Early one Tuesday morning in a working class town near Mexico City, a group of men and women gather in front of a modest apartment complex, full of anticipation. Hours later, close to noon, the one they have been patiently waiting for arrives: Maria Ruiz Pena, a tall woman with flowing brown hair and an affable smile. She approaches in a red sedan. She is a healer, a wizard.

She receives patients every Tuesday and Friday — mystical days, according to magicians. Her followers believe that she fixes broken backs and mends broken lives, and the men and women waiting by the door in this hardscrabble neighborhood, known as Los Reyes ("The Kings" in Spanish), have come after exhausting other options.

The people at the gate consider themselves lucky to be here. The "doctora" is known as Nancy, and Nancy is hard to find. As I wait by the door to her apartment complex and listen to the tales of those who are seeking her counsel, I am introduced to a world of poverty, impotence, bad hospitals, bad marriages, bad situations.

Los Reyes is a bedroom community for Mexico City's low-wage workers. Local employment is scarce and often in the informal sector. We are just an hour from Mexico City but everything in Los Reyes appears to be more dire, more pressing — almost insurmountable.

And more magical. In a country where the government fails to help the downtrodden, these people seem to be taking matters into their hands. Their solution: Engage magic and belief, and obtain the force and the emotional strength to get on with life.

Nancy's followers toil as maids, drivers, and mechanics. Nancy cures them with potions and advice. She performs "spiritual medical operations" on patients who have exhausted Mexico's massive medical system, where corruption determines the care you receive. The patients bring their faith. I have come to see Nancy too.

As the doorman opens the grilled metal gate, Nancy's car enters the parking lot and the small crowd trails behind. Nancy waits for us inside. She wears a white medical smock over a red sweater. She greets each person, and when she gets to me, her large and piercing brown eyes hang onto my gaze. It is my first time seeing her and I am nervous. She marches up the cement stairs with long strides, and we follow. We reach a small apartment, sparsely furnished, where she receives us one by one.

One third of all Mexicans live with magic, according to anthropologists. No matter the economic background or educational level. Nancy is one of thousands of fortune-tellers and sorcerers who offer relief from bad luck and illness to dwellers in Mexico City and its surrounding towns. Getting a referral to the right sorcerer is said to be imperative, to avoid the charlatans.

I found Nancy through a woman we'll call Rosa, a Mexican friend who is a medical physician but who also consults a battery of brujos (witches), to interpret events in her daily and professional life. One of her brujas is a young woman who reads candles; another reads Tarot cards. In turn, she relies on Nancy for help with medical healing of her parents and children. Nancy helped Rosa with her father's back problem, and she also did an eye "operation" on Rosa's 10-year-old son. Rosa keeps her belief in "brujeria,"or witchcraft, private.

I am not a complete neophyte with magic. I visited fortune-tellers and local brujos when I worked as a foreign correspondent in Central America, Colombia, and Africa, looking for cultural and religious clues into the local culture.

I had tarot cards readings in Colombia, aura analysis in El Salvador, and shell readings in Senegal. The magical marketplaces that flourish underground in many countries are mindboggling. I once attended a ceremony in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, where a tribal brujo beheaded a chicken in front of a group of us and interpreted our future through the bird's intestines.

The key to know whether you are with a bonafide brujo is to pay attention at how he or she interprets your future — but especially the past. Bad ones can make lucky guesses. Good ones can tell you about your history. And then there are those like Nancy, who seem to have some unexplainable gift.

Nancy has a wide following. During the year and half I visited her clinic, I saw about a thousand different people come to see her, not including private patients and others she visits in hospitals. Her customers are largely the downtrodden and her fees are low. She does not advertise. She does not hand out business cards. The people who come to her clinic have been referred by other customers, people who say they saw their lives turn around thanks to her potions and aura cleansings.

To visit her office that nippy morning, I take the A train, an old metro line that connects the Pantitlan station in Mexico City to Los Reyes. The service runs packed trains during morning and afternoon commuting hours, but I am traveling against traffic so the train is empty except for a few sleepy security guards on their way home from the night shift. They wear uniforms with tags on the back of their jackets: "Seguridad Privada." Private security companies have proliferated in Mexico City with a recent spike in crime.

