Curanderos, Shamans, and Plant-Based Remedies

Maybe everyone grows up with a narrow framework for deciding what is normal, what is exotic, and what is abnormal. I certainly did. When I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, in my early twenties, there were many things about life there that seemed exotic to me. Some things, like mangoes and papayas, became normal to my expanding Texan mind, but wherever I look, even after many years, there are sights to see, foods to try, experiences to have, and ideas to explore that still amaze me.

Back in North Texas, sweet iced tea was the only tea I knew anything about, and home remedies were limited to merthiolate and mentholatum. We went to the doctor for just about anything that couldn’t be treated with those smelly substances. The doctor would prescribe dreaded shots, pills, or terrible-tasting liquids in mysterious-looking bottes. If all else failed, he (the doctor was always a “he” when I was a child) would put you in the hospital, cut some part of you open, do some sort of magic, and then sew you back up.

In Mexico, even though my husband was a medical student in a conventional medical school, I learned about a surprising number of alternative remedies that didn’t involve a health professional. In addition to Vicks Vaporub in Mamá’s ropero, there was manzanilla (chamomile) tea in the kitchen to relieve tummy aches and te de tila (linden flower tea) to calm down an overwrought family member. A savila (aloe vera cactus) plant in the patio was snipped as needed for healing gel to treat burns from the sun, the kitchen, or naughty kids playing with matches. American cough syrup reeks of eucalyptus oil, but in Mexico you can buy dried eucalyptus leaves in the mercado and make a potion to drink or gargle as needed. Common cooking ingredients like vinegar, cinnamon, and onions, do double duty as home remedies for all kinds of ailments. Agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower water) has medicinal uses, like lowering blood pressure, but it is more commonly just cooled, sweetened, and served as a beverage.

There is renewed worldwide interest in ancient healing practices, as chemically distilled herbs and other substances, what we call medicines, start to let us down. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and drugs with side effects worse than the diseases they purport to remedy make headlines and cause professionals and laypeople alike to wonder if we maybe threw out a lot of proverbial babies with the proverbial bathwater of old-fashioned remedies. Modern surgical techniques indeed work miracles, but at their very finest, they are alarmingly crude and risky and always leave a scar, no matter how imperceptible.

With renewed interest in healing foods and herbs comes a revival of interest in ancient healers throughout Latin America and wherever remnants of ancient cultures are kept alive. This revival has created a burgeoning industry of shaman-seeking tourism, and with it flourishing business opportunities for neoshamans and faux shamans. Nevertheless, among Mexicans, many city people and most rural residents know where to find at least one authentic curandero. I was shocked to learn that my educated cosmopolitan Mexican friends and family members, whom I saw as perfectly normal and modern by my small-town Texas standards, thought nothing of scheduling a limpia (cleansing) before moving into a new house or after a run of bad luck, and they knew exactly which shaman, or curandero, of their acquaintance could do it.

Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, a researcher at The University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) has published a beautiful, informative, and useful book with the title Plants Used in Mexican Traditional Medicine. It has a brief history of traditional medicine in Mexico, an alphabetical list of plants used for healing, with their scientific names, some of their common names, and photographs of most of them.




Vacationing together in Cancún seemed like a splendid idea, so Dad bought the tickets and made hotel reservations for himself, his wife, their daughter and her brand-new husband. After weeks of anticipation, the day arrived and they headed happily to the Mayan Riviera. Their joyful family vacation was cut short, however, when they reached the Immigration station. The daughter’s brand-new husband would not be allowed to leave the airport and would be escorted to the next available flight back to where he came from.

A few years earlier Dad had been in a much less splendid mood when he found out that Daughter, who was still in her teens at the time, and her teenage boyfriend were “together.” A dad from earlier times might have fetched a shotgun, but this twenty-first century father went to the courthouse and charged the boyfriend with statutory rape. The girl was underage, so no matter how loudly she protested that she had eagerly consented to their togetherness, the charges held, the boyfriend was punished, and his name was written down on the Interpol List of Sex Offenders, barred until further notice from international travel. In the intervening years, the boy and girl had grown up and got married, and everybody was happy. Until they arrived at the Immigration station in Cancún. Dad had repented long ago for being such a hothead, and he told his karmic tale with doleful humor to people sitting around as they waited sadly to board their return flight.


