J. Andrew Briseño


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J. Andrew Briseño is a Chicano writer working in Denton, Texas. He will complete his PhD in Fiction from the University of North Texas in the coming Spring. His work is forthcoming in Waxwing, and he's currently finishing his first novel. You can follow him on twitter @JAndrewBriseno


           I want to tell this one like a good Mexican, so I'm going to start off right, with the end right up front, so that when the good part gets here you know when to laugh or to cry.  So mira, this is the one about the time that my grandma told me that I didn't smell like a Mexican.

            This one time a pretty white girl knocked on my door and asked me, in Spanish, if I was a  witch, so of course I said yes.  It was my freshman year and I had this theory going—whatever a woman asks you always say yes.  It was like improv—you just kept the scene going no matter what.  We were here to experience new things anyway, right? 

When I opened the door she leaned around to make sure we were alone.  Then she whispered at me “¿Eres realmente un brujo?”  Her name was Claire, and I knew her from Spanish class.  She was from Sherwood, Arkansas, and she had teeth like chiclets and a sugary way of packing extra syllables into every other word, even in Spanish, so it it came out like  “Ray y'all minty oon brew hoe” which I thought was cute.  I nodded at her all serious and led her to sit down.   “¿Que necesitas con brujeria?” I asked her, hitting the r like the Univision announcer, hoping to hell she wouldn't answer in Spanish.

            Because yeah, I could have probably kept up with her, but I didn't want to have to.  Anyone who grew up in my neighborhood knows a little Spanish, the cuss words for sure.  But Mom was Anglo, and Dad was one of those who got beat for speaking Spanish in school.  So I could haggle at la pulga and order at taquerias, and maybe I was in Spanish just because I too loved education, but I was always afraid of being told something important in Spanish. 

            But lucky for me she let a sigh out through her pink lips and said, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think my apartment is haunted, and I didn't know who else to go to.”  

            Then I realized that whatever happened it was already all my fault.  It was another theory I had—develop a persona.  Women, I reasoned, would be interested in someone unique, someone exotic.  For my roommate, who was one of about a thousand white boys in Phish shirts, that meant buying a stupid bowler hat and talking with a fake British accent.  But for me exotic turned out to be easy:  I went and bought a jar of Grandpa Lino's hair treatment and started telling people to call me Juanito, which I thought sounded better than Johnny anyways. 

It was funny, because back home I was barely a Mexican at all.  In the barrio, just getting bussed across town to the magnet school was enough reason to be labeled un guero.  And if they called me anything, they called me un coco—brown on the outside but white underneath.  But I was Mexican enough to check a box on a quota sheet, and that's how I ended up on a French horn scholarship to a school nobody's heard of in Conway, Arkansas.       

            At home, I was a white boy, ask anybody.  But here, I wasn't just a Mexican, I was the Mexican, literally a thousand to Juan, or really a thousand to Jonathan if you wanted to see my license, but there was nobody there to tell me that I didn't qualify.  So I ran with it.   

            It came to a peak when I tried to throw a Dia De las Muertes party, which ended up with me and some other band members taking tequila shots and eating candy from the skeleton piñata I'd had my mom drive all the way to Northside to pick up and mail to me.  It was a shame too, because I'd worked hard at it.  I'd even taken a dozen or so of those dollar prayer candles and made them into invitations to hand out to girls we thought looked adventurous.  I remembered then as Claire started telling me her story that I'd seen her across the quad, walked up and pressed La Santisimia Muerte into her hands, walked off without saying anything. 

            “It started a few weeks ago,” she told me.  At first it was just a dark feeling—a little black spot that probably you wouldn't have noticed except it didn't go away.  Instead things started moving around.  Her keys weren't where she swore she left him, pictures kept falling off the wall.  And then last night she heard something like a door opening where no door was.  “I got out of bed, even though I didn't want to, and I walked to where I heard the sound and I swore,” she looked down, “something touched me.”  She had her lip between her teeth and her eyes flicked around like a bee in a jar.  And even then I was thinking, this could go somewhere.

