Before my friend, “Frida” became addicted to scary men and dark places, she had invited me to join her and her crush, “Samuel” to shoot a short documentary film in Piedras Negras, Mexico.
We were to meet in San Antonio, Texas, where Samuel lived, and drive to Mexico the next day where we would find a curandera (a traditional healer)also known as La Dona Remedia, whom he had met on a trip over the border some months before.
I had agreed to make the trip without hesitation. Frida had a way of meeting fascinating people, who were doing fascinating things, and I was in college, eager to carve out my own fascinating persona, while trying to decipher how to direct my wide and varied interests.
When Frida picked me up from the airport, she had shared that Samuel had the “most fabulous house” she had ever seen. “Small,” she said, but full of charm and fun décor. “He’s a genius!”
I knew this would be true, as Frida had great taste, which I had seen firsthand in the loft she shared with her roommates in Hell’s Kitchen. I had been introduced to Frida by “Sandy”, a stylist-in-training, who had approached me after my long stint on the dance floor of a Meat Packing District nightclub and asked if I was a model. Being 6’ feet tall, thin and fond of mix and match fashion (vintage and new), I had often been asked this question. Or, if I was interested in giving it a try. Sandy was young too and her mid-western accent reassured me somehow, that it might be fun to have some photos taken for her portfolio and for my “book” (which I wasn’t sure I would ever need, but a few nice shots to display in my room I thought, might come in handy).
Sandy had said that Frida was the most creative person she had ever known, and that I would “love her.” When we made our introductions upon my arrival, I was immediately captivated by our hostess, who greeted me in a generous silk moo moo the color of orange rust and her larger than life personality.
Frida and I did become fast friends, as Sandy thought we might, though she was a decade or so older, and was disappointed by my lack of interest in taking the fashion world by storm (“so I can get invited to all of those cool parties and meet movie stars, too,” she laughed). It was soon after her sudden move from New York to follow her dream to live in the Southwest, that I received her invitation.
Samuel, who was around Frida’s age, hailed from Mexico City, and had lived in San Antonio most of his life. He had a nice smile and was happy to give us a tour of the Alamo and River Walk when I arrived. It had been Frida’s idea to have an early supper. And it was she, who declared over our margaritas and fish tacos, that she wanted to have Samuel’s baby. We all laughed, but I knew that she was serious. Or at least, that she wanted him to take her seriously. After dinner we each retired to our rooms in Peter’s eclectic and colorful abode, where small wooden kayaks miraculously clung to the walls like sculptures and Guadalupe candles burned in every corner.
Samuel had received word from La Dona that we could film her for a day before her next pilgrimage to a small town forty miles from Piedras Negras where she lived. We were to drive there in Peter’s SUV and drive back at the end of the day. The directions once we reached the town were as follows: When you get to the village you will see a dead dog. Turn left there and keep going on the dirt road until you get to the small church. I will be there waiting for you.
The drive was only a few hours away. I was given co-pilot duty in the front seat, as I spoke Spanish and wanted to take photos along the way. Peter glanced into the rearview mirror and smiled at Frida as we sped along the highway. “So, Tia Frida, how are you doing?”
“Tia?” Frida gave him a slight scowl. She had fallen for him, which anyone other than Samuel could see.
“Si! You are like her cool Aunt,” he placed his arm around my shoulder. “Showing her things she would never see in college.”
Frida smiled and leaned forward. “Yes, I guess that’s true.” She kissed Samuel on the cheek as he shifted the car gear and pulled into a gas station.
“Anyone need anything?” he asked.
Frida opened her car door and joined him as he placed the gas nozzle in the tank and walked to the small bodega. I called my parents while I waited, who knew that I was on a filmmaking mission with Frida, and thought her to be a good influence, though they had never met her. My mother had been impressed that we were filming a healer and would be eager to hear how it was going. When I received their voicemail I left a message that I was safely in Mexico, was looking for a dead dog and would explain later. I hoped that they had kept their sense of humor, though they may have been a bit worried about me wandering in uncharted Mexican territory.
