Films from the Heartlands of México by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 9 Spring 1984
009 Spring Summer 1984
Echevarria 01 Body

María Sabina. 

I am the woman who was born alone/I am the woman who fell alone/I am the woman who waits/I am the woman who seeks/I am the woman who looks inward/I am the woman who looks under the water/I am the sacred swimmer/Because I can swim in greatness.

I am the moon woman/I am the woman who flies/I am the meteor woman/I am the woman of the sandal constellation/I am the woman of the cane constellation/I am the star woman/God/Because I’ve gone to these places since the beginning.

I am the woman of breeze/I am the woman of fresh dew/I am the woman of dawn/I am the woman of twilight.

I am the woman who blossoms/I am the woman who was uprooted/I am the woman who cries/I am the woman who whistles/I am the woman who makes noise/I am the woman who plays the drum/I am the woman who plays the trumpet/I am the woman who plays the violin/I am the woman who cheers/Because I am the holy clown.

I am the sunstone woman/I am the daylight woman/I am the woman who makes things revolve/I am the woman of heaven/I am the woman of good/I am the pure woman/I am the woman of spirit/Because I can enter and I can leave the kingdom of death.

I am the woman who draws out/I am the woman who cleanses/I am the woman who cures/I am the woman who sets right/I am the woman of herbs/I am the woman wise in language/Because I am the woman wise in medicine.

Betsy Sussler Do you remember her song—the poem she chanted in the beginning, over the mountain tops?

Nicolas Echevarria

I am the woman who was borne alone.
I am the woman who fell, alone.
I am the woman who was uprooted.
I am the woman … umm.


BS We can always transcribe it. María Sabina told you many stories, for instance her discovery of the psilocybin mushrooms.

NE Every Shaman, or every wise man in Mexico has some way of knowing if he is a Shaman. There are no set rules of knowing if one is a Shaman, Healer, or Sorcerer. All find it in different ways. However, in my experiences of talking to these people, they have related a similar experience. María Sabina, at one time after eating mushrooms had this vision that she was at a table sitting with six men and she tells it this way: they all looked very important and she felt she was chosen for something. Now, one of these men handed her a book, and he said this is the book of wisdom and any time she wanted to know anything about anything she could consult the book. When she took the book it started to grow until it was almost as big as she was. And then they were drinking and smoking—tobacco has very special connotations to the Indians, it is called the Heart of God, and she opened the book, but there was nothing inside of it. The pages were white but although the pages were white, she could read the book and she said that it was then she started to sing. Now her singing is very beautiful—every time she speaks she does it so fast that its hard to imagine how she can say all these beautiful things without really stopping to think … it comes out like diarrhea.

BS Doesn’t she say that she is visited by a spirit and she becomes the medium through which it speaks?

NE Yes, well when she was reading this book, the white book, she calls it the book of truth, El Libre de Verdad, everyone said she was in a state of trance—a very high state of … (being). Yes, and people would ask her “Where did you get all those words where did you learn all those things?” And she would say I didn’t say those things, somebody was speaking through me—I’m a vapor of some kind and someone is speaking through me.

BS Has she seen an image of whoever’s speaking?

NE Yes, the white light. She says of him that he is a man who shines so much, you cannot see density, only white light, a man of light and he has a horse that is white with a very long tail and every time she in a trance, or under the effects of the mushrooms she gets to speak to him. I had another experience with a Huichol Shaman who also described to me the time he realized he was a Shaman.

BS Huichol Indians?

NE Live in Northern Mexico, María Sabina is a Mazatec from Huautla, Oaxaca. This man had taken about 25 caps of peyote, he was in front of the fire and he hallucinated a typewriter in the fire and all the white paper was coming out of the typewriter and so he put his hand into the fire and pulled out the white pages and started reading from them—and everyone around him was also very surprised because he never showed any signs of being a Shaman and he was singing, beautiful things. The Huichol’s sing through the whole night. They eat the peyote and sing and that’s the way the wise men communicate to the ordinary people their history and legends.

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BS You’re an urbanized Spanish-Mexican—is this common cultural heritage for you or did you have to search this knowledge out?

NE I lived with the Huichol for two years and made three films with them.

BS Do they do the deer dance?

NE The Yaqui’s do, well the Huichol too but they are very different dances.