            So I gave her what I called my confident smile.  “Fairly Standard,” I said, and nodded, and she seemed to take comfort in that, so I kept going.  “Probably just an angry spirit.  Who knows where they come from, “ and then, remembering what brought her here, “No problema.”  She nodded again and almost smiled, and I thought this is going well.  Then she kept looking at me, and I froze just a little.  I was—don't act all surprised—not actually a witch, which up till right now had never been a serious problem.  I knew that there were such people, that a woman had been called in to whisper and rattle over my father's knee when the doctors said he wouldn't walk again.  But the closest I'd come to an unwanted spirit was watching The Exorcist, and that scared me like it does anybody raised Catholic.  But everybody knows a real Mexican can do anything he's seen someone else do twice, and so I did what you do when there's no clear way forward.  I opened up my mouth and hoped for the best.

            I heard myself saying, “But of course, we'll need supplies.”

            She nodded like she'd been waiting for me to ask, and said “I'll drive.”




            On the way there she asks me if I'd even been to this curanderia, and I told her no, that I had everything mailed from home naturally.  Verdad, I wouldn't have thought that where we were going even existed.  Back home, off East James behind a muffler shop, in the part of Old Northside where the streets never got curbed?  Sure.  But in Arkansas, where it's always hunting season?  I had seen a few other Mexicans around town, a few more when I'd driven into Little Rock, but nowhere enough to support something like this.  Hell you couldn't get decent tortillas here, how could you get whatever it is they sold here?   And that was the thing. 

I tried to change the subject, to ask her what she thought of Señor Scott, our Spanish teacher.  But she only wanted to talk witchcraft.  How did I learn the trade?  Had I done this ceremony many times before?  Would it hurt?  Eventually I ended up telling her that I needed to concentrate my psychic energies, that talking about it could knock the chakras out of line.  She gave me an eyebrow, but she didn't say anything else.

            She drove us to a part of the county that probably no college students ever saw.  The hills that broke away from the river like fat waves evened out here into something wide and flat, a place built to be flooded.  The land dropped again into a gulch and sprawling off to the right was a gray metal building big enough to build airplanes in.  A line of trucks piled with poultry cages idled at one end, waiting for an army of men in blue raincoats to lift the living cargo onto a conveyor belt of hooks.  We were probably a hundred yards away, but we were close enough for me to see—here were the Mexicans, and not like me either, or even my parents.  Real Mexicans, from Mexico Mexicans, probably bussed straight in to do this work. 

            She took a sharp left turn and down a road I probably wouldn't have seen was a single wide trailer set at crooked angles to everything.  It was old but well swept.  Over the green door was a sign that said only “Botanica.”  She looked at me and said, “This is the place, right?”   And I wished that I'd known, but I nodded and we walked up to the door.

            The inside smelled like the water dripping out of an air conditioner.  It wasn't a big place, but there were too many banks of fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling so it was brighter inside than out even at three in the afternoon.  Shelves ran down one side, a glass counter down the other.  It was so much more colorful than I would have thought.  The prayer candles were familiar—they had a half an isle of them at the grocery store back home. But here they had them in every color and combination, and some to people I were pretty sure weren’t saints at all.  There was a whole shelf of perfumes labeled with infinitive verbs, patent medicines that promised pictorially to attract love or make the devil run away screaming.  Siete Gotas de Amor, Siete Baños de Osiris. 

            But it was the statues that I couldn't look away from.  La Virgen of course, the usual variety and also the one in black with little glass tears studding her face.  A few others I recognized—San Martin and Jesus with his Sacred Heart exposed.  But who was that in a loin cloth and a head scarf hobbling on crutches, and what did it say on the halo around his head that looked hammered out of pennies?  And was that a goat?  Who was that with the bowtie and the Pep Boys Moustache and why were toothpaste and doll sandals fastened around his neck?  

