Shared Stories: Mi Tia Bruja

The onset of mumps and her grandmother’s funeral gave Yolanda Adele an opportunity to learn the real story of a widowed aunt. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Yolanda Adele

I was 14 years old and living in California with my parents when my maternal abuelita (grandmother), Acasia, died in El Paso, Texas. As Mama and Popi began making plans to attend the funeral there, they also wondered, “Who would be willing to take care of a kid with the mumps?” while they were away. After a little thought, Mama and Popi looked at each other and in unison said, “La Tia Bruja."

When I heard that, I got goose bumps, riding piggy back, all over my skin. "

No! No! Not her!" I protested. I tried sucking in my feverish ballooned cheeks, pleading, "I am well now, really!"

It had been years since I had seen Bruja. Still, I remembered her vividly. I did not know how old she was, but I assumed she was older than dirt. She had only two teeth in her mouth; they were jagged and yellow. Her blue-white, wiry hair forked out all over her head, as though transmitting waves of electric current.

She had the reputation of being a curandera (healer). Everyone in the neighborhood called her Tia Bruja, but we kids translated that to mean witch doctor. After all, her nickname Bruja means witch in Spanish. Her appearance certainly did nothing to dispel our beliefs about her.

I continued to whine, "Please don't make me go! She gives me the creeps."                                                                                            
Your cousins have stayed there and they never complained, and you won't either. Now, shut up...!" Mama ordered me. 

And so I did. Understand that in those days, “Children were to be seen, not heard." In other words, end of discussion! 

With my accommodations arranged and all my pajamas packed, we were off to The Bates Motel, which is what I called Tia Bruja’s house, where there were no phones, and 911 meant nada.

Though it was freezing outside, I was burning with fever. We drove to Bruja's in thick silence, except for the eerie sound of the worn out windshield wipers scraping against the window. The rain poured down in sheets, making everything look blurry. 

We reached the long driveway leading to the large, deteriorating Victorian house where my “Auntie” waited with bated breath, no doubt. 

There was a sudden clap of thunder as we got out of the car, followed by lightning illuminating two pink plastic flamingos standing in tall grass in front of the house; their heads were bent and bobbing over pet dishes filled with rain soaked bird seed. I wondered if Bruja had turned my cousins into these muted, uncomplaining sentinels. 

I shot an alarmed look at my parents but they paid me no mind, and why should they? After all they had found somebody to dump me on...for free even.

Popi knocked on the decaying door which had several thumbtack crosses woven from palm leaves of Holy Days past. The scent of herbs and other concoctions assaulted my nostrils, making me feel queasy.

I held my breath as the door creaked open. Bruja's coal black eyes peered out of her dark face that had more lines than a Thomas Road Guide; and then I passed out. 

I don't know how long I had slept before waking up in a musty smelling room. The decor was done in early Goodwill. I thought that I must be feeling better because I was hungry and felt cooler. I tried to talk, but I couldn't at first. It did not take her long to cast a spell on me, I thought. 

I quickly realized my cheeks were in a sling filled with cold lettuce, potato, and lots of tomato slices.

"That's it! I'm out of here!” I mumbled.

I swung my feet over the side of the bed until they hit the floor with a thud, and what seemed to be blood splattered under my feet. I tried to stand but my knees were wobbly. For an instant I was paralyzed with fear.

"Now see what you have done!" said the raspy, accented voice. With that, Bruja pushed me back on the bed. I watched her as she knelt on the floor next to the bed, scooping up the blood red tomato pulp with her hands.

Then, for the first time, I noticed I had on make-shift, cheese-cloth slippers wrapped and tied on my feet, containing more squashed tomatoes and who knows what. Worms maybe?

I stared at her in astonishment. She began to describe her Aztec folklore of organic, holistic methods to bring down my temperature. Then she added, "I see doubt in your eyes, Nina. Oh, I know what you're thinking- that I'm just an old loca, but tell me, do you feel better?" 

