Magic Mushrooms, Tourism, and the Erasure of Mazatec Culture

Magic Mushrooms, Tourism, and the Erasure of Mazatec Culture

Written by Gabriel Eduardo Estrada Martínez, a member of Estudiantes Estudiantes por una Política Sensata de Drogas, Mexíco (SSDP Mexíco) and an indigenous Mazateco currently doing anthropological research on the use of sacred plants in Mexico. Translation by Arturo González.

For any country, the objective of tourism is to help bolster the economy by exposing native art, magic, and nature to curious travelers. I say this because in the town of Huautla de Jiménez (in the North of Oaxaca), magic mushroom tourism is a fundamental part of the local economy.

The hallucinogenic mushroom is denominated as teonanacatl, which means: god meat. Since ancient times in Mesoamerica, using mushrooms had a religious connotation and was believed to keep people close in relation with the divine. It was believed that this substance contained sacred powers that help to evade evils, such as disease, that haunt human beings. This concept is a product of the Mazatec people’s worldview, according to which there is a very close relationship between humans and nature. Robert Gordon Wasson comments:

An image of the sacred mushrooms in Mesoamerica is completely different from the one the world has known. Before The Spanish Conquest, mushrooms were very important in public ceremonies. The Conquest put a sudden end to the public ceremonies. Private meetings, because of their intimacy and despite the harassment of the Inquisition, have survived to date (Wasson 1983: 11).

The prohibitions that Wasson refers to were put in place by the Holy Inquisition, whose purpose was to safeguard Catholic dogmas. They persecuted all those who held opposing points of view and held no religious principles. These factors changed how mushrooms were used and viewed in society. For example, the rituals used to be carried out publically, but because of the restrictions and punishments imposed by this ecclesiastical institution, they had to be hidden. Once installed in the private sphere, the ritual is transformed; each practitioner prints his own idea while at the same time, the evangelizing influence of the Church leads to the inclusion of Catholic elements such as prayers, images of Saints, candles, and songs in which God is referenced. In a fundamental way, the central figure of the rite changed from the mother Earth to the creator god (remember the meaning of teonanacatl: god meat), giving mushroom consumption a healing function.

It was in the 1950’s when New York author Robert Gordon Wasson, along with his wife Valentina Pavlovna Wasson, came to Huautla de Jiménez to begin their research and demonstrate the power of hallucinogenic mushrooms. However, this brought interest from researchers and media that later invaded these spiritual communities with interviews and reports divulging the discovery of the plant

Those who fell on Huautla de Jiménez – heterodox-hippies, psychiatrists, extravagant people, even tourist guides with their docile flocks, many of them accompanied by friends – alternated and corrupted the peaceful life in what had been, at least on the surface, an idyllic Indian village (Wasson 1983: 10).

It was like this in the mid-60’s and early 70’s, when the visits and waves of young people who were given the term hippies began They were characterized by their dress, their music, and their ideologies. They consumed the mushrooms and mixed them with other substances such as alcohol and marijuana. During the course of time, the mushroom became a symbol that would represent the entire cultural space and become the Mazatec’s symbol of identity. This would put emphasis on the community of Huautla de Jimenez for being the guiding center of that cultural conglomerate.

Though there previously existed plenty of healers, scientists like the Wasson’s and the tourist community took advantage of the hospitality of curandera María Sabina and turned her into a spectacle, or celebrity. Many profited off of her name while the true purpose of the mushroom rituals, to heal, was distorted into “finding god” by Westerners who did not respect the culture. This demonstrates how the community is observed by others, as a curiosity. The community is further delegitimized by modern doctors who downplay and misinterpret the true meaning of the practice. The celebrity status of Sabina to Westerners eventually attracted the attention of the Mexican police, who believed her to be a drug dealer. The unwanted attention into the Mazatec community led to Sabina being blamed and ostracized, eventually leading to the razing of her home. Later in life, Sabina expressed regret for having introduced Wasson and others to the practice.

This shows that the relationship of the plant inside and outside of the community is diverse. Talking with young people of the Mazatec community today, they mentioned that they do not find a purpose in the ritual. They liken it to a pagan practice that no longer makes sense since the structure of the rite has changed. They consume restlessly without applying the rules that made it a spiritual practice. Therefore, social relationships are diverse among those who believe and do not believe.

The relationship of this plant to the community and to tourists continues to be contentious. In the entire Mazatec region, Huautla is the most exploited population due to the celebrity nature of the healers, the mushroom rituals, and the culture imposed by Western tourists. Please keep this in mind when talking about the indigenous use of mushrooms and other sacred plants.