Mestizo Shamanism and Vegetalistas
What is mestizo shamanism?
The Loreto province of northeastern Peru (and to a lesser extent to Ucayali province south of it) is virtually unique in Latin America in that indigenous shamanic practices have been adopted and adapted by the mestizo population, and become a part of the mestizo culture.
While mestizo curanderismo is not unknown elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, it is almost always found in isolated rural areas. Among most mestizo populations, there is strong social pressure to distance oneself from the scorned indigenous world and embrace the prestigious Spanish/western world, and only in the most isolated rural regions would mestizos continue indigenous practices. And in the modern world, with television and mass communication, such pockets of isolation are fast disappearing.
Yet, in the province of Loreto in northeastern Peru, not only does an active mestizo shamanism thrive, but it thrives even in urban centers. Especially in the city of Iquitos – population about 400,000. (Iquitos resident Alan Shoemaker quoted the Iquitos police chief as estimating that on any given Friday, 10% of the population was drinking Ayahuasca.) Part of this has to do with the uniqueness of Iquitos, which is cut off from the rest of Peru, accessible by river from other parts of the Amazon but accessible only by air from the rest of the country. But part of it has to do with the uniqueness of Ayahuasca itself.
The seeds of mestizo Ayahuasca shamanism were planted in the late nineteenth century, during the Rubber Boom. Experiments in growing rubber on monocropped plantations had failed, due to a disease called South American leaf blight (Dothidella ulei), which spread when rubber trees were grown together. (Had it not been for that blight, the entire Amazon Basin might have been cleared for rubber plantations.) As a result, rubber (latex) had to be harvested from wild trees that grew scattered and separated in the jungle. In some areas, such as the Putumayo region of Colombia/Peru, Indians were brutally enslaved for this task. But in other areas, especially those which had been relatively depopulated of Indians, such as the area around the Amazon River itself, mestizo and black rubber tappers were brought in to act as tappers.
These rubber tappers had to work alone, in the jungle, covering large areas. When they fell ill, they had to turn to Indian curanderos. In other cases, mestizo rubber tappers were kidnapped by Indians and lived for long periods with them. Some of these mestizos ended up apprenticing to the curanderos and learning the Ayahuasca practices, and, as the mestizo population increased, provided curing services for them.
As the mestizo cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa grew, so did the mestizo shamanic tradition. The use of Ayahuasca in the context of mestizo folk medicine closely resembles the shamanic uses of Ayahuasca as practiced among indigenous peoples — for curing, for divination, as a diagnostic tool and a magical pipeline to the supernatural realm.
In the 1970s, the anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios undertook a study of the use of Ayahuasca among inhabitants of the city of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. The slums of Iquitos are populated by people who have come in from the forest, and poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and crime dominate social life. Many of the slum dwellers seek out traditional ways of dealing with the myriad problems that they encounter; among these is the use of Ayahuasca for its curative powers. Surgeries conducted by native healers take place at night in forest clearings on the outskirts of the city. These healers carefully screen their prospective patients and will not allow those suffering from extreme mental disorders to take part in the ayahuasca ceremonies for fear of disrupting the entire healing session. A communal cup is passed around and the amount consumed by each patient is monitored by the healer, who makes his or her assessment of the appropriate dosage according to each individual’s body weight, physical condition and mental health. When all the patients have drunk from the cup the healer will then also take ayahuasca. The ayahuasceros sing sacred songs or icaros, which call forth spirits to help with the healing. Throughout the ceremony the healer moves around the gathering shaking a rattle, blowing cigarette smoke on some patients (tobacco smoke is considered to have healing properties) and exorcising evil spirits which are seen as the cause of various diseases and disorders. Many of the problems which the native healers try to cure are what westerners would call psychological traumas and depression. In the eyes of the slum dwellers they are more often seen as caused by the evil eye, witchcraft, and sorcery. In Peru it is common for allopathic physicians to refer some of their patients to ayahuasceros when they are unable to make a diagnosis, identify a problem, or find a cure.
