As a child in rural Mexico, I was believed to be the victim of this spiritual affliction when I contracted scarlet fever and nearly died, suffering permanent eye damage for which I have had repeated corrective surgeries throughout my life.
My sister tells the story of my scarlet fever: after twenty-four weeks of being cared for by my doctor at his home clinic, he said there was nothing more he could do and suggested I go home to die where I could be close to my family. I was six years old. The doctor had created a special room for me at the clinic—he installed a glass ceiling so that direct sunlight could help with my healing—and, at times, I can still hear his dogs barking and see them walking on the roof above me, their silhouettes moving and scratching around as I lay in bed.
At home, my memories are vague. I remember I was staying in my sister’s room because it had more ventilation. I remember my grandfather stopping by to open all the windows, visits from the curandero (healer), and visits from friends and family.
Apparently, an intense regimen of remedios caseros (homemade remedies) was applied. Lots of praying and singing. Many hands touching me. Lots of blue light filling the room, even though I knew the room was pink. The images from Mal de OjO revolve around my experience with fever and are divided into two parts: fictitious portrayals of my own physical and psychological trauma and tabletop arrangements of Mexican folk remedies, personal amulets, and totems.
Often presented as diptychs or triptychs, these scenes deal with the psychosocial aspects of isolation and the inherent need for protection and self-preservation. I created the series in India, Mexico, and the US over the course of three years, collecting objects and material with the resources available to me at any given interval. These consistent breaks of time and space are sewn into the fabric of the work. Using a camera to reconstruct the past, I’m filling in the gaps of memory with a colorful worldview that emulates a structured slippage of heritage across cultures, place, and time.
Mal de OjO is a testament to blind faith, to the unknown and known, invoking all that is good, what we believe, and that which is not so good. More than anything, the work to me represents pure healing through love, as limpias, amulets, symbols, praying, and love gave me encouragement at a critical stage in my life.
Banana peels with coffee grounds are one of many remedios caseros used to cure fiebre del estómago (stomach fever) caused by scarlet fever.
My sister used to rip banana peels and roll them in coffee grounds so she could put them on me to remove my body heat.
Sometimes my curandero asks me to go to the local market to get supplies for alternative medicines. Some of the ingredients on the list include: Coca-Cola, candles, mandarins, raiz de ciruelillo (the root of the Chilean firetree), acute de higado de tiburon (shark liver oil), ungetto de zorrillo (ointment of skunk), extract fluido Me Vale Madre (a tincture of many things), extract fluido vigoron (another tincture for strength), tizana de betil (a tincture for sleep), Reomatolum muscle cream, triángulo de la buena suerte (a triangle of good luck), salvia, limoncillo, gordolobo (an herb), manzanilla (chamomile), guaje (a gourd), and santo en cristal (a saint in crystal). I love when the shop keepers call out, “Llévese su gotas, cucharadas para el té, se unto y su santo” (“Take your drops, your teaspoons for tea, your balms, and saints”).
One interesting remedios casero that was used on me as a child is called Caliada. It involves rubbing ash and gypsum over the body and being placed on the floor.
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Mal De OjO
I was at an artist residency in Varanasi, India, when I took this self-portrait. The trip affected me very deeply. Since then, I have been working toward taking stock of my thoughts and slowing down from the fast pace of daily life. While I was in India, most of what I did was just walk, leaving my camera behind. Mal de OjO was born out of this experience and began with this image, a portrait taken at an antiquated Indian photo studio. The print became the center of a collage that included evil eyes and my friend’s mother’s placemat that we’d use for tea.
Amulets are curiosities that have intrigued me since childhood. La Herradura (a horseshoe) is thought to bring good luck. This triangular amulet has a little horseshoe embedded in its crystal. Its colors— turquoises, greens, and blues—light the way in the emptiness of darkness.
As a person who has had many surgeries through my life, I am thankful to have had the aid of Western medicine. The other thing I have had to have is faith—faith that these treatments would work and faith that I would persevere. Where I’m from, people believe that an egg can take away bad spirits or curses someone may have cast on you. This is a photo of Chepe, my godson’s little brother, having a limpia (cleansing) several years ago. It is one of many ways to protect oneself from the evil eye—a curse cast by a malevolent gaze when the person is unaware.
The skin of roasted tomatoes was used to prevent scarring from the open sores on my body caused by the fever. I preferred to eat them— particularly if they were fresh, or tostado. I hated smelling like tomatoes all the time, but the remedy worked. I have no scars today from the sores.