By 11:00 I need a rest. I go to the small unloading zone on the Merced's southern end, hoping to find a quiet corner. But in the spot I'd been thinking of there's a chattering man surrounded by an audience of about ten people. He's chalked a ten-foot square around himself, and the people stand outside the square. He's kneeling, surrounded by the following: a row of face-up Tarot cards; a small, black statue of an owl, with seven red candles laid radiating from it; a red, foot-long box ornamented with zodiac symbols and the English words "7 Holy Bath Waters"; another box on which, in Spanish, is written "The Seven Holy Waters of Osrisus"; two glasses of clear liquid, and: a tall aerosol can on which is written, in Spanish, "Money Luck Love Health."
A yard-long green iguana, emaciated and lacerated with wounds, poses beside the collection. The man is occupied with a living snake, a young boa constrictor. The snake advances toward the line of cards and the man explains that the snake is "choosing cards," sending him messages. After the snake chooses a card, the man pulls the snake back, but it keeps slithering forward, "choosing" other cards. The man, aged about twenty-five, with an awe-struck voice and trembling hands, discovers profound significance in the chosen cards.
"Step up closer, ladies and gentlemen," the man calls in Spanish. "The snake won't hurt you. What will harm you is the snake with two legs. My snake will not harm you, but you know that in the hearts of some people, yes, there can be bad thoughts, bad intentions. No, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a brujo (witch doctor), but I am one who can undo black magic practiced by those who would harm you. We all have seen how certain piglike people of low morals, envious of us working men and women, every Thursday and Friday go down to the Sonora Market and buy blood and venom of rattlesnakes, and we all know what evil purposes those bad people seek, and I am here to show you how to protect yourself, I from Juchitán, Oaxaca, the very land of brujería (witchcraft) and curanderos (healers)."
The man repeats all the above as new people join the circle. He talks in circles as he motions us to step closer, to pay attention. He asks a matronly, middle-age woman to show her palm; she does, and he reads it with raised eyebrows and a rapt expression on his face:
"Oh, I respect you," he says. "You are a mother like my mother, always working hard, and if you see someone hungry, you will give food meant for your own mouth. You are kind, hard working, and generous. Is this not true?"
The woman admits that it is true, and then the man examines the palms of two others, saying similarly flattering things and, again, it's all confirmed. The man kneels, puts a card in the snake's mouth, the snake bites, leaving prick-points clearly visible in the card's surface, and the man places the card atop one of the glasses filled with clear liquid. He now explains that the snake's evil essence is transferring into the liquid, and as he speaks an oily film indeed coagulates atop the liquid. He pulls forth a red bandanna and as he relates how certain envious, evil people cast spells on innocent working people, he artfully folds, refolds, twists, and pats the bandanna into human shape; it becomes a well proportioned, very well made rag doll.
The man now opens up the doll's "stomach" and while speaking of the wisdom of not allowing just anyone to take your picture, he tears a card into pieces and places the pieces inside the doll's "stomach." He closes the doll up and places it atop a large picture of a saint, and then sprinkles the snake- poisoned water in a circle around the doll. He lets us understand that if the card had been a picture of one of us, we would now be completely bewitched.
He draws from his black bag a vial of dark red liquid that well could be blood, and we understand through an oblique remark that this is rattlesnake blood, the essence of evil. He pours the scarlet liquid into what remains of the snake-poisoned water, turning the water bright red. Now the man pulls crystals from his black bag and says that they are blessed. But now he looks us all in the eye and says that before he can continue we must all tell him whether we believe in God and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Everyone does, so he crosses himself and continues.
He drops the blessed crystals into an untainted glass of clear liquid, swirls it around, and then pours part of this "blessed water" into the glass of red, envenomed liquid, swirls it around, and within seconds the red fluid becomes perfectly clear. He drinks it and declares that good really has triumphed over evil.
As he speaks more of his personal battle against black magic, he brings forth several clear-plastic bags filled with small, plastic stars of every color, the kinds grade-school kids get glued to their charts when they do something right. These stars, he claims, have all spent three days and nights in the Church of Guadalupe, and are thus blessed in the very same way that the crystals have been blessed, and possess the same purifying powers.
It's not long before several onlookers fork over pesos, buying little bags of colored, plastic stars. Before handing over each bag, the man sprays it with the big aerosol can saying "Money Luck Love Health."
All during the above presentation, not far away, a loudspeaker on a tall, slender pole has been blaring the virtues of Conchamaca Cream. It has been such an oppressive presence, such an annoyance as we around the snake-man tried to listen, that now I go and pay attention to what this loathsome noise is saying.
The man's voice on the loudspeaker is high-pitched, monotone, repetitively speaking hypnotic sentences that don't ever seem to end. The tone in the man's voice is that of a bored father telling the little child the obvious for the millionth time, "You must eat to be healthy, eat, eat to be healthy... " Here are the translated words spewed by the obnoxious loudspeaker:
"Ladies and gentlemen now I want to tell you about Conchamaca Cream. Conchamaca Cream is for bathing, for white spots, black spots, scars, the cream doesn't burn on contact with the skin, the medicinal cream, Conchamaca Cream is for white spots, black spots, scars, the cream doesn't burn on contact with the skin, it cleans, it disinfects, just put it in your bath water or bathe your skin in it, and then in a few days your skin looks great, we have the medicinal cream, Conchamaca Cream for white spots, black spots, scars, come on and get to know Conchamaca Cream, Conchamaca Cream, for white spots, black spots, scars, come on and get to know Conchamaca Cream, Conchamaca Cream for white spots, black spots, scars, doesn't burn, doesn't inflame on contact with the skin, come on get to know Conchamaca Cream, Conchamaca Cream, for white spots, black spots, scars. We also have Tepezquite Pomade, good for burns and similar wounds."
"We have Tepezquite Soap and Tepezquite Pomade, for burns, cuts, and similar wounds, for sores, scratches, for the itch, come on and get to know Tepezquite Soap, Tepezquite Soap, good for burns and other skin problems, massage it into the hair, it fortifies, it maintains the hair, come and get to know Tepezquite Soap, the medicinal soap, Tepezquite Soap, Tepezquite Soap, massage it into the hair and it fortifies, it maintains the hair, come on get to know the medicinal soap, medicinal soap, Tepezquite Soap, for burns, cuts and similar wounds, for sores, scratches, for the itch, come on and get to know Tepezquite Soap."
"We also have... "