On the surface, mestizo curanderismo practices appear very similar to indigenous practices, but there are often influences from Catholic culture, even when the curandero is not formally Catholic. Some curanderos use overt Catholic symbolism and imagery, while for others the influence may be more subtle. Mestizo curanderismo is often influenced by the Catholic view of a polarized universe, with cosmic sides of Good and Evil at war with each other, and healing may have a tone of a cosmic battle of Good against evil. Other mestizo curanderos are more oriented to indigenous worldviews, in which spirits can be recognized as harmful or beneficial, but they are not divided into two distinct sides in a cosmic war. Mestizo shamanism also sometimes shows apparent Catholic influence with an emphasis on shamans as authorities on spiritual matters (some mestizo shamans strongly discourage people from drinking Ayahuasca without the oversight of a shaman) a role that may be subtly influenced by the figure of the Catholic priest.
But overall, the differences between mestizo and indigenous practices are subtle; mestizo curanderismo represents the mestizo adoption of indigenous practices. Like the indigenous shamans, the mestizo vegetalistas regard the entire jungle as alive and communicative; like the indigenous shamans, the vegetalistas are taught directly by Plant Teachers. Dieta, or spiritual diet (which includes sexual abstinence) is as important during the apprenticeship of mestizo as indigenous shamans, to facilitate communicating with the Plants.
Mestizo shamans regard themselves and are regarded by their patients as skilled professionals. They are not medicine men and women caring for and cared for by a tribal community, but professionals working in private practice, much like a doctor. They are often highly competitive with each other. Given the the sense of competitiveness among shamans in many indigenous societies of the Upper Amazon, and the general competitiveness of mestizo culture, and the fact that the mestizo curanderos must compete for clientele, the sense of competitiveness and mutual mistrust is often strong.
Most Ayahuasca tourism is centered around mestizo shamans and around the geographical center of mestizo shamanism — Iquitos, Peru (the Shipibos are the only indigenous group significant involved in Ayahuasca tourism).
What are vegetalistas? What is vegetalismo?
Among mestizo populations of the provinces of Loreto and Ucayali in Peru, the shamans of plant knowledge and medicine, who communicate with Sacha Runa (elemental spirits of the plants), are known as vegetalistas,. This term is used differentiate them from oracionistas, who employ only prayers for performing similar shamanic tasks, or from espiritistas, who work solely with spirits. The vegetalista regards plants as teachers, hosts to elemental spirits that can communicate with human beings.
Vegetalistas are more than just herbalists. Vegetalismo is a kind of Plant shamanism deeply rooted in indigenous practices. Vegetalistas diet [see Dieta links] with different plants in turn, spending weeks in isolation in the jungle, eating only certain foods and consuming great quantities of the plant they are “dieting” (they phrase it as “I dieted this or that plant”) until the spirit of the particular plant enters them and teaches them about itself — a sort of Plant-spirit vision quest.
A vegetalista may specialize in other plants besides Ayahuasca; the dieta can be used for learning any Plant. Most vegetalistas tend to specialize in one or a few Plant Teachers in their practices. There are tabaqueros who specialize in Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica); toeros who specialize in the use of Brugmansia species (known in Peru as toe); camalongueros, who use the seeds of camalonga, a plant that grows in the Andes; catahueros who use the resin of Catahua (Hura crepitans); paleros who use the bark of various large trees; and perfumeros who use the scents of various fragrant plants, a kind of aromatherapy. ((There are also tragaceros, who use strong alcoholic beverage distilled from sugar cane.)
Most vegetalistas use a number of different plants. But Ayahuasca is the primary plant of vegetalismo. Most vegetalistas use Ayahuasca in addition to their other specialties, or used it during their apprenticeship, because one of Ayahuasca’s roles is to make it possible to communicate with other plants and learn the language of the plant world in general. Without Ayahuasca, there would be no vegetalismo; in the rest of Spanish-speaking America, few mestizos, especially urban mestizos, have anything to do with backward Indian customs like communicating with plants, and nothing resembling vegetalismo is practiced in the mestizo populations outside the regions where Ayahuasca is used. But in the Ayahuasca-using region of Loreto, Peru, plant shamanism has not only survived, it has thrived.