I was on the lookout for the poor creature when we resumed our journey. He had been left in the hot sun for who knows how long and would most likely be visible once we got closer. “There he is!” I pointed, as we drove slowly on the dirt road in the small village. His body had been curled inward, like he had planned to wake up once he got his bearings after a long rest. I tried to look away once we made the required turn around his lifeless body, but his matted, tan fur and eyes, wide open, kept me staring long enough for the image to invade my dreams later than night.
“Why don’t they move him?” Frida asked.
“I dunno,” Samuel said, steering the SUV around the rocks that covered the road. “I’ll ask La Dona.”
We approached the small, makeshift church, which appeared a few miles later, at a slow and reverent pace. The structure, made of unpainted wood planks and cement blocks, stood next to a small house of similar design, and emitted the smoky scent of incense that waffled through the open car window. I waved to a woman who held a basket of roses, with cinnamon brown skin and lines deepened by the sun that covered her cheeks and forehead. She nodded as we pulled in front of the church and handed me a rose as I opened the car door.
“Gracias,”I said. “Es usted Dona Remedia?”
The woman shook her head and beckoned for us to follow her into the church.
“Bienvenidas.” Dona Remendia said as she stood in front of the altar, filled with candles, photos, and a few pairs of crutches that had belonged to their once disabled owners and leaned against a long wooden table. Her small frame seemed to merge within the sunlight that seeped through a small stained-glass window. Her graying temples and tightly wound hair bun added a grace to her posture, which was that of an older woman who had witnessed and withstood the advent and passage of personal trials and those of others.
“Hola,” Samuel embraced her. “Estas son mis amigas.” These are my friends.
“Hola,” I said and shook her hand.
“Hola,”Frida moved next to Samuel and placed her arm around her shoulder.
“Ella es alta,” La Dona smiled as she took in my height and raised her hand high above her head.
“Yes, she is tall,” Samuel repeated in English for Frida, who regretted her lack of language skills, but enjoyed the extra attention this would prompt from Samuel during our visit.
La Dona gestured for us to find a seat in one of the chairs that faced the altar. A few wooden pews and other chairs filled the rows behind us. The woman with the rose basket announced that the people would be there soon to receive their blessings. La Dona whispered in Samuel’s ear and smiled in my direction.
“She would like to know if you would like alimpia.” Samuel unpacked the camera. “I knowyouwould,” he directed this to Frida, who removed a pair of sneakers from her large tote bag and changed from the pointy mules she had been wearing.
“Of course,” I said. “Por supuesto.”
La Dona seemed pleased by my acceptance of her offer and left us to prepare for her followers.
“I don’t know why you wore those,” Samuel eyed the bag, now filled with Frida’s “travel” shoes. “This isn’t Fifth Avenue.”
Frida smiled and removed a notebook from her bag. “That’s why you love me darlin.”
Samuel laughed and placed the camera on a tripod.
The villagers of all ages began to file through the front of the church. Some with canes, crutches and casts on their arms and legs. Others held eggs, nettle, eucalyptus and other plants tied in bunches, and waited in line for La Dona’s healing and counsel.
“Why don’t you ask a few folks some questions,” Samuel said, handing me a smaller camera. “We can layer it in or just transcribe their answers.”
I was excited to take on this task and approached a man and his wife, who each held an egg and candle in their hands. I had read that eggs were used for the limpias to clean out any negative energies that might be surrounding the person receiving the cleansing.
“No camera,” the husband said in thickly accented English.
“No problemo.” I lowered the camera and asked if they would mind answering a few questions. The wife asked if Samuel was a famous filmmaker.
“Not yet,” I replied in Spanish.
“Nosotros estamos malditos,” We are cursed, the wife said before I could formally introduce myself and our project. Her husband sighed in agreement and made the sign of the cross.
I asked why they believed this was true. She explained that they had had bad luck since they threw their son out of the house. “Pero también fue maldito,” the husband added.Buthe was cursed too.