Another bride, older but not wiser, was infuriated when her honeymoon plans hit the Immigration wall because her obviously experienced groom had earned a place on The List by togethering with a less-than-willing woman. He had failed to tell his bride about that faux-pas. “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do,” she shouted as they walked the jetway to board their return flight much sooner and less tan than anticipated.


Everyone in the family knew about Grandpa. He had been wild and reckless in his youth, had raped a girl, had done time, and had spent the thirty years since his release building a productive, respectable life and family. His life had been productive enough to bring the whole extended family on a Caribbean vacation. Grandpa had no idea that although he had paid his debt to society for that long-ago crime, his name had not been erased from Interpol’s List. The extended family sadly waved goodbye. Grandpa insisted they should go ahead and enjoy their vacation without him.


There are some injustices and oversights to be dealt with on the home front. No one welcomes predators, but the definition of predator may need refinement, and communication between passport agencies, airports, and airlines should be improved. Sex crimes are not the only crimes that can land you on a list of the Unwelcome, but, as in the case of the hothead father-in-law-to-be, they are more ambiguous than, say, homicide, larceny and money-laundering, and they sometimes keep you on the list much longer than other offenses. Unexpected deportations are inconvenient for families and for airline employees who deal with them and can incur unwarranted expenses for families and for the airlines.

Meanwhile, if you or someone you travel with has ever been accused of a crime, it’s a good idea to check your status before forking out a load of cash or credit for a fun trip to the Mayan Riviera or anywhere else.

This website has some helpful information.


MAY 2019

This is the third issue of Coffee Talk online, published monthly on the first of the month, now featuring some of the articles in Spanish as well as English. Articles from months past can be found in the Archives. Thanks for stopping by. I would love to hear from you with a like, a comment, a question or a suggestion. Happy Month of May!




The evolution of Cinco de Mayo from a minor Mexican patriotic recognition of the Battle of Puebla into an out-of-control United States-Chicano-Latino drink-fest is puzzling to people who live in Mexico, where the battle took place.




Joanna C. Cooke believes in re-purposing discarded things to create new and beautiful objects. Originally from British Columbia, Canada, this gifted artist/ healer now makes her home and shares her skills and wisdom in Puerto Morelos, Mexico.



It was a tiny house in spirit and square-footage if not in style or name. The twenty-first century terms minimalism and tiny house were far in the future, but my grandmother was already living the lifestyle.



Baking bread is a perfect way to revive an ancient tradition on a leisurely afternoon. Here are a few recipes for small quantities of yeasty delights made from scratch and by hand–one loaf or enough rolls for a small family.



If it happens in the country where you live, you have an upset stomach. If you are in Mexico, it is Moctezuma’s Revenge, also known as turista.


maggie and milly and molly and may by e. e. cummings





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(Insurgente mexicano ataca a soldado francés, Batalla de Puebla, 5 de mayo de 1862)

La evolución de Cinco de Mayo, de un reconocimiento de menor importancia en México, a una borrachera rampante latina-chicana-estadounidense es un misterio a los que vivimos en México. El 5 de mayo de 1862, un ejército insurgente mexicano venció sorpresiva y rotundamente en la ciudad de Puebla a invasores franceses bien uniformados y equipados. Sin embargo, en 1862 faltaba mucho para que la campaña de los imperialistas mexicanos y europeos para extender el Imperio Napoleónico hasta México fuera derrocada por completo.

Me irrita la emoción excesiva que rodea el Cinco de Mayo, pero a mí me irrita la emoción excesiva en general. Sin embargo, cuando me encontré dando clases de español en un pequeño pueblo tejano, era imposible escaparme del alboroto de Cinco de Mayo. En el colegio, se permitían festejos en el aula en determinadas fechas con fines didácticos y culturales. “A propósito, ¿cuándo es el Cinco de Mayo?” me preguntó el director, cuyos talentos radicaban más bien en las matemáticas que en lenguas y culturas extranjeras.

