The green fields zoom past until my passenger says, “Oh sorry! Turn left here!”
I screech to a stop in the middle of Highway 1 in Castroville, then pull into the dirt driveway of Simon RV Park. I’ve passed this faded sign at least 10 times, but I never thought I’d ever be stopping in for a Voodoo cleanse.
My friend and translator for the day, Miguel Pulido, leads me to an off-white RV with potted plants and dream catchers under the awning. Juan Gutierrez, about 5 feet tall with kind brown eyes, welcomes us in, then steps out back to prepare for the cleanse.
Pulido and I sit on Gutierrez’s couch and eat Maria’s Coconut Slice Candy, which tastes like the inside of an Almond Joy, while a Mexican telenovela plays on the mounted TV. Pictures of family and colorful crosses draped with rosary beads hang on the walls.
I peek through the blinds behind me. Gutierrez has set a small metal pan on a fire and is shaking up the coals.
It was not easy to track down a local Voodoo practitioner, despite the half-dozen ads in the Spanish-language newspaper La Ganga. One has pictures of Jesus and skulls, and a promise that translates to: “We return the love of your life, repented and madly in love with you… We never fail!”
But when I call the numbers on La Ganga ads offering services like “Vudu Blanco Africano,” all I get is a spurt of Spanish I can’t understand, followed by the dial tone. Pulido, who’s proficient in Spanish, doesn’t get much further; the practitioners hang up on him, too.
Voodoo tends to run in closely knit circles, he explains. So Pulido reaches out to a family friend who is a Voodoo mystic. Gutierrez does not have a “No Espere Más!” ad, but he agrees to see us at no charge.
I don’t know what’s in store, only that he will be cleansing my bad vibes.
Before we arrive, I think about my own stereotypes of Voodoo: a cloth doll, a needle and thread, an ill intent being chanted. But with a little research, I learn Voodoo is a religion with roots in Catholicism. Pope John Paul II has acknowledged the “fundamental goodness inherent in their practices, teachings and beliefs.”
The religion entered the U.S. when the African and Creole slaves of French plantation owners fled the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 19th century. Though it has roots in French-speaking, African-American communities, Voodoo has spread to Spanish-speaking Latino cultures, too.
When Gutierrez is ready, Pulido and I walk through the back door and into the spiritual world. Gutierrez motions, with focused eyes and a smile revealing two silver teeth, for us to stand in front of the rusted pan. I don’t know what he has in store for me, only that he will be cleansing my bad vibes.
Smoke rises from the hot coals. A pile of herbs, minerals, a tall clear bottle of amber oil and a red bottle labeled “Protection” lie on top of a picnic table.
Pulido had prepped me for what to expect with this method of cleanse. “He uses incense and herbs to brush over your body,” he explained. “He recites two prayers to Christ and then burns the herbs to ashes to release the bad energy. He then uses an aromatherapy lotion to complete the cleanse and relax your body.” The red oil, he added, is to protect Gutierrez from any of our bad spirits latching onto him.
The cleanse requires silence, closed eyes and an open mind. Gutierrez works his way around my body from head to feet while holding the minerals and herbs. Pulido stands beside me, also receiving the cleanse, but soon I forget he’s there.
The rosemary feels as though it has engulfed my entire being, and I am immediately relaxed. In a soft whisper, Gutierrez repeats a prayer. Suddenly, a feeling of lightness rushes through my body; my feet feel weightless and unimportant. Gutierrez grabs my hand, but instead of flinching I feel trust, even comfort.
Gutierrez instructs me to open my eyes. He trickles the amber oil into my hand and gestures for me to place it on my wrists, neck and forehead. Stepping away from the fire, I feel as though I’ve just stepped off a roller coaster, followed by a strong sense of peace. Gutierrez begins to gently sweep up the ashes.
“They are symbolic of the bad energy,” Pulido says. “In fear that it could escape, he gets rid of it fast. He has thrown out ashes at a mall parking lot, where the trash gets dumped quickly. He wouldn’t get rid of them near his house.”
Saying goodbye and gracias, we leave with hugs and cleansed spirits. The essence of herbs and minerals clings to our clothes. As we drive past the Castroville farm fields, Pulido suddenly holds up a brown paper bag.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “He gave us our bad vibes to throw away.”