(Auto)Biographical Reflections on Encounters with Psychotropic and Medicinal Plants
Dedicated to the interconnected paths of Juan Negrín, Sasha Shulgin and Silviano Camberos.
The texture, color and flower of the peyote remain a vivid childhood memory.
I grew up in a unique household in the context of Guadalajara’s conservative and classist Catholicism. It was a home that was shared with Wixárika families and visitors from different parts of the world who sought to learn a thing or two about one of Mesoamerica’s original and dynamic cultures. My childhood memories are filled with yarn paintings created by the masters of Wixárika art. I would lay, legs up, on the couch observing José Benítez Sánchez’s, Tatei Atsinari Our Mother the Coiled Serpent of Corn Gruel, while semi-consciously listening to the conversations my father would sustain with our visitors—often on the topic of ethno-botany.
I remember, with intensity how, once peeled, the opaque green of the peyote would turn into a brilliant emerald green.
My parents met in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1968, both attracted by the cultural, political and labor opportunities offered by this rebellious region during such a unique time period. My father, Juan Negrín (1945-2015), was born in Mexico City, the child of an American woman and a Spanish exile—a condition that allowed him to explore the world beyond nationalist boundaries. My mother, Yvonne da Silva, was born in New York, the daughter of other diasporas, principally Azorean-Portuguese via Brazil and Irish via Ohio. Their story, which is interwoven with ethno-botany, begins in this foggy corner of California.
In my home and amongst our close friends, peyote was a plant that was to be respected with love. Peyote was not fetishized nor was it a dominant topic, but it was a present element.
When my father encountered Wixárika yarn paintings in an exhibit in the Basilica of Zapopan, he began a lengthy and very committed relationship with Wixárika art, culture and territory. From the beginning of the 1970s onward, he participated in arduous pilgrimages in the Wixárika mountains and on six occasions he visited Wirikuta, walking and fasting from the Western Sierra Madre in Jalisco to the sacred land of the peyote in San Luis Potosí.
If one did not walk, fast, and confess one’s sins collectively, the peyote would discover your mask with a punishment. As a good existentialist, my father would dedicate weeks to these journeys and their accompanying sacrifices.
As the years passed, new friendships were made through shared links to the study of the medical and social benefits of psychotropic plants. Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin (1925-2014) and Ann Shulgin were among the most emblematic of these friends, whose texts Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story and Thikal explored—based on decades of scientific research—the union between chemistry and the human mind. When my parents returned to live in California during different moments of the 1990s, they began attending “Friday night dinners” where a wide spectrum of errudites of psychotropic plants would gather. Between the libations, the attendees would share personal experiences with plants and new findings. During my adolescent years, the hosts would hire me to clean up the dishes, granting me the opportunity to overhear the guests’ various conversations.
Have you tried peyote? Did your parents give you some when you were little? Did you go to Huichol ceremonies as a child? Did they give you peyote?
The interests that united the students of these plants cannot be reduced to a myopic attraction to psychodelics as so many have caricaturized. What they shared was a profound passion for the intersection between Western and Aboriginal scientific knowledge. Some sought to influence laws that had collapsed plants like peyote with synthetic substances produced for a massive market, while others sought to produce and disseminate greater scientific knowledge on the therapeutic use of these substances. As one could expect, there always was a segment of people that would attend these reunions through their egocentric impulse to speak about their psychodelic “trip”. While they were comical, they have remained the fixed popular image of ungrounded psychodelia.
Peyote was not the only plant. There was also the kieri, known also as the Tree of the Wind—family of the datura and solandra.
The masterwork by Wixárika artist Guadalupe González Ríos, The Birth of the Kieri, hung on the stairway of our home. This was a plant to fear and the whispers about its power would make me run passed the 4 foot by 4 foot painting. I even dreaded saying its name. This fearful awe was sustained when several mara’akate (Wixárika shamans) agreed that my father’s epilepsy was associated with his inability to fulfill his duties to the kieri, a plant that my father visited, but did not consume after Guadalupe asked him to accompany him to visit this plant which he considered to be his patrón or master. If one did not fulfill ones duties to the kieri, the plant had the capacity of turning itself into a seductive woman and lead you toward a series of unfortunate events.
My father lay in the garden while the mara’akame conducted a limpia, a cleansing. From his stomach emerged a piece of the kieri. I looked at this tiny piece of root with amazement, understanding that plants had the power for good and for bad.
Throughout the years, I met many characters that shared my parents’ enthusiasm and fascination for psychotropic plants and their medicinal and psychotherapeutic properties. Silviano Camberos Sánchez (1962-2009) was a marvelous doctor and ethnobotanist who began his trajectory as a doctor in the Wixárika communities and later travelled through the Americas to learn about the diverse uses of sacred plants. His incorporation of plants and indigenous medicinal techniques into his practice made of him a great doctor. But other characters had tragic encounters, crossing the world to reach a Magical Mexico only to remain on the “trip”, terrified, confused and alone.
Undoubtedly, the debate over mining concessions in the sacred pilgrimage route of Wirikuta has captivated the attention of many peyote enthusiasts who have allied themselves to the struggle to protect this cactus that is endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert. With the context of contemporary battles over the political, economic and cultural status of psychotropic plants in mind, it is worth taking a pause to reflect on the groundbreaking work carried out by my parents’ generation in giving life to global conversations about these plants. It is to them that I dedicate this brief reflection.
(*) Diana Negrín da Silva is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Investigation and Study in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico. She received her PhD in geography from the University of California at Berkeley in 2014. Diana spent her childhood between Guadalajara, Berkeley and the Wixárika community of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, Tuapurie. Her research interests include ethnicity, identity, cultural studies, the construction of space and social activism. For more information, see: www.diananegrin.weebly.com
Ph.D. in Geography
Diana Negrín da Silva is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Investigation and Study in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico. She received her PhD in geography from the University of California at Berkeley in 2014. Diana spent her childhood between Guadalajara, Berkeley and the Wixárika community of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, Tuapurie. Her research interests include ethnicity, identity, cultural studies, the construction of space and social activism. For more information, see: www.diananegrin.weebly.com