Greetings and welcome to Mercado de Sonora, Mexico City’s one-stop shop for enchantment supplies, serving practitioners of any and all religious and spiritual traditions that don’t fit neatly into the country’s dominant Catholic paradigm. If you’re into Santa Muerte, Mexico City’s locally grown cult of Lady Sebastienne (aka Our Lady of Holy Death), this is the place to find your Grim Reaper–like statuette, in dimensions ranging from sit-on-your-dashboard mini to life size. If you practice the African Yorùbá faith, or its offshoot, Santería, you can pick up shrine-making supplies. Hindus can stock up on incense, Buddhists can pick up a baby-Buddha statue, and New Age seekers can find the perfect crystal for what ails them. Witches, shamans, and healers (along with no small number of charlatans) share space here.
I’m not a religious person. But here in Mexico City, where I live, believers and nonbelievers live comfortably shoulder to shoulder, and I was in the middle of a personal disaster that seemed impervious to any logic-based solutions. El Mercado de Sonora is a well-known destination for lost souls. I decided to pay it a visit.
Maybe disaster is too strong a word. But I’d been feeling blocked, mired down, lost in one of those fits of self-doubt in which you convince yourself that not just your professional career, but your love life and your general existence have gone profoundly off track. I’d heard from friends here that the brujas (witches) of Sonora specialized in limpias—cleanses meant to rid the soul of negative energy. So one morning I woke up, boarded the Mexico City subway, and headed out to see the witches.
When I emerged from the subway station, the first thing I saw was shoes. Vast racks of bootleg Nike Frees and sparkly little-girl sneakers hung from hooks in the stalls closest to the subway exit. Sonora is just one corner of Mercado de Merced, one of Mexico City’s largest markets. Without asking for directions here, you will get lost in Merced’s maze of buying and selling. But you don’t get impatient with the grandma pausing in front of you to check out a pile of dried pepper husks. If you’re going to see the witches, you need to save all your strength.
The Mercado de Merced takes up an entire neighborhood that has been known for millennia for its urban commerce, though the city government first erected municipal buildings to house and regulate it in the 1860s.
One of these warehouse-like structures houses Sonora, in whose walls an entire community spends its working life. Children have grown up in the market’s aisles, watching their parents sell supplies for offerings to the gods and providing Mexicans and tourists alike with cures for broken hearts and money problems. People keep their pets here, who sleep and hunt among the saints.
Some vendors’ stock comprises big heaps of fresh flowers, greens, and herbs, used by healers in leafy bunches to help people going through spiritual crises. Other stalls are packed with potato sacks full of fragrant, dried plants like the thorns of a vine called uña de gato, or cat’s claw. “Que busca?” (“What are you looking for?”) murmur the vendors when a customer walks past their shop.
These candles may look like they’re for use in a Catholic church, but if that were their only purpose, they wouldn’t be for sale at Sonora. They’ve been co-opted for use in Santería and Santa Muerte shrines and rituals.
Everyone I asked said this stall had the most experienced witches. Beads hung from it everywhere, plus a sign advertising cleanses and card readings.
I explained how I’d been feeling to the womenbehind the counter, and asked for a limpia. We agreed on a price (about $11.50) and she took me behind a shiny green and gold curtain to a tiny back room.
Like I’m going to tell you what happened in there! Sorry, I need this magic to work! I can tell you that the cleanse involved positive visualization, deep breathing, fragrant herbs, and a touch of scolding from the healer about not living in the past.
It was just what I needed to shake my sense of doom. Afterwards, I was aglow.
But my treatment wasn’t done yet. My healer sent me off with more of the herbs she had used, with strict instructions on when and how to dispose of them. Those green specks on my back in this photo are remnants of the greens she used to smack the bad vibes out of me.
María Fernanda and I left the market from a different direction this time, past stores that sold white caps like the one my healer had worn and brooms with colorful beaded handles. The bag sat on my desk for two days. I felt like I could sense the herbs’ eagerness to get going, to seal the deal on my cleansed state. Two days later I disposed of them in the manner the healer had described: carefully, while breathing deeply and visualizing a change.
Belief, it works wonders. Just having a wise woman speak with you about your problems and then lay her hands on you with potent good intentions can help alleviate a sense of self-doubt.
So, did the cleanse solve my life? I’m still waiting on the answers to my existential dilemmas, and yet. I’m being nicer to myself. I know they’ll find me. ♦