Watching a movie about witches recently, I was reminded that over fifty years ago I met my first witch in Juarez, Mexico.
When I was young and still fairly new to El Paso, our next-door neighbor, a fun person named Cruz, was determined from the day we met "to make a Mexican out of you," as she said. We kept our windows open a lot in those days, and she would holler, "Wanna! Come over! I'm cooking!" and I would go over and work along with her step by step as she explained her way through another new-to-me Mexican dish.
In those days, lovely cottonwoods and other trees still lined the Rio Grande, and people moved amiably and easily back and forth across its bridges as they had done for centuries. So, Cruz's plan also included road trips to Juarez for special food purchases and other adventures. I remember at first spending time hunkered in the floorboard of her car in sheer terror as drivers engaged in a constant game of chicken, moving at breakneck speeds, never yielding until the last second. (Oddly enough, I later learned that Juarez had fewer automobile accidents, per capita, than El Paso - at least at that time.) Along with trips to the Old Cuauhtemoc Market - "not the one the tourists go to," she said - she took me on careening rides through dusty neighborhoods with quaint shops tucked into alleys.
It was on one of those trips that I met my first witch, although Cruz didn't exactly call her that. "She is a bruja, some say. She speaks English depending on her 'estada animico,' her mood, but I will translate if necessary because sometimes she chooses not to."
The bell tinkled as we entered the tiny dimly lit shop, where rows of glass jars filled with things like chicken feet and strange objects glimmeried on the shelves. We stepped gingerly around baskets and bags of things crowding the floor to a curtained doorway, and my heart quailed when I brushed against long strings of snakeskins and dried this and that hanging here and there. Cruz hollered, "Bruja! Come meet mi amiga. She has much to learn from you!"
As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw her then, silhouetted in the doorway, her arms full. Cruz introduced me. "Bruja, this is my friend and neighbor, Wanna. I am teaching her how to be a Mexican."
I blinked and sort of stuttered,"So nice to meet you." Frankly I was surprised that she looked quite benign, really, and it must have shown on my face.
"You were expecting un diente enganchado?" she asked, slightly smiling.
"She means snaggle-tooth," Cruz whispered.
"Well, no, um, I am not sure," I bumbled. "I have actually not been around that many witches. In my childhood they were just known as peculiar women and all that I ever knew of were old."
"How old do you think I am?" she asked.
Cruz rushed to explain. "Dear Bruja, it doesn't matter! She has little knowledge of skills like yours. After all, she was born in Oklahoma."
At that point there was a rustling at our feet. We looked down. Nestled at the foot of her skirt were a black cat and a strange little figure, a sort of stick doll.
"I see you have been working with your potions," Cruz said, pointing to her bag. "Perhaps you could show Wanna some of them. Would you believe she has a problem with being in the sun? Maybe you have something that would help."
"Not exactly my field," Bruja said. "Aloe vera is good if you already have a sunburn; try that; but prevent it? You need to visit some of the healers at the Old Market. My business is more for people who want something to do a negative thing. Now if you want a spell to do harm to another person, perhaps I can oblige."
"No, thanks, I don't really need anything like that," I said, shaking my head.
At this point the cat turned to look at me, and I swear the doll did, too.
The rest of our visit was quite sedate, once I got over the idea of the place itself and the snakeskins that kept brushing against my face. My goodness, she had a lot of interesting brews and teas and powders and ointments for all kinds of problems, none of which related to me, thank goodness. I may have bought a few packets of things, more for curiosity's sake than anything else, but it's been over fifty years, so my memory is a bit fuzzy.
After we bade her goodbye and left the little shop, I asked Cruz about her headdress
"Oh, she likes to think of herself as the mirror opposite of La Virgen de Guadalupe, I suppose. Quien sabe? Who knows?"
After all this time, I don't recall much more than this, except that it was one of Cruz' and my more memorable road trips. I have met several witches and skeletons since then, and I must say most of them have not looked at all like Bruja.
Bruja was created for a contest on the Minidoll list. The category I entered involved using a purchased packet of "distressed fabrics."
I decided to use a doll which I have had for quite a while that was created by a friend who has since passed on. She had a rather odd look about her, not the least of which was the strange posture of her arms and hands. Her white clothing was sewn to a fabric base, so I began by removing her gathered/pleated skirt, which I put aside in my petticoat stash. Her undergarment was pantaloons made from a very stiff nylon lace, all of which I discarded. And lastly, I removed her sewn on bodice, as well.
It was a real challenge to use at least a piece of all those fabrics. Once I had broken down all the elements of her clothing -skirt, bodice, straight sleeves with upper pouf, cape, and potions bag - it was easier to decide which fabric worked best for each. I even made a hat, but wound up not using it. (Some elements don't show well underneath her cape and bag, but I know they are there!)
I gave her some simple cotton pantaloons, and cut a circle for her skirt from the largest swath of the fabrics. It glued easily but was a challenge to drape.
I tried spritzing water, spray starch, hair spray and finally I just kept her skirt folds pinned to my pinning board and left her that way throughout most of the finishing.
Once I had her bodice on it was easier to proceed. I used that same fabric to line her cape. When her dress was finished, I removed her old red hair and gave her a new black hairdo, then added the cape.
I am usually pretty good at grunging things up, but this doll would not let me. She came out less distressed than I originally planned. It is true that the doll tells you who she wants to be, or at least mine do.
She didn't become real to me until I decided to remove the stiff black netting covering a smoked ham. As I cut off the top above the staple, it formed a crescent.
An image of La Virgen de Guadalupe popped into my mind and I thought Aha! She is the dark side of the patron saint of Mexico!
I can't tell you how many times I had added and removed accessories, but when her real self became clear in that Aha! moment, it was so much easier to finish her.
The fabric I used for her bag had long frayed ends. I just turned one end over the top to form the fringe, leaving its natural curve but trimming it slightly. I used a wadded piece of paper towel to give bulk to the bottom, and protruding from the top is a weird spiky plant and a bottle. Her right hand holds a silver box and a dangling potion jug.
Then I sprayed her skirt again throughly with hair spray, holding my hands cupped against the folds until it finally draped as I wanted. I glued the stand on a larger piece of black cardstock for better balance and stood her in the brass base of a glass dome, a gift from my daughter.
The black cat, who practically disappears against her skirt, was in my stash. I repainted his eyes. A tiny figure from a recent auction purchase became her fetish doll.
I really enjoy a challenge and this contest was right up my alley (so to speak). Bruja was fun to do and turned out quite different from my other witches.