A medium lies at the spiritual center of the local diasporic community. In her living room, men and women from countries like Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico sit with children on their laps, patiently waiting their turn. She wishes a client goodbye, welcomes another client into the apartment, takes a call, offers coffee to those already waiting, and brings another client into the room to read cards. The number of people gradually dwindles down to the few that are here to speak to El Viejo. She smiles before stepping back into the room. A few low, drawn out grunts, and then silence. A bell chimes from within the room—bajó El Viejo, El Viejo has arrived. The first client goes in and closes the door.
When I was in my early twenties my dad took me to get my cards read for the first time. I’d always known him to be religious, but private about it. As I grew older, however, he opened up to me about his beliefs and practices that exist outside of his Catholic faith. He took both mainstream Catholicism and divination very seriously and never found that it opposed with his belief in God. Visiting the homes of Dominican mediums in the Bronx, Uptown Manhattan, and northern New Jersey, I found that each had a specialty and differing abilities. They read cards and prescribed baths and ointments that could be purchased at a local botanica. Some of them were able to tell me some personal things while others, I suspected, weren’t quite as good as they claimed to be.
The syncretism of divination in Dominican communities often means it’s not practiced openly. It’s not unusual to meet people within the Dominican community who are skeptical of divination or worse: call it something of Satan, or claim it’s a “Haitian” thing (a product of xenophobia and an outright rejection of syncretic beliefs in the Dominican Republic). For these reasons, mediums develop a following through word of mouth. They don’t advertise; they let their skills speak for themselves.
Meeting El Viejo
El Viejo—also known as the deity Belie Belcan, a being syncretized with Saint Michael—is the defender of truth and justice. He’s known for defeating evil and one’s enemies, and he’s often called upon to do deeds on behalf of humanity. You seek out El Viejo when you have no one else to turn to—and you need someone to tell it to you straight up.
Channeling El Viejo is considered a gift, one that not every medium possesses. Even so, having the gift doesn’t guarantee El Viejo will respond anytime he’s “called” upon by a medium. It’s also tiring work; the act of letting a spiritual being speak through you is exhausting. Some mediums will only call on El Viejo at specific times and will have all of those clients show up at that particular time.
In 2010, I sublet a room from one of my father’s first cousins. I didn’t know it then —she never shared this with me at the time— but the dozens of people that visited her apartment on a daily basis were there to either get their cards read or speak to El Viejo. It wasn’t until later that I realized she was a practicing medium, one my father visited regularly. Whenever he was in town, he’d invite me to join him but I usually declined.
Soon, however, I found myself in need of “El Viejo.” I took heed of my dad’s advice and visited his cousin. We drank coffee and chatted for a few minutes before she went into her room. From the kitchen, I could hear the low groans coming from inside and I was nervous. Before long, the bell rang. Bajó El Viejo. I entered the dark room, lit by candles on a huge altar; at the base was a picture of Saint Michael vanquishing demons. My cousin’s hair was wrapped underneath a satin scarf. She —or El Viejo, rather— smoked from an electronic cigarette (El Viejo enjoys a smoke) and rocked gently back and forth
I sat across from El Viejo, who wasn’t looking at me or anywhere, really, and he grabbed my hands in a ritual handshake. My cousin never had a strong grip, and she didn’t smoke; she didn’t look herself at all. He asked me what he could do for me in a raspy voice. Bajó el Viejo, indeed. I poured out my heart to him. He listened. I explained what was afflicting me and he told me who I was. He told me what he knew of me and what was holding me back. He prescribed a remedy for what ailed me —on one visit, it was a prayer and ritual to finally solve an outstanding legal issue that had been following me for years; on another, he prepared a three-day bath that would aid me in attracting a better job— and sent me on my way. He gave me dates for when these things would happen. He was right on both counts. El Viejo made a believer out of me.
Divination as culture
For a practice so widespread within the Latina community, it still amazes me how few people talk about it openly. Perhaps even those who are skeptical of divination understand the role that it plays in our community.
Mediums play an important role in the Latina community. They keep us in touch with a higher power as well as with ourselves; divination is, aside from a service, a cultural expression. Many of these mediums are immigrants themselves and service Spanish speaking clients. A recommendation to see one is, therefore, an invitation into the community. The ritualistic knowledge they carry has been passed down to them—a testament to how strong these traditions are. In their living rooms, we meet other members of the extended community, many who reflect our own circumstances in life and love. Each one hopeful that things will continue to get better. And, is there any emotion more representative of the immigrant and diasporic Latino experience than hope?
Stephanie Morillo is a Dominican-American writer from the Bronx. By day, she works as a copywriter at a tech company and by night, she's a writer of fiction and a songbird. Follow her on Twitter at @radiomorillo
Paradise with a layer of grime, that’s Miami through Rocío Valdés’s lens. A Cuban born, American raised beach girl sharing her experience through pictures.
*This piece was originally printed in La Yerbera
*All images Rocio Valdes