Los alumnos de preparatoria no perdonarán nunca a la profesora que pasa por alto una oportunidad para traer comida al salón, así que yo, a regañadientes, planeaba una fiesta para celebrar el Cinco de Mayo en honor a taquitos y Coca-Cola. En el closet, mi antecesor había dejado papel cortado en rojo, verde, y blanco, unas banderas mexicanas, y unos serapes y sombreros cuyos días de gloria habían pasado ya hace mucho tiempo. Desempolvé todo y puse a los alumnos a decorar el aula para justificar una pequeña fiesta en horas cuando, de manera contraria, hubiera sido prohibida.

Mucho antes de aceptar dicha asignatura docente, yo había vivido en México, donde el Cinco de Mayo no es un día de fiesta oficial. Los profesores de historia mencionaban la Batalla de Puebla en sus clases, en televisión se proyectaban documentales anticuados, y los periódicos sacaban uno o dos comentarios editoriales de sus archivos. En la Ciudad de Puebla, sitio de la batalla, hay conmemoraciones modestas. De vez en cuando, el Día del Trabajo, primero de mayo, que sí es un día feriado oficial, se juntaba con un fin de semana y el Cinco de Mayo de modo que daba pretexto para un puente, siempre recibido con regocijo por profesores y alumnos quienes en mayo luchan para sobrevivir el final del año escolar. Tal es la emoción en México para el Cinco de Mayo.

Determinada que los alumnos cuando menos comprenderían que el Cinco de Mayo NO es el Dia de la Independencia de México, yo buscaba la única herramienta docente a la cual prestarían atención durante una fiesta: una película. Encontré una que era entretenida e informativa, cuando menos para mi y algunos adolescentes aficionados de la historia mundial. En Juárez, lanzada en 1939, Bette Davis, estrella icónica con ojos enormes de los primeros días de la industria cinematográfica, destacaba en el papel de la hermosa Carlota de Bélgica, también de ojos enormes pero de triste porvenir, quien junto a su igualmente desventurado archiduque de Hapsburgo, Maximiliano de Austria, ocupaba el trono imperial en el Castillo de Chapultepec desde 1864 hasta 1867, cuando el Presidente Benito Juárez, finalmente victorioso, trasladó el sede de su gobierno desde su carroza al Palacio de Gobierno en la ciudad de México, y ordenó la abdicación del Emperador. Cuando Maximiliano rehusó por cuestion de honor, Juárez lo mandó a fusilar junto con Miramón y Mejía, sus fieles generales imperialistas.

El caso es que la victoria sorprendente en Puebla el 5 de mayo de 1862 había sido tan amarga como dulce. Los franceses y los imperialistas redoblaron sus esfuerzos, empeñándose aún más en prevalecer en el continente americano. La película detalla más o menos fielmente la lucha de México para mantener su independencia, y los hechos de Benito Juárez, celebrado como heroe de aquella lucha. Juárez era un gran admirador de Abraham Lincoln, un detalle que no ignoraron los cineastas.

Como estudiante del español en la secundaria, me había fascinado una ilustración en el libro de texto de Carlota luciendo un vestido de muchos olanes y una diadema que relucía en su hermosa cabellera. México, a solo un día de viaje de mi pueblo en Texas, ¡había sido gobernado por unos verdaderos Emperadores quienes vivían en un verdadero castillo, el de Chapultepec! Pasarían muchos anos para que yo me diera cuenta que esa noticia no era nada buena.

“Mamá, ¿qué onda con eso del Cinco de Mayo?” me preguntaban mis hijos poco después de trasladarnos a Texas desde Guadalajara. “La profesora de español quiere que les expliquemos a sus clases como celebrábamos esa fiesta asombrosa en Mexico.”

“Díganles,” les dije, “que la celebrábamos más o menos como se celebra aquí la Batalla de Gettysburg.”

Mexicanos en todo el mundo fuera de Mexico ahora celebran el Cinco de Mayo, en compañía de no-mexicanos quienes buscan una excusa para beber tequila y comer guacamole. Conmemoran una batalla mexicana, mientras que en México la gente hace lo que hace en cualquier día común y corriente.

Lectura sugerida: Abraham Lincoln and Mexico por Michael Hogan

Un corto antiguo de la película Juárez

Un documental excelente sobre los Emperadores de Mexico y los 60 años de locura de Carlota



“Shipwrecked” by Joanna C. Cooke

Joanna C. Cooke says, “I am a passionate artist who believes in re-using and up-scaling outdated things people get rid of to create new and beautiful projects.”

