The trail to El Naranjo follows for a distance a dry arroyo behind the village of Ajoya, passing under the huge higueras which flank the stream bed. Leaving the arroyo, it winds into the hills beyond, rising at first gently, then more abruptly, until it passes through a dusty puerto (pass) in a shallow notch in the hills. At the puerto stands a wary rosa amarilla tree, whose giant buttercup-like blossoms blaze in the sunlight from December into March, dropping its large yellow petals into the dusty trail below. From the pass, the trail descends again into the broad valley beyond, passing through a brushy forest of Güinoli (Acacia sp.) and then rising through palo blancos, mahutos, and other short trees, until at last it comes to a settlement of three widely separated houses.

The uppermost house is the oldest and best built with thick adobe walls and hand-hewn beams. It sits on a small step of land overlooking the distant valley of the Rio Verde and the violet-blue sierra beyond. The house is surrounded by a lush and luxurious garden of a wide variety of beautiful or useful plants, which are carefully irrigated by tiny canals leading from a small, clear spring which issues from under a rock in a deep cut in the hillside behind. Behind the house, a grove of giant bamboos arch over the dwelling, shading it with a yellow-green halo of grass-like leaves. To the sides of the house and following the canal toward the spring, are lime and lemon and orange trees; and in the shade of the bamboo, grow twining coffee bushes. This is the home of La Apolonia, famous among the villages for her native cures and for her communications with the dead.

Today I have come alone to El Naranjo, and—surprisingly enough—there are no other visitors. La Apolonia, her bright eyes shining from her wrinkled face, takes me through the garden, telling me of her plants. This giant zalate (a fig tree similar to higuero but with darker, bluer leaves) she brought as a seedling from the coast when she first moved her family here some 40 years ago and this plant, which I had taken for the local barra blanca, is a bush of the Indian asafrán (saffron), the bee-bee like seeds of which are used for food coloring. This broad leafed lily, called lirio gigante is useful as a medicine for mothers who have trouble giving birth or in eliminating las demas (the afterbirth). (Se cuece las ojas con manzanilla y se da a tomar, hasta tres vasos, hasta que se alivia, en general antes de una hora.)

Each plant, it seemed, involved a story and a cure. This canela plant (cinnamon) now a tall, luxuriant bush, La Apolonia had brought several years before as a cutting from Mazatlán. At that time, she had cured a woman of severe, itching sores on her legs, after the doctors had tried to relieve the condition for several months and failed. La Apolonia had bathed the leg with a concoction prepared from the bark of Guasima (a common tree of this area, Guazima Ulmifolia, with elm-like leaves and a spiky, cylindrical fruit eaten raw or ground to make tortillas when corn is scarce) together with the leaves of laurel de olor. In nine days the llagas were completely cured. When asked the cost of the cure, she had said “Nada”, but that she would like a cutting of the cinnamon plant kept in a caged enclosure in the patio. And so, it had been given her.

Most of the plants of the garden are native to this region of the sierra, and La Apolonia has gathered and cultivated them for medicinal uses. Here was a narrow-leaved, erect milkweed plant with an apical tassel of orange and red flowers, called sonorita (at times señorita by those who confuse the name). Apolonia, observing that I have a bit of constipado (stuffy nose) plucked a bit of this plant and told me to sniff it. The scent was strong, unpleasant, but almost instantly my nostrils and sinuses
became clear.

Apolonia sent her grandson, Juanito, to fetch from near the spring a spray of “skunk” and the small boy returned holding the plant in one hand and his nose in the other. The scent of the root is so strong that it actually burns the nostrils like ammonia. La Apolonia tells me that a very, effective jarabe (cough syrup) is prepared from zorrillo, together with other herbs, and that she has cured many cases of asma with it, including that of her son, Cuco, after he had tried for months to relieve his condition with commercial remedies. The receta, which she dictated to me, is as follows:

Jarabe de Zorillo (para asma)

  1. Se cuece la raíz (o todo la mata) en dos litros de agua.

  2. Le pone manzanilla, canela, laurel de olor, cilantro, y poleo.

  3. Se cuece haste le queda medio litro de la agüita.

  4. Le hecha un cuarto kilo de azucar doradita en la agua cuelada.

  5. Se tome una o dos cucharadas de la miel tres vecas al día.

So we continue through the garden, La Apolonia filling my head with remedies she has prepared with the plants and with cures she has worked, which are many. Yet I never get the sense that she is bragging. Rather she is telling me with joy of the marvels of her plants. She is proud of them, as if they were her children and her friends.

One of the most fascinating aspects of La Apolonia’s unique life is her communication with los doctores espirituales. She and her daughters are able, they say, to communicate with the spirits of dead physicians to seek their advice and help in the treatment of the sick. In order they go into a state of intense concentration resembling a trance. Having entered the trance, La Apolonia is unable to open her eyes even if she wants to and her upturned hands grow heavy like lead. It is an exhausting experience and now she is too old, she says, to undergo it. Similarly, her daughter, La Cuca, since she since she has been ill, has been unable to summon together enough energy for the concentration. (This is the same Cuca who I treated two months before for congestive heart failure).

