Pubdate: Mon, 17 Nov 2003
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 The Dallas Morning News
Author: Ricardo Sandoval, The Dallas Morning News
Bookmark: (Spiritual or Sacramental)
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


A Mexican City Strives To Preserve Itself As Visitors Seek A Tribe's 
Culture - And Its Drug

REAL DE CATORCE, Mexico -- Hawk feathers tucked into the band of his dusty 
hat serve as proof that Rico is a serious shaman in training.

The feathers were earned, he said, after he completed religious rituals, in 
the presence of Huichol Indian teachers, on his path to a higher consciousness.

But Rico is not Huichol. Nor is he Mexican. His full name is Enrico 
Baldella Pettinari.

In 1994 the Italian expatriate came, he saw and he got high.

Mr. Baldella discovered the way of the Huichol (pronounced WEE-chol) and 
their ambiguously legal, hallucinogenic drug peyote. He's lived here since, 
earning a living selling handmade jewelry and guiding tourists on treks 
through the Huichol desert, in search of peyote.

Mr. Baldella is an example of the powerful draw of Real de Catorce and its 
peyote-driven mysticism. A growing number of young Mexicans and a faithful 
legion of aging hippies from around the world are arriving in greater 
numbers, seeking the same higher ground.

Peyote tourism is such that it is now the core of a debate among 
anthropologists, Huichol leaders and longtime townsfolk over the future of 
this remote getaway.

"It is a tragedy," said Victor Sanchez, an author and expert on Huichol 
culture and traditional uses of peyote. "It is one thing to mix spiritual 
traditionalism with this New Age wave and alter things. But hippie tourism 
is a different thing altogether, where the central point is recreational 
drug use. That's not what the Huichol are about."

Mr. Sanchez, who has spent years living with and studying the Huichol, was 
shocked recently to see some sacred sites around Real de Catorce invaded by 
tourists on donkeys and horses. He tells of thefts, reported by angry 
Huichols, of offerings of food and handmade crafts they've left at the 
sacred sites.

'My adopted culture'

But not all tourists come to disrupt the Huichol, many longtime Real de 
Catorce residents argue.

Mr. Baldella, for example, insists that his careful devotion to Huichol 
culture has won over the local tribe's leaders.

"This culture is my adopted culture," Mr. Baldella said, gazing out of a 
car window at a vast stretch of desert near Real de Catorce - a quiet, wild 
place he calls his school. "I cannot be Huichol, and I won't try. I will 
always be an outsider. But if you are serious about learning their ways, 
and prove to them you're serious, they'll let you in a bit."

The Huichol inhabit a wide swath of central Mexico, from the western 
coastal mountains of Nayarit state and east to the plains of San Luis 
Potosi state. They're known for their fierce isolation, their colorful 
dress and brilliant weavings. To some, they're better known for their 
expert use of peyote.

Peyote, a bulbous member of the cactus family, is common in deserts 
throughout the Americas. Centuries before explorers arrived in the Western 
Hemisphere, peyote had gained fame among tribal leaders for its medicinal 
properties and for enlightening priests, according to scholars.

The dull-skinned, turquoise bulbs crowned by pastel flowers are contraband 
in the hands of non-Huichol tribe members, according to Mexican law. Mexico 
abides by tenets of international treaties that respect rights of 
indigenous people to use some drugs for religious purposes. In the United 
States, peyote is legally used by members of the Native American Church.

Signs at the entrances of desert preserves warn that peyote must not be cut 
by visitors. But that has not stopped a brisk, underground trade.

"Looking for cactus?" a shop owner near one of the reserves asked - with an 
arched right eyebrow - as Mr. Baldella and a visitor bought water and beer 
before a recent walk into the desert.

Mr. Baldella whispered that local police have been known to harass 
peyote-hunting tourists.

"If it introduces people to a way of life that is in danger of being 
squashed by modern life, then maybe it's good. Maybe it should be legal," 
Mr. Baldella said. "The outsiders can then help preserve this place and 
protect the Huichol."

In Real de Catorce, Shaman Marcelino has mixed feelings about peyote's 
popularity outside his tribe. Shaman Marcelino is a stout Huichol, famous 
locally for his curative skills and the storehouse of Indian lore in his 
head. A few days a week he sits under an ornate hat, near a cafe on the 
Real de Catorce square, where he muses about the Huichol experience and 
sells woven goods.