BS You were talking about this notion of sacrifice—which originally came from the Aztecs, a union between the hunter and the victim which is re-enacted in the deer dance …

NE I have worked with about ten groups of Indians in Mexico, and the things that I have come across most often—related to all of them is this: there are two worlds, one belongs to every day life—to man, we get up, we take a shower, we think about what we eat for breakfast, what we’ll do for the day … Now there is another world, it could be called the Sacred Space. The sacred world that has its own time, and its own laws and to be able to touch or grasp that world we have to go through very difficult disciplines. We don’t really know what that other world is but we know how to get near it and the way to get near the sacred world is to leave behind everyday life. So what Indians do is they stop eating, they have very strong diets, they avoid habits of everyday life, they go on very arduous exercises, journeys that will lead them to listen to this sacred world. The Shamans have contact with this world and everyday man gets near them and follows their directions in order to grasp it. The Huichol Indians, when they take the peyote journey cross a physical boundary into that other world. They open an imaginary door in space with a key that is a magical instrument, they go to the middle of nowhere in the desert where they enter God’s space. And they all go through the imaginary door. Now, the guys that go for the first time cannot go with their eyes open. They have to be blindfolded. And this moment of crossing for the first time is so important for them, that they are obliged to do something out of this world, utterly ridiculous. Like the Shaman will say to someone who is blindfolded, “Pee right now!” so he has to pull down his pants and make an effort to pee even if he doesn’t want to and everybody laughs and makes some kind of a big joke out of it but what they are really trying to do is make that moment so important that he will never in his life forget it. They also change the name of things. When you are on the other side you do not have the same name. Every thing changes because they are convinced that rationality does not belong to God’s world. So they act crazy because they know to go deeply into God’s world you have to leave your head, your …

BS Logic.

NE Yes. Now, the other way that you can make the contact between the sacred space and foreground space is through the sacrifice. You see the hunter belongs to the everyday world and the deer is a God.

BS They kill and eat their God?

NE Yes, with the Huichol, there is a trinity between the peyote, the corn and the deer. They have minds that involve deer hunting, that are very much related to the farming of the corn and the collecting of the peyote. So they talk about hunting the peyote. They take bows and arrows and pretend they are hunting the buttons as if they were an animal. A deer is the cultural god of the Huichol, he is the one that taught them everything from making baskets to hunting, so when the hunter meets the deer, the deer gives himself in sacrifice. The hunter doesn’t hunt the deer, the deer gives himself to the hunter who is pure—whose soul is absolutely pure and clear. When the sacrifice takes place, it takes place as the union between these two worlds, the sacred world and the profane world.

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Storyboard for Mayan film. Drawing by Nicolas Echevarria.

BS Before the Spanish settled in the New World and stopped it, there was human sacrifice. In all of your films the Indian shaman’s rituals use Christianity in such a way that it becomes Pagan again.

NE Yes, imagine what the Indians thought when they saw the crucifix and this man suffering, it was just a continuation of the sacrifice. What Christianity says is that God came down to earth and sacrificed himself and this sacrifice would help all mankind. And everything from the Mayan culture to the other Indian cultures were so impressed by this sacrifice that instead of continuing with their human sacrifice, which consisted of cutting the hearts out, of people, they started to crucify them.

BS On the one hand is the sacrifice, the necessity of sacrifice, and on the other is the healing, the Shaman, which also parallels Christianity. María Sabina is a Healer.

NE It is important to talk about her. She says every sickness starts in the mind. When you have a physical disease, it means that this mental thing has developed into a physical manifestation that started long ago. What María Sabina does is go very deeply into the soul and do what she calls surgery on the soul. When she does this operation in the mind, the sickness starts to reverse, in the same way you can start a sickness in the mind you can stop it. She’s a combination of a doctor, psychiatrist, many things. She gives massages, she talks to the people a lot—they talk about dreams, they spend the whole night just talking. They take the mushrooms together, sometimes other people who are present take the mushrooms. Their souls kind of melt.

BS She enters their bodies?

NE She calls it to swim inside people’s souls, going deep, like a submarine, very deep to the very cure of the being. In most of the cases it works, especially when she works with her own people, the Indians. Many many people visited her and wanted to try the mushrooms, wanted to feel the effects, this was in the ‘60s. There were all those cults. Then she was more popular and had visitors from all over the world. Now she’s much older—in her nineties.

