he came from, but we haven’t forgotten him. Our nameless, mythical, ancestral patriarch. Our curandero was a slave. We don’t know exactly where, some unspecied francophone Caribbean island. Legend has it that during a particularly brutal hurricane season, the mistress of the plantation went to visit the slave quarters in the middle of the night, seeking his help. See, her son had gotten sick, and the European doctors and the medicines they brought with them to this nameless island had done nothing to heal him. The mistress had heard tales of our curandero, how he used herbs and natural remedies to cure those on the brink of death. And so she came to him with an ultimatum: Heal my son, and I will make my husband give you your freedom. And so our curandero complied, assuring the mistress that he could indeed heal her son. He warned her, however, that before her son got better, he would get much, much worse. She was skeptical, but desperate, and so our curandero began the healing process. And just as predicted, the master’s son got much, much worse. Until he got better. Our curandero fulfilled his half of the deal, and so the mistress fulfilled hers. He was given his freedom papers and soon after boarded a ship to a little neighboring island. But, like all stories of legacy and magic, ours does not have such a happy ending. Freedom does not come that easily. Our story includes another slave, a brujo, who sought vengeance against our curandero. He was jealous that this opportunity for freedom had passed him by, and so he cursed our curandero so that no matter how far he moved or how long he lived, he and all of his descendants would not and could not ever be truly free.

I can’t remember the first time I heard this story. I have different floating memories of it being told by my mother and my abuelo as a little kid and as a teenager. Arguing over the details with my siblings and cousins. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot find the moment in which I first heard it. But it has. always been around. Lingering in the shadows with its vague setting and nameless characters. The longer I exist with it, the more desperate I am to know every detail—any detail—that could give me a better chance of understanding myself, my family, and our past. My mother tells me that the majority of the story was lost with the passing of her grandmother’s generation. My bisabuela is often thought of as the last in that line of magic. I never met her. We like to say her ghost still remains at my abuelo’s house in Puerto Rico, playing pranks on her visiting great grandchildren whenever we’re around. But I don’t know if I believe she’s really there. Like most things about our past and our history, I don’t really know what happened. No one does.

The supposed manifestation of our curse is said to happen as we start to age, with the slow losing of the mind. And while we can point to certain elderly relatives whose minds and memories faded with old age, that seems to be more a fact of nature than of magic. So I’ve found myself wondering if maybe the curse looks like something else. I think my abuelo must have felt cursed the day he broke his back in a factory accident, leaving him out of work for months. My mother must have felt cursed that same day when her father was brought home in the back of a pickup truck, unable to move. And there are other things, terrible things, private things that are not mine to write down that have happened to descendants of our curandero, that could theoretically be explained by an almost ancient, freedom-depriving curse.

But none of this is anything out of the ordinary. This is not to say the story isn’t extraordinary. It’s to say that we are not the only family with a curse. One that is missing a few details; something special and old that’s fraying at the edges. If you look broadly at Latinx and Caribbean oral histories, you’ll find a lot of magic. Brujería, Obeah, Santería, Quimbanda. And within that magic, you’ll also find a lot of curses. It’s no wonder that a peoples who have been so brutally conquered and colonized would find themselves feeling powerless to circumstance. If you peel back the layers of who has been cursed and how, the pieces will fall together to reveal what looks a lot like colonialism. That root of all evil. El mal de ojo verdadero. Poverty, violence, intergenerational trauma. In our elite circles of scholarship and academia, these phenomena are pointed to as the consequences faced by the colonized subject. Sometimes I find myself thinking that our curse is a just story someone made up to explain why all this shitty stuff keeps happening. But I don’t like thinking that. It feels too simple. The curandero has always been nameless, and faceless, ambiguously floating in time and space. But I’ve always known him, and always felt so grateful to know that a part of me comes from him. I don’t want to let go of him, or that history, just for an answer I can easily wrap my head around.