When La Dona entered the room, all halted their conversation and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, as she greeted the first person in line and listened as he made his request. The man handed her the egg as she whispered a prayer and made the sign of the cross with the egg in front of his chest.
I approached a young woman who held a tied bunch of Eucalyptus and a photo of a man sitting at a table by the water. She explained to me that she hoped her novio would marry her. This was her first time seeing La Dona, who had helped her friend find the man to whom she was now engaged. I had thought of asking La Dona for advice in this area when my turn came. There had been Gregory, a fellow student at school, who I had been interested in, but had not seen since the class we had taken the semester before. This now seemed frivolous, I thought, as I was in the midst of those who needed her help for serious ailments and real-life questions, and Gregory was not the man that I hoped I would marry.
Samuel moved the camera, with Frida’s help, to the back of the line where a mother and son waited for La Dona’s last blessing of the day. The steady stream of followers had begun in the morning and lasted until the early afternoon when all knew she would stop for the day to take her lunch and rest.
“Ven,” she waved for me to come and sit by the altar.
Samuel packed the camera and gave me the thumbs up. “This my dear, is well worth your trip.”
Frida smiled and patted me on the back. “Ask her about your modeling career.”
“Aren’t you getting a reading?” I asked.
“I have had many,” Samuel said. “And this one,” he pointed to Frida. “Doesn’t want one today.”
This was surprising, as Frida was the queen of esoteric adventure.
“I’m just not feeling it,” Frida said. “We will wait for you outside.”
La Dona asked if I had a photo of anyone special that I would like her to pray for. I had a few of my family on my phone, but none of Gregory. La Dona regarded the photo of my parents and brothers and closed her eyes. “Espiritu Santo…”
She offered a candle for me to light in their honor that she would place on the altar along with the others. I lit the candle and watched as she found an empty candle stick next to a statue of San Miguel.
The boy you like will come to you, she said without my asking. And…your friend here, will not be your friend in five years. I waited for more and repeated the words to make sure that I had understood.
“Si. Eso es correcto,” she nodded.
“Porque?” I asked.
La Dona reached for my hand. “She is from a line of the cursed,” she uttered in Spanish with her eyes closed, still holding my hand.
“You will be OK,” she opened her eyes to reassure me. “I will keep you and your family in my prayers.”
“Gracias,”I thanked La Dona for the reading. Unsure of how I was going to omit this shocking bit of news from my required report of all to Samuel and Frida. The woman with the rose basket called to La Dona that her lunch was ready and brought over an egg for my limpia.
La Dona made a sign of the cross with the egg, said a prayer and let me know that due to her diabetes, she had to keep a tight schedule for her meals. “Buena Suerte!” Good luck.
A few years later, when I had settled into a life in New York out of school, I received a call from Frida letting me know that La Dona had died on a pilgrimage from dehydration. She had walked several miles with her fellow pelligrimosto a scared spot in the North of Mexico and did not wake up from a diabetic coma that had overtaken her days after she arrived. I had not spoken to Frida in over a year. She had had a falling out with Samuel and needed “space” from everyone for a while.
I had heard from Sandy a year or so later that Frida had been arrested in Houston for selling drugs and had been with a string of guys who had been in and out of jail for similar offenses.
I felt a pit in my stomach as Sandy expressed her shock and asked if I had heard from her.
“No,” I said and waited until we ended the call to try to imagine who thisFrida was, how this had happened and how La Dona had seen it all unfold.
I do not know if the film was ever made. As with all the friends I had met through Frida, the time we spent together was short lived and all had ended as abruptly as it started. I have wondered if the church has remained in the village. I had saved the rose the woman with the basket had given me until it crumbled inside of my notebook, and had dreams now and then, of walking on the road with the rose beneath the hot sun. Luckily, I have not dreamed of the dog since our first meeting.
We never did ask La Dona why he had been left in the road as a marker for all to see and ignore.