BS She talked of her poverty, do they consider it necessary to be poor to be a Shaman?

NE Most of the Healers that I have known, they don’t deal very much with things like getting rich. I guess there is some kind of taboo on making money from healing—they feel it’s a gift from God and they shouldn’t take profit from it, for if they abuse it, it will be taken from them.

BS It wasn’t until she had had her children and was through with her two marriages that she could bring herself to accept the fact that she was a holy woman.

NE When she was alone, when she was a widow, she knew she could heal. She says that whenever you are confronted with your destiny you are afraid. It is also a sign that you are on the right track, to be afraid … So every time she has been a healer, she doesn’t have a man because she believes that sex and healing don’t go together. (tape runs out)

Echevarria 04 Body

Storyboard for Mayan film. Drawing by Nicolas Echevarria.

BS You made another film about a Healer—Niño Fidencio, who is now dead.

NE He died in 1938.

BS All of your information came from the rituals going on now that they do to honor him on his birthday, and the stories people tell about him, as well as news footage you found …

NE Niño Fidencio was taken to a Hacienda in Nuevo León in Northern Mexico, he was hired as a servant for this family of Don Henrique Lopez de la Puente. It was not even a town just a Hacienda and a train that would go by. It still goes by. There are two versions of how he started to heal. Some say he started when he was very little and the first healing he did was his mother when he was about eight years old. Other people say that he was illuminated. A lightning bolt hit him once in his life. It is a beautiful story, he was walking near the tree that you see in the film, where everyone gathers and he was struck with something like a lightning bolt and he fell to the ground, fainted and everyone gathered around him and he asked the people not to touch him and to keep away from him, so they left him there and he was in a trance just lying on the ground and people brought flowers to him. This they say happened on the 17th of March and that day, this other version says was the day he got the power to heal. Now Niño Fidencio was not an Indian. He was a Mestizo, tall and he looked mentally retarded.

BS He was beautiful.

NE Many people who knew him say that he looked as if he were a little stupid, his jaw bone was always hanging down and he had a strange look, like his eyes were looking at galaxies. People say that he had very great qualities—that he was a visionary, clairvoyant and that he himself had a power that made people happy when he was near them, like if someone was in great pain, just the proximity of Niño’s body would make the person stop suffering completely. He would never think twice about operating or doing surgery.

BS He would use anything at hand …

NE Yes, he was famous for doing surgery with a piece of glass, he would crush a bottle right there on the spot and choose two or three pieces of glass, no anesthetic, no nothing. And he would just take that piece of glass and cut tumors out of people, operate with street knives on cataracts. And people felt no pain. There are no more than three hundred people living in that Hacienda right now but while he was there there was a floating population of forty to fifty thousand people and most of them were sick. And he organized these people as in a hospital. The insane he had in the corral with the cows and the chickens and sometimes he had to tie them—these were very mad people.

BS He used hydrotherapy didn’t he?

NE Yes, he had a pool where there were very strong minerals and he would heal in the pool in the very early morning—four, five o’clock in the morning, he never slept but worked 16, 20 hours a day. There was no time to do anything but take care of these people—he was attending them personally. Now he had an asylum for people who were crazy, in another place people who were sick from tuberculosis, in another people who were sick with cancer. What was incredible about him was that he was some kind of follower of the example of Christ and at the end of his life he used to wear these robes …

BS Those beautiful red and pink ones that his healers wear now?

NE Yes, he liked to wear them. He liked to be near the sick. People usually reject the sick, the sicker a person is the more rejected by the people—even by doctors, they wear gloves and masks. But he would give them all the comfort, embrace them and cry with them and touch them and wash them and many people followed his example. Now still, with the gatherings of the Fidencistos, that’s what his followers are called, they wash, feed and comfort the sick, they are very physical with them even though they have leprosy.

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Storyboard for Mayan film. Drawing by Nicolas Echevarria.

BS Does this festival occur once a year?

NE Twice a year, in the month of March, the 17th, the day he had the revelation—he also speaks of a book that was given to him. This book was given to him by Christ.

BS In all of these stories about the book, the pages are blank and information is received through an oral tradition—The only person who “sees” the writing is the one with the voice that speaks it, all information is passed through the mouth.

NE Yes, and the 19th of March is his Saints’ Day, that’s St. Joseph’s day, his name is Jose Fidencio.

BS When did he die?