The natural cures which La Apolonia and her daughters apply, they say they have learned from their doctores espirituales. These dead doctors have specific identities, being deceased physicians whose lives had been cut off before they had completed their curative work. One, a Dr. Manuel Martínez, from the medical school in Guadalajara, appears in the trances of Apolonia’s daughter, Picha. In the trances of La Cuca comes Doctor Juan Cheleque, from México City, who was shot while in his twenties, as he passed by a bar when a fight broke out. (I am curious to check if there is a doctor by this name among the medical graduates in México. Not that it matters…)

I cannot testify for the validity of these communions with the dead doctors. One thing, however, is certain: La Apolonia and her daughters have effected many cures. True, there are those who scoff or assure that La Apolonia is a witch, but these are surprisingly few considering the people’s fear of the extraordinary and their tendency to expand suspicions. La Apolonia is so kindly, so gentle, and for all her seventy years, so open, fresh and childlike that it would be difficult even for the most avid witch hunter to seriously wish her ill, and those who do so, I have found, are those who do not know her.

La Apolonia is most famous for her ability to cure locos. The son of Ramón Valverde is but one example. Patients with temporary insanity have been brought from as far away as Tayoltita and Guadalupe de los Reyes. From Tambór, a woman was brought who was in a state of infantile regression, crawling about on all fours, cooing and crying like a baby, unable to speak, and refusing to recognize or nurse her young child. La Apolonia conducted prayers for her, cared for her and gave her curious concoctions: In three days the young woman was restored to normal and again nursing her baby.

From Tayoltita was brought another young woman, in severe pain, who insisted she had been shot in the heart. Her parents had returned from a dance late at night in which a fight had been started and a young man had been shot and killed. When they arrived at the house they found the doors barred and could not rouse the daughter they had left at home. Breaking in, they sought their daughter everywhere, and at last found her hiding under the bed. They dragged her out, and the poor girl was trembling and clutching at her breast. She told them that a man had broken into the house and shot her in the heart. But there was no wound. From that day on, the girl continued to suffer and insist that she was dying, and as the days passed into weeks, it appeared more and more that she really was dying for she reused food and was fading away. Her father took her to La Apolonia, and there, under the old woman’s cures and prayers, she awoke as if from a dream.

More recently, indeed, only two weeks ago, a teenaged girl from Guadalupe de Los Reyes was brought, raving mad. Her skin was speckled with small wounds where she had climbed like ari iguana up a tall cardon (cactus). She had also scratched herself and torn her hair. No sooner had she been brought to La Apolonia than she gave a giant leap and caught hold of the rafter overhead, swinging back and forth like a monkey. La Apolonia cured her with pedimentos (prayers) and la loca de Guadalupe went home meek and grateful.

La Apolonia proceeded to tell me of a well to do sceptic who came from Durango. Having heard that she talked with the doctores espirituales, but doubting the truth of it, he had come to satisfy his curiosity. He informed La Apolonia that his wife was ill, and asked her for a cure. She told him she would consult her “doctor” and went into a trance. Coming out of it, she informed the man that in truth, not his wife but his father, was ill in the house in Durango. The man gasped and admitted that this was true. Furthermore, said La Apolonia, the spiritual doctor had just injected him, and he would soon be better. The young man left, confused, and a week later sent a note with a sizable propina saying that his father, who had in fact been seriously ill, was much improved. La Apolonia smiled her warm smile and told me that she didn’t mind people’s doubting of her seances with the dead doctors, for doubt, she says, is perfectly natural in those who have not experienced these things.

I asked La Apolonia about the injections her doctor-spirits give. She says that although both the doctor and the syringe are invisible, the patient can feel the prick and see the mark.

According to reports, La Apolonia and her daughters have performed many other miraculous cures. They have made a mute man talk and several paralytics walk. A woman came with a hand which had been cramped shut for over two months. La Apolonia bathed it in liniments of natural herbs, told her to open it, and she did. With one treatment of vapores she managed to relieve the skin condition of José Vidaca’s wife, Sofía, which neither I nor the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán (where I had sent her) had been able to cure. (This was the ailment which old Micaela ascribed to witchery.)

The list of strange and marvelous cures goes on and on. She cured a child with kidney stone by giving him seven glassfuls of orange juice. She also, on learning that I still suffered from a broken rib, tried various cures on me, which included ventosas (sucking up of the skin around the injury by lighting a candle in a tumbler pressed against the injured area) and a poncha (raw egg beaten into hot cinnamon tea) so delicious that it made the injury almost worthwhile. Both remedies were designed to eliminate the aire from the golpe, and perhaps they did, although I did not notice the change, except that I was a little more sore the following morning. But I do not credit my failure to respond to La Apolonia’s treatment to her lack of ability, but rather to my lack of faith. A chronic doubter, there will always be those doorways through which I can look lovingly, but never pass.