"It is good that tourists come, as long as they come with respect for our 
lands and our traditions," said Shaman Marcelino, as he wove a talisman 
called a "God's Eye." It's made, he said, with thread blessed by water from 
a nearby sacred site, and offers round-the-clock protection for the buyer.

"I always carry these with me," he said, pulling several pear-shaped plugs 
of peyote from a cloth sack. "But it's illegal for anyone else. It should 
be that way, but it is also good that people want to know about us and our 

"The Huichol know how to keep our distance," Shaman Marcelino added. "I 
don't see myself as a real shaman; the real shamen are up in the mountains 
and the desert, away from all of this. I'm just here selling art and 
educating people."

In Real de Catorce, Shaman Marcelino has found no end of willing students.

"I'm here to see what this is all about," said Lilibeth Mendoza, a 
26-year-old communications student from Monterrey, Mexico. "I've heard so 
much about the mystery of this place; the old buildings and the desert. I 
consider myself a young hippie, so of course I'm here for the peyote, too."

A Boon Or A Bomb?

Peyote tourism holds the promise of positive economic development for Real 
de Catorce, but it could also plant seeds for the city's ultimate 
de-evolution into just another Mexican tourist trap with kitschy trinkets 
for sale, said Ron Beal, a contractor from Austin who has spent vacations 
and long weekends here over the last two decades.

"It is more touristy. There are double the cars from when I first came 
here," said Mr. Beal, who often camps on a friend's property at the edge of 
Real de Catorce. "Progress is good, to a point. I hope the people here - 
especially the Huichol - can find a way to keep it all low key. The things 
that are attractive here, the mystery, the clean atmosphere, the relaxed 
pace, all disappear when human traffic is too great."

Real de Catorce emerged in the mid-1800s as a silver mine and home to a 
number of Spanish mineral barons.

Getting here seems easy at first. Well-groomed highways run close to the 
mountains that guard Real de Catorce. But the final stretch of road is 15 
miles of teeth-rattling cobblestone that leads to a two-mile, one-lane 
tunnel punched through a mountain more than a century ago by local miners.

Emerging on the other side of the dark and dusty tunnel, onto a plateau 
that supports the town, is like stepping back in time.

Cellphones don't work; conventional telephone service is unreliable; and 
television reception is spotty for those without satellite links. Many of 
the old stone structures appear on the verge of returning to dust; brown, 
in the clay and the rust, is the dominant color.

Yet the interiors behind the tumble-down walls are marvels of Southwestern 
design - evidence of a generation of moneyed American and Mexican baby 
boomers who call this home for at least part of the year.

The place is so picturesque that the Hollywood production The Mexican used 
it as a backdrop.

Despite the slow-lane charm, Real de Catorce boasts an unusual number of 
thriving restaurants - mostly Italian. And bustling street commerce is run 
by dreadlocked vendors selling what Mexicans call "Hippie-teca" - Huichol 
weavings, local art, and gemstones - on the town's central square.

The eccentric mix suits locals just fine.

"We're not overrun yet. During the week it's just us locals. Kind of like 
the way this place was a couple of decades ago, before the movies and the 
tourist guide books," said Melody Fernandez, 26, whose family runs the 
Hotel de Catorce.

Like many of Real de Catorce's "locals," Ms. Fernandez splits her time 
between Mexico and someplace else. In her case, it's San Marcos, Texas, 
where she's studying at Southwest Texas State University.

"We have a chance to preserve all this," she added. "But it is difficult 
when some people see they have a chance to make money. ... In a way, that 
has been the problem here since the beginning, when this was all Huichol 
land and new people came and fenced the land for their goats."

For most of the year the population hovers around 1,500 on weekdays; it's 
roughly triple that on weekends. During holidays, the place is clogged by 
visitors who overwhelm the town's small hotels and boarding houses, and its 
water and sewer services.

Most visitors are either Mexican or American, from nearby cities of 
Monterrey and San Luis Potosi, and from Texas, where border-hopping buses 
leave daily from Austin.

Out in the desert, Mr. Baldella pondered the conflict between the Huichol 
ways and the ways of modern Mexican tourism. Into a ritual he performed 
when he came across a good peyote bulb, he inserted a prayer that humans 
will find "balance" in the desert.

"There's enough here for everyone," he said as he laid an offering of 
animal crackers and water to the animals and spirits who protect the 
peyote. "But if we abuse it, like we do many things, we're lost."
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