            Then I felt Claire's hand slip into mine.  I remembered that I was supposed to be the expert here even if I didn't want to touch anything and so I quit spinning in circles to look at things I'd never seen before and started nodding like I was looking at a truck I was buying.  “So what do we need?” she asked.  I wandered around wondering which items were least authentic, most likely to be harmless shams. 

            I decided on things I recognized—a few sticks of incense and an assortment of prayer candles.  I started with La Santisima Muerte—The Most Holy Death—the grim reaper in broken white lines over a red candle, a border of skulls and hour glasses at both ends.  Then, because that one scared me, I grabbed La Virgen de Guadalupe, figuring she could balance things out.  I thought about El Mano Poderosa, with the creepy baby Jesus balanced on the thumb of his own bleeding hand, but I was afraid maybe that wouldn't be witchy enough for Claire.  Then I saw another one.  It said Eleggua on the front.  It showed a figure drawn in black, un indio with a top knot and either war paint or face tattoos like tiger stripes all over his bald head.  He had a necklace of claws and teeth, one giant earring and a spear with a point the size of his head.  His eyes were drawn crooked, with one just a little bigger than the other, but they looked through you instead of at you all the same.

            I grabbed that one too, and had three candles and some incense, which seemed a reasonable ghost eviction kit to me.  I turned back to Claire.  “Oh,” she said, “Is that all you think we'll need?”  He face seemed almost a little embarassed, like she could have done that herself.  I smiled sheepishly and went back to the shelves to find something else that might prove useful.  Something good and magic so she would feel like we'd gotten something done.

            I found a bottle of something labeled as “Por espiritus malos,” which seemed promising.  Apparently it was an incense oil or something like it.  There were no instructions of any kind, no label at all on the back.  Only the words and then a small drawing of a figure.  I looked a little closer, it was the same mother from the candle, Eleggua, with the same dark crooked eyes.  And I thought to myself, “Oh good they match,” and I took it back to Claire who seemed satisfied. 

            I wondered who we were supposed to pay and then noticed that there was a woman watching us from the corner.  She must have been there the whole time.  She was maybe fifty, with bottle auburn hair and pretty makeup.  The only thing witchy about her was a big turquoise necklace, and probably that would have seemed Arizonan if I'd seen it in the sunlight. 

            Claire took our supplies to the counter and pulled out her wallet, but the woman put up a hand and shook her head.  Claire looked back to me and I swallowed hard.  “¿No puedemos comprar este cosas?” I asked and tried hard not to blush.

            The woman gave a half smile and said, “No, she can't buy them.”  Her English was perfect, no trace of an accent at all.

            Claire looked at me, and I thought that this was the time to tell her that I was more scared than she was, that all I had to go on was the diminishing hope that ghosts and witchcraft were both unreal.  But instead I shrugged and walked up to the counter and handed the woman my last twenty dollar bill. 

            She put everything in a brown paper sack and gave me change, and we turned to walk out.  Claire was halfway to her car and the door had almost swung shut on its hinges when I heard the shopkeeper call to me, “¡Oye!”  I stood in the doorway and leaned my head back in.  Every eye in every icon looked focused on me and I almost couldn't find where the voice was coming from.  She spoke to me in a lower raspier tone than before and in rapid Spanish.  I know it started out with  “Si quieres”—if you want—but I couldn't follow from there until the very end—“con cuidado cabron”--watch out friend. 

            It scared me not knowing what she was saying.  But the truth was I was thinking that ignorance was maybe my only defense, and it's far easier than you'd think to just nod and pretend you understand and walk away.  But I took a deep breath anyways and said “I'm sorry.  I don't understand.”

            She smirked a little, and spoke again in Spanish, but this time I heard her just fine,  “Entonces no importa, ¿verdad?”  Then it shouldn't matter, right?  I waited for more, but her smile said she was done, and so I turned around with my sack of candles and potion and got into the car. 

            “What did she say?” asked Claire, worried but still driving away fast enough to spray gravel into the grass. 

