On ‘Mal de Ojo,’ Human Touch & Erecting Walls

I wrote this piece in 1998 for The Salt Journal, a short-lived magazine founded by my good friend David Barton, a damn good writer (and son of my longtime mentor and friend Bob Barton, Jr.). David had a vision of a journal devoted to mythology, religion and psychology. We didn’t succeed (I think we published about seven or eight issues), but the few months I helped David with the journal were some of the most fun and rewarding of my journalistic career. This piece was based on a shorter column I had written for USA TODAY.

A RECENT ARTICLE in a Texas newspaper spoke of mal de ojo and described it as “the evil eye,” which is the way that term is often translated in this country’s media. 

Growing up in South Texas in the 50s and 60s, I was never too far away from mal de ojo; It was very much a part of my life, like a cold or a toothache. Someone – either a member of my immediate family or a neighbor or a friend – was at one time another known to be suffering from el mal de ojo. 

The evil eye makes for good copy, but it is an awful translation. And an incorrect one. It introduces a concept of evil into something that has nothing at all to do with evil. And in so doing, it does a great disservice to a phenomenon that has such value. 

It was not something we feared, for it was nothing sinister, and did not involve the casting of wicked spells or the mutilation of voodoo dolls. It was – and remains – simply something that results from carelessness or neglect. 

When we talked about somebody giving someone, we usually meant that someone had admired a person – a baby or young child, more often than not – and then failed to reach out to touch that person, to pat her gently on the head, to caress her. It was never enough to utter our admiration of another person: we had to demonstrate, in a physical way, what we felt. 

The reason no one made a big deal out of mal de ojo was that there was a quick and easy remedy. All that was required was a person like Tía Sara, my mother’s sister, someone known for her healing powers. 

Not exactly a curandera, for curanderas are more like doctors in that healing is there full-time vocation. But every Mexican family has its own Tía Sara (almost always a female), someone who was perhaps a bit more sensitive to those around her, who’s got a special touch. They may have full-time jobs, or they may keep busy throughout the day taking care of their households, but in the evening, they can be called upon to pass their healing hands over ailing bodies.

They never get paid for those services, other than perhaps with a cup of coffee, some pan dulce and a heartfelt gracias

MY FIRST AND only personal brush with the mal de ojo came when I was about 5 years old. I paid a visit to another aunt, Tía Chavela, who lived across the street. Tía Chavela was the widow of Tío Tula, my father’s older brother. She was a teaser and she loved to pump us for information. She would have made a great talk show host.

“Which uncle do you like the most,” went a typical question. Your Tio Juan or Tío Adrian? If we were too quick with an answer to that one, she’d have another one ready. Which aunt? Which grandmother? Which godmother? 

She was someone whose request we simply could not turn down, and this time she talked me into giving her a preview of my upcoming dance performance at the pageant to be staged by Doña Herminia’s escuelita, the neighborhood kindergarten. She laughed with much delight and applauded heartily when I finished. But one thing she neglected to do was communicate her approval or amusement through touch, and that was her big mistake, because failing to touch those objects and people we admire is a sure way to give them mal de ojo.

Mal de ojo is, literally, the ailment caused by the eye. It is a malady that results when we fail to follow through on our initial approving impulse – with that gentle touch, human contact. It is caused by our stinginess, by our unwillingness or inability to openly dispense our admiration.

Its victims don’t have to be human, or alive. An admired lamp left untouched can suddenly topple from its integral perch and shatter into pieces. A coveted lovable kitten that the admirer fails to pick up and pet might soon quit frolicking and die.

In essence, mal de ojo is an illness caused by selfishness, by pride. It is a reminder that, as members of society, we have an obligation to become involved, to reach out and touch someone – to offer not only our approval, but also our warmth and our nurturing.

Sure enough, the day following my visit to my aunt’s house, I came down with a number of symptoms. Headache. Nausea. A general malaise. No big deal, but significant enough to keep me home from school, something that rarely happened. It wasn’t until Tia had performed her beautiful sorcery that I started to feel better.

Nothing too exotic: she simply passed a raw egg back and forth over my supine body while citing the Lord’s prayer, a few Hail Marys and other supplications to God, then she broke the egg into a glass half filled with water to demonstrate how the egg had sucked up the illness. It was there, for all to see: a dark orange spot in the middle of the yolk. 

Within 24 hours I was back at school. 

I RELAY THIS to point out the importance of family, neighbors and friends – our village, if you will – in determining who we are, how we react to what life has given us, and what we do to make this world a better place. 

One of the tragic things about modern life is that too many of us buy into the myth that we are self-made. And that, being self-made, we owe nothing to those who have come before us (and those still with us) who have influenced our thoughts and actions. 

An even greater tragedy is our impulse to erect walls around us to keep people away from us or keep out of sight or whatever makes us uncomfortable: the outstretched hands of poverty, the wretched faces of those not sick enough to be institutions yet not well enough to be integrated into our society, the angry voices of those who don’t agree with us – or just anybody who looks and sounds different. 

No longer content to build fences around our homes, we want the extra protection of walls – complete with guarded gates – around our communities. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors. Worse, we don’t want to become involved in their lives and their problems. 

In insulating ourselves from the ugliness around us, we deprive ourselves of the benefits of the caring caresses of people such as my aunts, the soothing gentle touches that offer us some protection from our self-centered impulses. 

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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