San Diego The parrot cocked its head to the right and smiled like your favorite grandmother. Its eyes were black and deep and wide open with myopic kindliness. Cloaked in green, it perched in a cage on Calle Segunda in Tijuana.
"What are you doing?" said the parrot vendor.
"I'm writing about the parrot," I replied.
"Don't write on the parrot," he said, in English, as if I had scribbled ink on its breast instead of my notepad. He pushed me away from the five stacked cages interning 14 parrots.
Why can't I write on the parrot? I thought; and then it hit me: something illegal...maybe they were smuggled. The exotic birds were just another part of this downtown boiling with people while music beats like the tom-tom.
I can see a cathedral about three blocks away. I walk past little Indian girls whose faces and smocks are smeared with what looks like leftovers from an oil change. They thrust up boxes of Chiclets for me to buy, but I shake my jowls "no" and shun eye contact. Trucks grumble, policemen whistle, buses rattle. In spite of this continuous din, the cathedral exudes a silence; you realize it the second after it's gone, after the cathedral's bells have melted it and it's gone, gone, gone. Hic, haec, hoc: the bells still chime in Latin anyway. The silence centers around the cathedral again, the eye of a storm of noise. You see perched over the arch-entrance to the Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe the eponymous Virgin of Guadalupe herself. She too is kindly eyed and robed in parrot green; she too is standing in midair with her head slightly inclined, listening to the silence...and the noise.
Right before Our Lady's eyes vendors are selling the paraphernalia of superstition, black magic. Inside the cathedral, mostly young Mexican couples sit side by side in the pews; guapas with jet-black hair and tattoos walk with lighted candles on their knees to meet their brokenhearted Lord; panhandlers break from their cap-in-hand by taking off their cap to the Blessed Sacrament rising like a full moon over the high-altar horizon. All these Catholics are offered a daily chance to buy a morsel of what to the Catholic faith is considered poison.
Tijuana's bishop (he owns the cathedral) has admitted he's powerless to stop his people from being fleeced on the way in and out. In an interview in El Sol de Tijuana last month, Bishop Rafael Romo Muñoz criticized the public authorities for issuing licenses to the vendors who flank the cathedral sidewalks to sell their wares, thereby "taking advantage of the Catholic faith."
The way the modern mind is leery of the Catholic faith is precisely how the Catholic mind reacts to what it calls superstition: "Superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued by Pope John Paul II in 1992 as the handbook of Catholic doctrine). "Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes."
While the casual observer standing on the front steps of the cathedral sees four kiosks loaded with the same generic gimcrackery: rosary beads slopping over the edges of the tables, barrows bearing rows of little statues and figurines, candles stacked on top of each other lengthwise, Bishop Romo Muñoz sees a threat to the faith and an inducement to black magic. As shepherd, he makes a distinction between candles with Jesus Christ on them and candles with Jesus Malverde; between Virgin of Guadalupe scapulars and lucky rabbits' feet; between holy water and soap with which to bathe to cast a spell.
A recent survey of seven kiosks surrounding the cathedral indicate vendors make no distinction between faith and superstition. Manuel hunkers down on an orange milk crate facing the gritty, gray cathedral wall near the corner of Niños Heroés and Segunda. Right next to framed pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Manuel sells kits "for the protection of your business," he says. Costing 20 pesos, the kit contains holy pictures, which are an official Catholic devotion (the saints have been canonized by the church and the prayers on the back carry ecclesiastical approval). It also contains a lucky horseshoe and a garbanzo bean -- neither of which I could find indexed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I did find "the rosary, medals." They are examples of "sacramentals," which are "sacred signs instituted by the Church." They are not sacraments (like baptism) but rather "prepare men to receive the fruits of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life." Among sacramentals, blessings come first, and among blessings, "the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons)."
For example, holy water, usually found in small founts at the entrance to a Catholic church, can only be blessed by them. A small bottle contains "holy water with some artificial coloring," said Manuel, who sells about three of these magic kits a day. If it's really holy water, that's selling a holy thing, and that, Catholics believe, is a sin, at worst; at best, it leads to an automatic revocation of the blessing.
Without hesitation, Manuel replied to that objection: "When you buy it, you can take it to a priest to put the blessing back on it...if that's what you believe."
A similar magic kit is sold by Daniel, whose table is a block down from the cathedral on Niños Heroés. He stands under an umbrella; his eyes look bloodshot. Daniel's magic kit costs 20 pesos more, but it contains blessed oil instead of holy water. A holy oil used in the sacraments called sacred chrism can only be blessed by the bishop, Catholics believe. This is probably not that. Then who blessed this "blessed oil" that Daniel is selling?
"They make this by persons qualified to make it," he replied.
For ten pesos, Daniel also sells bars of soap with which women can bathe in order to wrap a man around her finger -- or her foot. The picture on the package says it all: a woman puts her foot onto a prostrate man's mouth. "Jabon Yo Domino a mi Hombre" ("I-dominate-my-man soap") the package says, less eloquently.
On the same table, pictures of Jesus (five pesos each) jockey for room with lucky rabbits' feet (ten pesos each). Why does Jesus cost less than the rabbit? Daniel just laughs.
Another table closer to the cathedral is strewn with books, including El Libro Negro ("the black book"). This how-to manual on black magic costs 60 pesos and is part of a do-it-yourself dark arts series.
I walk toward the cathedral now, only to find Malverde scapulars ("Malverde" could be rendered into English as "evil unripe" -- an ominous name). A scapular is sort of a micro monk's cloak; it consists of two small pieces of cloth joined by strings. A popular sacramental among Catholics but usually hidden under their clothes, Catholics wear scapulars as a way of showing a special devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Jesus Malverde was hung, according to legend, in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where his cult has been condemned by the Catholic Church. "He said before he died that he was going to help all," a vendor named Jaime explained. Malverde, popularly known as El Narcosanton, has become the patron saint of drug smugglers. At Jaime's booth a Malverde scapular sells for 40 pesos while a Mary scapular sells for 10. Maybe there is a difference between faith and superstition in these vendors' minds, after all; it's just not a theological one. Maybe it is a difference in price, with superstition getting the bigger markup.
I'm back in front of the cathedral entrance. Malverde scapulars dangle in a booth flanked by large pictures of Jesus, a guardian angel, and the Virgin. This booth, like most, sells charms to ward off the evil eye, made of deer eyes, so they say. Charms do get an explicit mention in the catechism: "All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others -- even if this were for the sake of restoring their health-- are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible."
If you don't buy the evil eye, or the need to ward it off anyway, this vendor (who is just a few steps from the cathedral) claims that the charm can make you look "charming." Buy it for ten pesos, he said, "so you can look handsome."
That's not the only claim that's been made in the superstition-selling game: customers have been told by vendors that they kick back some of their profit to the cathedral. Bishop Romo Muñoz rejected that claim as "absolutely false." He warned the faithful that superstitious charms and the like are contrary to the Catholic faith and induce people to practice black magic. He was only doing his job, according to the catechism: sorting out superstitious practices from pious devotions among the people is ultimately a judgment call made by the local bishops according to the norms of the Catholic Church.
True piety, however, "is a storehouse of values that offers answers of Christian wisdom to the great questions of life," the catechism added. This pungent wisdom "provides reasons for joy and humor even in the midst of a very hard life."
But unsavory elements keep creeping in. In front of the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe, through the barricades of smells, of cinnamon twists and sweaty armpits and cigarettes, a scent of incense was insinuating. But it didn't come from inside the church. And it didn't smell like Catholic incense.