So where does that leave me? Some unknown number of generations later, a privileged girl at a prestigious American college, who probably smokes too much weed and whose biggest daily concern is her hair. Am I cursed? Am I doomed to go crazy with old age, to be kept from freedom by a curse put on some ancestor whom I can’t even name? Or am I so far removed, such a watered-down norteamericana gringa, that I have escaped it’s elusive, mythical clutches? Is that freedom? Is it my generation that is truly, finally free? When I ask myself these questions I can’t help but notice that I start to sound like I want to be cursed. As if telling myself that I really am damned by maldicíon will reaffirm an identity that so frequently slips away from me. That feels selfish.

But I’m trying not to be so hard on myself anymore. To not blame myself for where I exist. To be grateful for the sacrifices others have made to get me where I am. I know I cannot be the only one trapped by this long, mysterious history. And if there is one truth to our cursed story, it’s that our. lineage did not stay in one location for long. We weren’t allowed to. All that movement must have at some point felt like being lost. So maybe it makes sense that in all that time, across islands and oceans and continents, there really was a curse and it really did just disappear into the chaos. That doesn’t have to mean that I can’t look at this story as a history. A placeless, nameless, faceless ancestry I can locate myself within. Or at least a part of myself. Amongst countless moving pieces, some of which I have no knowledge, it is reassuring to have this story be a constant. An old world. A beginning.

Image by Amanda Poorvu

The idea of an ancestral homeland, a connection to a land that is older than time, is something those lost in diasporas tend to yearn for. It may be fair to say we even romanticize the concept. Junot Díaz once called it a “longing for elsewheres.” Looking at my family’s history, it makes sense why homeland for us is not so easy to identify. What is Puerto Rico to me, a broken tongued girl who was raised in North Jersey. What was some other nameless Caribbean island to my mother and her siblings, when their own Puerto Rico was an ambiguous mix of white and black, of Estados Unidos and the Caribbean? When their home so frequently moved from island to mainland and back again. At that point, it must become difficult to recognize what is temporary and what is permanent. And what came before that? Official history tells me it must have been the colonizers land mixed with somewhere in Africa. But these nameless places have little meaning to me. So whether or not the story is fact or fiction, magic or nature, a blend of all or none, it is a graspable homeland, one that cannot be taken away by anyone else.

And of course, it has always been an oral history. Passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Over dinners and at parties, late at night and into the early morning. This way it is owned by all and by none. This is exactly why I wanted to write this piece. It is also exactly why I did not want to write this piece. It is the reason I write it warily now, carving this legacy into a physicality, unsure of whether or not it is mine to put onto paper at all. What does it mean for me to be writing about it? Who am I writing it for anyways? I’d like to say it’s just for myself. Or for my
forgotten ancestors, the ones who did not have access to these privileges that rest at my fingertips. Maybe I am writing this for my mother, but I know she has strength enough beyond my words. Part of me fears that I am writing for my peers. As if I have something to prove to the white, wealthy elite that surrounds me. As if my worth lies in my ability to come from as much pain and loss as possible, and as if this story proves it to them. Maybe, in the midst of my desperation to find stability, I have tokenized myself as an emblem of diversity to ease someone else’s guilt.

The closer I think I get to an answer, the more questions I find hiding along this self-reflective path. It is hard to keep track of so much namelessness. It’s even harder to say if I can call it mine. I know I am not done trying to figure out my place amongst this mess of magic and diaspora. I probably never will be. Maybe thinking of it in terms of ownership is too black and white– too stuck in a binary to be true one way or the other. I know that to say the story is not mine, to ignore that part of my biological ancestry is a lie. And to say that it is all I am would also be a lie.

In the very unique, very specific trajectory of my life thus far, our curandero and his story have served a special purpose. And I’m sure that for others—family members I know along with the ones who have been estranged by time and circumstance—this precious story, this terrible curse, has had a different role in their lives. So maybe that’s why we have it. Why it has become a sort of non-material, moveable homeland. It allows us, who feel like we belong to nothing, to feel as if webelong to something. It allows our home to mean more than place. I wish I could end with more concrete answers to all my questions, or with something beautiful about legacy and family and meaning. But answers are not always so static. Sometimes they ebb and flow, migrating across land and water like people.