Joanna is a Canadian artist who now makes her home in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. “Some challenging experiences gave me a greater knowledge of what life is about and taught me to follow my dreams and never give up,” she adds. Joanna describes her early life on Canada’s west coast in British Columbia as that of a “fairly untamed, creative beach baby.” She envisions making a more beautiful world, re-created in part from objects that people discard. She shares that vision in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, where for the past decade she says she has “found a place where her heart, soul, body and mind flourish and yearn to be.”

She continues, “My work with the Shamans as a Solar Initiate of the Itza Maya is very profound and has left an impact of the greater wisdom of the cosmic universe and knowledge of the ancients. My studies as a Mayan Day Keeper (keeping track of the days of the Maya calendar) for close to 15 years has gifted  me with a resonance to the stars, a deeper connection to all living beings, plant, mineral, human, animal, earth sky and water, and myself.” Sacred Geometry is a common thread of Joanna’s work in familiar forms like sunflowers, as well as abstract complex geometric designs. She finds inspiration in “the mystery of the ocean, the warmth of the sun, and the light of the stars and moon in the night skies.”

Her formal education includes Color Therapy and Crystal Therapy. She mentored with Canadian artists James Picard and Robert Genn, and studied at San Miguel de Allende and Langara College. At Vancouver Community College she learned jewelry design and goldsmithing.

Her paintings and art installations have been exhibited in Canada, Mexico, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. Her labyrinth work was featured on HGTV’s “That’s Clever” and in an article in “Labyrinths of British Columbia–A Guide for Your Journey.”

I joined Joanna and an enthusiastic group of women one balmy Tuesday afternoon at La Sirena Restaurant. A long table, set with easels and canvases was ready for us on the restaurant balcony with a view of the turquoise water of the Caribbean. She provided brushes, paint, water and a painting for inspiration. The restaurant served cocktails and wine. With Joanna’s gentle encouragement and as much or little instruction as we wanted, each of us produced something that looked a little like her professional rendering of the lopsided lighthouse, icon of Puerto Morelos. The damaged lighthouse commemorates the fishing village’s “Never Give Up” spirit after Hurricane Beulah almost erased it from the map in 1967. We relaxed bodies, minds, and spirits, focusing on the magic of paint, brushes, canvases, and our own hands to create beautiful and satisfying shapes and colors.

Artsy Cocktails is just one of the many ways that Joanna C. Cooke shares her gifts and insights in the Riviera Maya. She offers classes, workshops, retreats, private sessions, 3D installations, and collaborative projects. Her long-term visions and goals include the creation of an Artists’ Retreat Center in Puerto Morelos with a focus on healing and learning to re-use resources. A limited number of her paintings are displayed and available for purchase at El Nicho and Chilpayas restaurants. Her future plans include creating functional and decorative home art from garbage and beach finds for a gallery space opening soon in Puerto Morelos. and leading a community project to create a house in the jungle using only garbage.

JEWEL OF THE MUDRA by Joanna C. Cooke

Joanna says she has been brought to Puerto Morelos “as if by a hand of fate over the past decade.” I wonder if that hand of fate brought me to the balcony of La Sirena Restaurant on a balmy Tuesday afternoon.

See more about Joanna C Cooke at





“Naufragio” por Joanna C. Cooke

“Soy una artista apasionada. Creo en el uso de objetos descartados para crear cosa nuevas y hermosas,” dice Joanna C. Cooke.

Joanna C. Cooke es una artista canadiense quien hoy en día vive en Puerto Morelos, México. “Algunos desafíos en la vida me hicieron ver con mas claridad el sentido de a vida y me ensenaron que debo seguir mis sueños y nunca rendirme.” Describe su infancia en la costa oeste de Canadá como la de “una niña de playa no muy domada.” Su visión es de un mundo más hermoso recreado en parte de cosas que la gente suele tirar a la basura. Comparte su visión en Puerto Morelos, México, donde por una década ella dice que ha “encontrado un lugar donde mi corazón, alma, cuerpo y mente florecen y añoran estar.”