Her voice dropped in tone, as she arched an eyebrow and appeared to be gumming her teeth. Her pause implied that she was waiting for praise. Well, she could wait until cows had elephants. I was not going to give her the satisfaction. Why should I? Heck! I didn't ask to be dumped here or for her to take care of me.

I was no longer intimidated by her. She was just a crazy old woman. I looked at her with contempt. Who did she think she was, scaring me like I was a little kid? I also realized that I had grown bigger and taller than her. 

I suspiciously eyed and refused to consume everything she brought for me to eat. My cousins told me of a goat's head they had seen in her refrigerator. I regretted not packing burritos in my suitcase. I was getting too hungry to stage a hunger strike. I might have to eat the next thing she brings me, I thought, except field mice or goat eye soup. I knew I couldn't handle anything like that - yet.

She shuffled into the room and set a bowl of smelly vinegar on the bedside table. "Do you expect me to drink that?” I screamed at her, "Stay away from me, you stupid old bat!”

I could feel the gook in my mumps-sling begin to slide off. No sooner had she left when she returned with a cool washcloth. She looked worn-out and tired. I noticed her ankles were swollen over the top of her shoes.

"I don't believe this!” I shouted. “First you cover me in lettuce and tomato, and now - vinegar? Are you a vegetarian and a cannibal?” 

I continued, “I'll tell you one thing, I am not going to be your lunch, you ugly witch!” 

If she was going to turn me into a frog or something worse, she would probably do it now. I closed my eyes and braced myself. I didn't feel anything happening. Just to be sure, I slowly opened my eyes, one at a time, and saw her wringing the washcloth in the stinky vinegar.

I was about to spout more insults until I saw the hurt in her eyes. I realized that I put it there, yet she proceeded to stroke my brow in a caring manner with the smelly, moist washcloth.
Why doesn't she yell or hit me? That was something I could deal with. If shame had been poison I would have been dead, buried, and pushing up crab grass.

Tia continued to thoughtfully and unselfishly care for me, day and night over the next few weeks. I, sheepishly, said to her, "You're not really ugly.”

"That's all right. There are worse things than being ugly on the outside. Do you like pie, Nina?"

"For breakfast?" I asked.

"Is something wrong with that?” she asked, sounding a bit annoyed.

"No! No! It's just that I usually have chocolate cake for breakfast and pie for lunch."  

We both laughed. After breakfast of freshly baked Mexican chocolate cake and oatmeal cereal soaked in chocolate milk we played cards.

That day, Tia Bruja became my first best friend. I taught her to play fish and she taught me to play poker. We played for raw pinto beans and beer pretzels. She cheated, I pretended not to notice.

I guess that we were both misfits. She was ignored because she was very old, and I was ignored because I was very young. 

I stayed with her even after my parents returned from Texas and I had fully recovered from the mumps. In fact, I stayed all summer. I found out her real name was Maria and she didn't like beets either. Together we planted a vegetable garden. No beets!

Tia told me that she had been married decades ago to an ill- tempered son of a @#*%, who she thought was a real brujo, who drank too much tequila and was very cruel to her. After too many years of marriage he died from salmonella poisoning. Tia joked that he never could resist her cooking. 

He had been so mean that she had him buried upside down, in case he should break from death’s grip and tear out of the coffin. She wanted him to become confused and tunnel deeper into the earth’s bowels. We giggled, and agreed that that was a great idea.

"At least he hasn't showed up… Yet." Tia said. We both looked around us and made an exaggerated sign of the cross before laughing ecstatically until we were blissfully exhausted.

I learned a lot from Tia, like putting beer in mayo lids to attract snails from the garden. They drink from it until beer bubbles ooze out of them. Tia liked to say, "It must not be such a bad way to go, because the snails die with a little smile on their tiny faces." 

Tia showed me how to mend a bird's wing and almost any wounded thing that strayed into her yard, be it two-footed or four-footed. 

Before Tia Bruja died that winter, I learned my first life lesson. She showed me that wonder and joy in small things can be multiplied when shared with enthusiasm and a caring heart at any age. And not to judge anyone until you know their story.