            “She said we'd need liquor.”




            It was dark by the time we got back to her apartment.  She lived on the fourth floor of a sprawling student complex behind a gate.  Her apartment was freshman year chic, the pappa-san chairs instead of bean bags, macrame wall hangings instead of movie posters. I arranged the three candles in a line and lit the incense, then I handed her the bottle of rum we'd picked up.  She drank without prompting, straight from the bottle and said, “So how does this work?”

            I tried not to shrug.  “We light the candles, we say a few prayers, and then we pour the potion into the flame.  The smell drives the spirit away.” She nodded and then so did I.  It was a pretty good plan, I thought.  It sounded like good witching.  So I added, “And then we dance and drink rum.  We play loud music and stomp so that other spirits know this is a place of the living.” 

              She smiled at me a little at this last part, the first time she'd done that all day.  I could tell that she thought she was a good dancer, and so was I.  My grandma had taught me, leading as the follower, swaying to the oompapa of tejano music on the radio.  This would be alright, I thought, and I had us both kneel before the coffee table. 

            I lit a match and crossed myself with it, and then held it just above eye level.  I mumbled the first half of padre nuestro and touch the flame to the Virgen's wick.  Then I turned around the candle and read the prayer on the back.  The Spanish was mostly easy here—a lot of implore de socorro and other phrases I could piece togeher.  I was particularly proud for not reading the “Haga su peticion” at the end and instead finishing up with “ayudanos.”  Everything seemed to be going according to plan, and I looked back at Claire with a big smile.  Her eyes were squeezed shut. 

            The next candle was la Santisima Muerte.  I lit it like the first one, the match fire shining through the peak of death's hood, and this time I felt a little shiver run down me.  The prayer on this one was longer and from the first word I didn't know what I was saying.  Someone, either death or me, was an animal ferocious.  Someone else was saying words of great power.  Halfway through there was a blank that looked like a name went in it.  So I said her name, and her eyes snapped open at the sound of it.  I nodded at her, hoping that I wasn't supposed to say the ghost's name there instead.  Did ghosts have names?  I felt blood pump through my chest, and it felt like someone was almost touching the little hairs on the back of my neck. 

            Two down, one to go, I thought, and reached for the last candle.   Eleggua's black eyes stared at me through the flickering light of the other candles.  It felt heavy in my hand, too heavy, and I set it back down.

            “What's wrong?” said Claire, and I looked up at her.  She was scared too, I could see it.  She was also beautiful, and I thought—we'll be dancing soon.

            “You do this last one,” I said, and when she looked confused, I added  “Your ghost,  your candle.”  She took the matches from me, lit one and crossed herself just like I had.  She lit the candle slowly and lifted it to read the prayer.  Her eyes darted back to me, and she whispered “Is it okay if I read the English one?” 

            I hadn't noticed there was an English one.  Somehow that seemed like cheating, but I said sure, and she took a deep breath.  

            “Oh glorious Eleggua, you who are an immortal and mighty warrior, hear my plea.  Keep evil away from me in my sleep and while I am awake.  Keep my home safe from evil while I am absent and when I am there.  Please accept my prayer to Olofi, so he can grant you his eternal blessings.”

            The prayer hung in the air  like the smoke from the incense.  When she was done I leaned behind her and grabbed the oil we bought and took off the cap.  I put it in her hand, and then wrapped my hand around hers.  “In nombre del padre,” I said  and spilt a drop of the brown sticky fluid in the Virgen's candle.  It didn't make noise.  “Y el hijo.” A drop kissed La Santisima Muerte, and the flame hissed and sizzled and sputtered out and then lit again.  “Y el spiritu” our hands hovered over Eleggua, the flames flickered in his eyes and in ours. “Santo.” The unctuous fluid spilt from the bottle to the candle, and the fire danced back up the drizzle towards the bottle, burning with a thick black smoke. 