“Mi trabajo con los Samanes como Iniciada Solar de los Maya Itzá es muy profundo,” sigue, “y ha dejado un impacto de la sabiduría mayor del universo cósmico y de conocimiento de los antepasados. Mis estudios como Guardadora de Días Maya (siguiendo los días del calendario maya) durante casi 15 anos me ha otorgado resonancia a las estrellas y un nexo más profundo a todos los seres vivientes, plantas, minerales, humanos, animales, tierra, cielo, agua, y a mi misma.” La Geometría Sagrada es un hilo común en el trabajo de Joanna, manifestándose tanto en formas conocidas como el girasol como en diseños geométricos complejos. Joanna se inspira en “el misterio del mar, el calor del sol, y la luz de las estrellas y la luna en el cielo nocturno.”

Sus estudios formales incluyen Terapia de Color y Terapia de Cristales. Sus mentores son James Picard y Robert Genn, artistas canadienses. También estudio en San Miguel de Allende y Langara College. Aprendió diseño de joyería y orfebrería en Vancouver Community College.

Sus pinturas y construcciones artísticos se han exhibido en Canadá, México, Japón, Holanda, Suiza, y los Estados Unidos. Sus laberintos se presentaron en el programa “That’s Clever” de HGTV y en un artículo en “Labyrinths of British Columbia–A Guide for Your Journey.”

Me reuní con Joanna y un grupo entusiasta de mujeres en La Sirena Restaurante un martes tropical. Ya estaba preparada una mesa larga con caballetes y lonas en el balcón del restaurante con vista de las aguas turquesas del Caribe. Joanna nos proporcionaba pintura, pinceles, agua, y una pintura para copiar o para inspiración. Nos sirvieron vino y cocteles. Con la mano suave de nuestra maestra y cuanta instrucción deseábamos, todas terminamos con algo que parecía cuando menos un poco al imagen profesional del faro chueco, símbolo de Puerto Morelos. El faro dañado conmemora el espíritu de “Nunca rendirse” del pueblo de pescadores cuando el Huracán Beulah casi lo borra del mapa en 1967. Las participantes nos relajamos en cuerpo, mente, y espíritu, enfocándonos en la magia de pintura, pinceles, lonas, y nuestras propias manos para crear formas y colores hermosos y satisfactorios.

Artsy Cocktails (Cocteles Artísticos) es solamente una de las muchas maneras en que Joanna C. Cooke comparte sus dones y sabiduría en la Riviera Maya. Ofrece clases, talleres, retiros, sesiones particulares, instalaciones de tres dimensiones, y proyectos colaborativos. Su visión y sus metas a largo plazo incluyen la creación de un Centro de Retiro para Artistas en Puerto Morelos con un enfoque en salud y en usar cosas descartadas en nuevas formas. Un numero limitado de sus pinturas se exhiben y se pueden comprar en los restaurantes El Nicho y Chilpayas. Sus planes para el futuro incluyen la creación de arte funcional y decorativo para el hogar, utilizando basura y cosas encontradas en la playa. Este arte se podrá ver en una galería que está próxima a abrir en Puerto Morelos. También tiene en la mira un proyecto comunitario para crear una casa en la selva utilizando basura solamente.

Joanna dice que una mano del destino la ha traído a Puerto Morelos durante la década pasada. Yo me pregunto si esa mano del destino fue la que me trajo al balcón de La Sirena un martes cálido por la tarde.

JEWEL OF THE MUDRA por Joanna C. Cooke

Mas acerca de Joanna C Cooke





(Mexican insurgent attacking French soldier, Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862))

The evolution of Cinco de Mayo, a minor recognition of the Battle of Puebla, into a United States-Latino-Chicano drink-fest is something of a mystery to people in Mexico. On May 5, 1862, an insurgent Mexican army surprisingly and soundly drove impressively equipped and uniformed French invaders out of the city of Puebla. However, in 1862, the attempt to extend Napoleon’s Empire to Mexico was far from over.

I am annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding Cinco de Mayo, but I am annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding anything. However, when I became a Spanish teacher in a small Texas town, I could not escape Cinco frenzy. The school allowed Spanish teachers to have classroom parties for cultural objectives on certain days. “When is Cinco de Mayo anyhow?” the principal asked as we worked out the calendar for a new school year.