NE When he was 40, I think he died of cirrhosis.

BS Did he drink?

NE Maybe a little bit. He wasn’t an alcoholic. Most of what we know about him is legend. The facts are few but his life is full of beautiful legends.

BS But you did talk to people who had known him and worked with him.

NE Yes, they told me these things.

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Storyboard for Mayan film. Drawing by Nicolas Echevarria.

BS Tell me about the deer dance.

NE The deer dance is divided into two sections of performers, the hunters and the deer, now the hunters, Los Pasquales, represent animals like the wolf, dog, rabbit, iguana and these Pasquali dancers imitate these animals. The other side of the story is the deer. In the dance, they alternate, first the hunters dance with a very small orchestra, two or three fiddles, harp, a guitar, drums … but I have the feeling that in the beginning of the dance, they dance separately without being conscious of one another.

BS Are they becoming the animals?

NE They are not becoming, they are the animals. They are in the desert and they haven’t seen the deer, even though the deer is right in front of them. They pretend they don’t see that. And the hunters, when they are not seeing the deer, they are doing all these things, playing around, making jokes with the people, with themselves. And then the deer dances, but the characters … it’s very difficult in the beginning because there is no notion that one is near the other even though they are sharing the same space …

BS They are in different spaces simultaneously in story time, but in the same theatrical space.

NE When they become conscious of one another they start to react very differently. The hunters begin to get aggressive, they feel the deer is near, is under reach, and they start to get hungry, and the deer starts to get frightened, he starts to get very nervous. And this is a very important part of the dance—the deer dancer spends a lot of time in the desert observing the deer, how he breathes, moves his head, his legs. And he tries to imitate him perfectly. The better he imitates him, the better the dancer he is. When he gets nervous, his respiration changes, and he starts shaking, so the people can really see the deer, and he has a kind of rattle in the sand. The dance goes on for hours, 8 hours, one day, two days. Those kinds of songs, or dances in the Indian world, the time is very different, the understanding of the dance. It is something that doesn’t begin and end but is always there—the music that is always surrounding you.

BS And they are just cutting into a piece of it.

NE Right, you listen to it—pull into and pull out of it but the music is always there—from the beginning of time that music has been there and hasn’t changed.

When they make the contact they both start to act in a very different way. Then the persecution of the deer starts and then the very important part of the deer dance—the dying. He does all this movement, his breathing stops and his little head is … it communicates all that tenderness and all that dramatic feeling of death and of course all the hunters are very happy and they take his head and they want to eat the deer. But this contact with the hunter and the deer, is a gift. Through the sacrifice, the Gods are in contact with man. You know the Michelangelo Mural on the Sistine Chapel—that point where God is touching man, the fingertips. That little point, is reached through the sacrifice.

BS Does it have to be done through death or can it be done through the imitation of death? Do they also think they touch God when they heal?

NE The actual human sacrifices were to feed the blood and the heart to the Gods. The sun, once it went down and it was dark … we weren’t sure it was going to come back again. So there was this paranoia of the sun won’t come back, will he come back? Maybe he’s not strong enough, maybe he needs things so we have to sacrifice blood.

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Storyboard for Mayan film. Drawing by Nicolas Echevarria.

BS How were the victims chosen?

NE Are we talking about the Pre-Hispanic world now?

BS Yeah.

NE There were wars to take prisoners for sacrifices so they would probably, in one day sacrifice one hundred people. There were other people who were chosen and these people were not necessarily prisoners or slaves, they could be part of the nobility and they were given a great life, one year before the sacrifice, sometimes they were volunteers, sometimes the religious elite would choose a girl, a virgin or a little boy. It all depended upon the reason for the sacrifice, to end a drought, a sign in the sky like an eclipse which could signify the end of the world or the renewing of the two year cycle so there were many reasons.

BS What’s the next film you’ll be working on?

NE It’s about one of the Spaniards who was lost in the Mexican jungle and got left behind, and he became a Mayan, married a Mayan woman, fought beside them … (tape ends)


Nicolas Echevarria makes films through the Centro de Produccion de Cortometrajo in Mexico City.

Originally published in

BOMB 9, Spring 1984

Nicolas Echevarria, Pam Yates, art by James Nares and Tom Otterness, writing by Daisy Zamora, Kathy Acker, Glenn O’Brien, and more.

Read the issue
009 Spring Summer 1984