            She jerked away from the fire and into me, spilling the oil all over both of us and onto the floor.  All of it all at once, it smelled like a thousand masses, like the sweet part of tree bark, like something I knew and I didn't, and there was so much of it that it climbed down my nose and into my throat and I could barely breathe, and I saw Claire cough and cover her mouth like she was trying hard not to vomit.  In between heaves she looked at me said “What is Olofi?  Who did we just pray to?”  But I couldn't tell her. 

            Once I'd helped her clean up as best we could, I was out of things to say, and I half hoped her ghost would make an appearance, just so that we didn't feel so crazy, but once we turned the lights back on, it was clear that we were alone.  I got ready to leave, but she stopped me.  “Wait,” she said, “Don't we still have to dance?” 

            “No,” I said.  “It doesn't matter, you'll be fine.”

            But she didn't look fine, not at all, and she said, “Shouldn't we just be sure?”  And so I reached for her, and she folded into my arms.  We both still had potion down the front of our shirts, and I could smell bile on her breath.  I put my hand on her hip and led her through the waltz my grandmother taught to me.  There was no music, so you could hear our jeans scuffing against themselves.  As soon as she moved in my hands, I could tell that she was a magnificent dancer, and I didn't want to run away anymore.

            I told her we needed music, and she nodded.  She turned on something slow and sultry.  It sounded Cuban.  And when she walked back to me, she did it slow, and her hips bobbed with the piano chords, and her eyes had a different look.  She took my hands, and led me to the tiny spot between the television and her the coffee table.  And for half  a merengue, I watched her while we danced.  She wasn't smiling, but I felt her approval in the way she moved against me. But she didn't want to look me in the eye.  Maybe I wasn't the only one with a theory. All of a sudden I saw it.  Her telling her girlfriends she wanted someone tall, dark, and handsome, and here I was two out of three ain't bad.  And why not, I thought.  I could fill her quota sheet just fine, if that's what she wanted.

            And then the power went out, and out of the darkness I heard a noise like a broom snapping over a knee.  She grabbed into me at once, and whisper-screamed “What was that?”

            I knew I was supposed to comfort her, tell her it was nothing.  But I was only thinking of dark eyes watching me from the corner, and I heard myself saying, “How should I know?” 

            “I thought,” she said, and already she was peeling away from me, “I thought you could help me.”

            A dark metallic noise sounded from somewhere behind the walls or under the floor, and I broke away from her.  “I can't,” I said as I fumbled for the door knob.  “I can't help you at all.”


            I didn't sleep that night.  The smell hung in my nostrils even after half an hour of scrubbing and two changes of clothes.  I wandered out of the dorms and ended up laying down face up on a stone bench in the rose garden.  Nothing was more different than the sky.  Back home, when you looked up at night you saw the light pollution reflecting off the air pollution, all of it stirred together into one electric gray.  But here the clouds broke open and showed a whole symphony of light.  Of course they were always there, the stars, but when you didn't know about it, they weren't missing, ¿verdad?   That's how it felt, like I knew now that something was missing.  Like there was a secret I knew but couldn't translate. 

            When the dawn came I went inside and did the only thing that made sense.  I called my Grandmother.  And that's how it got to be a story that we tell each other.  About the time when little Johny, trying to impress a white girl, tried to do witchcraft and scared himself so bad that he called grandma crying at six in the morning, saying the spirit he'd cast out was haunting him and what was he supposed to do now.  My Dad tells it best, shaking a little and wiggling his upper lip as he mumbles,  “Grandma, I think I might be a witch.”  And I mean what's not funny, right?  They're just candles, aren't they?    Once I heard it told, it started meaning something else, and I was fine with that, and I hope that whatever happened to Claire, she's doing okay too.  But that day when I was on the phone and the whole story came spilling out, it felt like the greatest of weights had been lifted, like I was light enough to fly away when mi abuelo me dijo,  “Shh.  Shh hijo.  It's okay.  Don't worry.  It doesn't mean nothing.  Tiene que ser mexicano para ser un brujo.  You're fine.  You're fine.”