High school students will never forgive a teacher who passes up an occasion to bring food to class, so I reluctantly planned a Cinco fiesta for the sake of taquitos and cokes. I dug red, white, and green cut paper, some Mexican flags and a few overworked serapes out of the closet to justify a little feast during otherwise forbidden school hours.

Long before taking that Spanish job, I had lived in Mexico, where Cinco de Mayo is not an official holiday. History teachers mentioned the Battle of Puebla in their classes on that day, television stations projected stock history documentaries, and newspapers published a perfunctory editorial or two from their archives. In Puebla, where the battle took place, there are muted celebrations. Sometimes May 1, Labor Day, which is a holiday in Mexico, and May 5, Mexico’s semi-holiday would come together with a weekend to give a pretext for a puente, a five-day weekend bridge, always welcomed joyfully by teachers and students struggling toward the finish of another school year. That was the extent of excitement about Cinco de Mayo.

Determined that students should at least know that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, I searched for the only teaching tool that students will possibly pay attention to on party day: a movie. I found one that was both entertaining and enlightening–at least to me and a few adolescent history buffs. Juarez, a 1939 release, featured Bette Davis, big-eyed iconic film star from the early days of cinema, as the beautiful but unfortunate Charlotte of Belgium, who, with her hapless Hapsburg husband, Maximilian of Austria, occupied the imperial throne in Chapultepec Castle from 1864 to 1867. That was when President Benito Juarez ordered the execution by firing squad of Maximilian, who refused to abdicate even in the face of defeat.

You see, that surprising Mexican victory back on May 5, 1862, in the city of Puebla, had been bittersweet. It was followed by a long, hard struggle to drive out the invading French. If, like me, you are a somewhat lazy aficionado of history, a Napoleonic Time Line might be just what you need to better understand what was happening in Mexico while our ancestors north of the border were killing each other over the legality of trafficking in human beings.

The celebrated victory at the Battle of Puebla had the unhappy short-term effect of causing the French, backed by Mexican Imperialists, to dig their heels in even deeper, wanting to prove they could prevail on the American continent. The movie provides more or less true-to-history details about Mexico’s fight to remain independent, and about Benito Juarez, the leader who is celebrated as the hero of that struggle. Juarez was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, a detail not lost on the moviemakers.

As a ninth-grade student of Spanish, I was fascinated by a textbook picture of Carlota in overlapping ruffles and a crown. Mexico, just a day’s drive away from my home in Texas, had been ruled by a real Emperor and Empress, who lived in a real castle at Chapultepec. Many years would go by before I knew for sure that this was NOT a good thing.

“Mom, what is the big deal about Cinco de Mayo?” my kids had asked just after we moved to Texas from Guadalajara, Mexico. “The Spanish teacher wants us to tell her classes how we celebrated this amazing festival in Mexico.”

“Tell them,” I said, “that you celebrated it pretty much the same way they celebrate the Battle of Gettysburg.”

Mexicans all over the world, with the exception of Mexico, now celebrate Cinco de Mayo, joined by non-Mexicans looking for an excuse to drink tequila and eat guacamole. They commemorate a battle that happened in Mexico, while Mexicans themselves are doing whatever they do on any other ordinary day.

Suggested reading: Abraham Lincoln and Mexico by Michael Hogan

A vintage trailer for the 1939 movie, Juarez

An excellent documentary on the Emperors of Mexico and Carlota’s 60 years of madness


She was beautiful and intelligent, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine on assignment in Mexico. He was handsome and dynamic, the beloved Governor of Yucatan. It was Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1923.

Documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and her autobiography, Peregrina, Love and Death in Mexico, give testimony of their passionate love, their high ideals, their good deeds, and their plans to be protagonists in a glorious future for Yucatan and for Mexico. The mutual attraction was powerful. On Valentine’s Day, 1923, the same day that the governor welcomed her party from the Carnegie Institute to Yucatan to begin extended studies of the recently discovered Mayan ruins, he called on her and invited her to go for a walk, see one of his administration’s model socialist villages, and “enjoy the unusually beautiful sunset.”