After a 30-minute ride, I arrive at Los Reyes and hop on a mototaxi — a motorcycle that pulls on a metal chair with two wheels. It costs 10 pesos, or 50 cents U.S., and it takes me to the front of Nancy's clinic. The few streets that make up downtown Los Reyes are usually bustling — with an open-air market where people sell vegetables, chicken, beef, and counterfeit shoes and clothing. But the stalls are still being set up this early and we easily loop around them.

Los Reyes is semi-urban but has a rural feel. There are few trees and the streets are narrow. The aging stucco and cement houses are mostly one story, and painted in striking hot pink, yellow, and red. Some multi-floor houses have top floors that appear to have been built long after the first one was constructed. Housing is expensive in Mexico, and Nancy tells me that poor people upgrade their homes as they save money. Some home improvements are done when a son or daughter gets married. The parents build the newlyweds a floor of their own above the family home. Such projects are done slowly, and unpainted top floors often have metal construction rods protruding.

Like many towns in eastern Mexico State, Los Reyes is a high crime area. The area was included in a recent U.S. State Department "no travel zone" for U.S. citizens. Nancy's apartment is on Avenida Puebla, a street divided by the A train subway tracks, and the neighborhood is indeed unsafe at night. According to Nancy's apartment guards, robbers hide and get away around the train tracks. One or more home burglaries occur each day, according to a local newspaper.

I wait for Nancy with the others in a sparsely furnished apartment, sitting on multi-colored metal chairs covered in plastic. A television blares a 1940's Mexican movie with Pedro Infante, a heartthrob who died in a plane accident in the 1950s. Most of the people in the room are dressed modestly. None wear jewelry. Nancy sees patients on a first-come, first-serve basis. They spend 30 or 40 minutes with her, unless they have a cleansing or a healing operation and they are moved to an adjacent room.

A drawing of Jesus Christ hangs from the front wall. Cherubim and clay figures of a snail, a horse, and a cat — stare from wall nooks. A white stone angel commands the view from the left corner. Later Nancy tells me that all her decorations have magical meanings.

My friend Rosa recommended that I ask Nancy about the string of bad financial events I had endured recently, which Rosa believed were caused by the "evil eye." Rosa says I need a magical cleansing.

When my turn to see her finally arrives, I walk down a narrow corridor to a small room in the back. Nancy sits behind a wooden table surrounded by candles and ceramic and glass figures. She exudes mystery. I am intimidated.

Other card readers I have visited in the past had more austere reading rooms. Hers feels otherworldly. A small dragon hatching from an egg rests on a bowl on the table. A glass figure of Casper the Ghost, with adjacent hummingbirds, dangles from an overhead light fixture. Owls, dolls, and pictures of volcanoes, waterfalls, and the ocean stare at me from the back wall. The light in the room seems smoky because of the candles and elixirs that Nancy sprays.

Nancy points to a chair and I sit. She asks why I am at her clinic. (Later she tells me she gets images in her head explaining people's reasons.) I tell her about my friend Rosa, and ask for a reading. She hands me a pack of cards and asks that I shuffle them seven times. Nancy takes the cards and spreads them one by one in front of me. I have never seen such cards before, like a standard deck but different — colorful male and female figures, dressed in medieval clothing, striking poses. When I return home, I search online for their meaning and learn that they descend from the Mamluk divinatory cards brought by Arabs to Spain during the 14th century.

In my spread, Kings, Queens, and big wooden slugs called Bastos — like clubs in the usual deck — line up. Nancy explains each card carefully. She reveals some of my recent economic setbacks, specific incidents she could not have known about. She talks about my past, about other things she could not have known. As she finishes the reading, she gives me a hug and mentions that I have a health condition. She offers to do a spiritual operation. I politely decline.

As I stand up to go, Nancy sprays an essence from my head to my toes. It smells like coconut. It will draw out bad energy, she says — it will open up the wealth-energy cycle. The container is decorated with a green label with dollar signs.

Forty minutes have gone by quickly. I call Rosa, who tells me the thick of the consultation will be done by Nancy in private late that night, involving more candles, more elixirs, and incantations to bring changes in a patient's life. Nancy never divulges exactly what she does, but as I leave, Nancy tells me thatmy life will be better. This is why we go to fortune-tellers, Rosa tells me. I want to believe.


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