That was the first of some three hundred fifty days that would be engraved on Alma Reed’s heart, days that inspired and haunted her until the end of her life–three hundred fifty days of intense research and writing, trips, elegant luncheons, dinners, parties, impressive personalities, incredible adventures in the Mayan jungle, vows of undying love, flowers, gifts, passionate letters, and plans for a San Francisco wedding and life as First Lady of Yucatan in Felipe’s Villa Aurora. These days and her plans were cut short when the governor was assassinated on January 3, 1924, just a week and a half before their scheduled wedding.

The melancholy ballad “Peregrina” had been composed and dedicated to Alma at Felipe’s request, immortalizing their brief, passionate love affair, and Alma’s unforgettable beauty. It makes me cry whenever I hear it.

There is little doubt that what Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto experienced during those three hundred fifty days was profound and real. Why, then, can’t I simply tell the tale and enjoy a good love story, like Pride and Prejudice, The Notebook, or Romeo and Juliet? I can’t, because, unlike fictional characters, the protagonists of this tragic love story lived real lives, and their lives were intertwined with other lives and other stories that should be told.

Some of those other stories are of the legacies of the lovers themselves, independent of their passionate affair. Felipe’s story goes back thirty years before that fateful St. Valentine’s Day to his youth in Motul, his participation in the Mexican Revolution that overthrew the dictator Porfirio Diaz, his overwhelming mandate for the governorship, and his leadership for reforms in education, women’s rights, prisons, labor rights. To this day, his accomplishments reverberate in the Yucatan Peninsula and beyond.

Alma had already been honored by Mexican President Alvaro Obregon for her successful intervention in the unjust execution of a sixteen-year-old Mexican who had been unjustly tried and condemned to death in California. Because of a barrage of articles by Alma Reed, not only was the execution stopped, but a law was passed prohibiting the execution of anyone under the age of eighteen. Her story reaches forward more than forty years after Felipe’s death. Contributions to history, art, and culture were recognized by the governments of Mexico and Greece in her lifetime. She was part of a lively movement of artists and writers in New York City. She wrote books and articles. She played a significant role in bringing muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to international attention, sponsoring shows of his work, publishing a book about him, and helping him economically as he struggled to remain true to his vision. Later in life, she returned to Mexico, where she wrote for the English-language Mexico City News. These stories are sometimes overshadowed by their compelling controversial love story.

The force of the attraction between the lovers is not diminished by the fact that they were a worldly-wise man almost fifty and a well-traveled divorcee of thirty-three, not an awkward youth and a virginal maiden, but that fact does raise questions about the years leading up to February 14, 1923.

There is the story of Isabel Palma. She and Felipe had been married on February 18, 1898, almost twenty-five years before his legendary first encounter with Alma Reed. In her autobiography, Alma recounts how he spoke candidly about his estranged wife, who was living in Cuba at the time, and his four children, including a married daughter. Alma in turn told him of her brief marriage to businessman Samuel Payne Reed in San Francisco.

When Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Alma Reed met, this charming man of “rare physical beauty,” already had a long-standing reputation as a womanizer. He had very likely moved far beyond the limited world of his distinguished but provincial Isabel when he frequented Mexico City night spots with the well-known American writer Katherine Anne Porter. She describes “dancing the tango and all the latest dance steps” with Felipe in 1921 and 1922.

A philanderer’s love can be very real. He is addicted to the hormonal high that accompanies “falling in love,” a high that fades with familiarity. Falling hopelessly in love makes a good story, and many of us believe in it when we are watching a movie or reading a novel, but love is not something you fall into. It is something you commit to, and when being there for the beloved calls for more than flowers, poems, and moonlight walks, a philanderer often scrambles to escape from the love-pit that he has fallen into. The person who is loved by a philanderer may eventually find herself forced out of the role of Dearly Beloved and into the role of Wronged Wife.

Alma Reed was not a home-wrecker. Third parties can get into a marriage only after it is already wrecked. Felipe and Isabel knew the reasons for their separation. We can speculate.

Alma kept those three hundred fifty fantastic days close to her heart. Felipe’s sudden death freed her to dream forever of an idyllic life at Villa Aurora. She would never know, and we can never know, how her love story might have turned out if Felipe Carrillo Puerto had survived.

Isabel knew.

Felpe Carrillo Puerto with his wife Isabel and their children, about 1922.

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