Neighborhood: East Harlem

Photo by Francis Mariani

Having grown up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, most of my friends were Cuban. Marly was my best friend throughout high school and beyond. I loved hanging out with her and her mother, Mirna, because their home was so exotic. I loved eating her mom’s rice and beans, okra and pork, and practicing my Spanish. I could speak almost as well as they could, slang included, but without the authentic accent. I was their token gringa.

As we got older, Mirna would share more "Cuban" secrets with us, detailing some easy-to-use brujeria (witchcraft) that could be used for personal gain or to thwart the attempts of enemies.

Marly thought her mother was nuts, but I was fascinated. One day I went over and there were three platanos (green bananas) on her welcome mat. Upon entering I asked Mirna why she put them there. She said that they were there in the morning when she woke up and suspected that a neighbor left them there to put an evil spell on her. No matter, Mirna, explained. She knew how to combat that magic.

Marly sat on the couch rolling her eyes.

"Why not just pick them up and throw them away?" I asked, naively.

"Get this," Marly warned, before Mirna went on to explain.

Mirna said to diffuse the spell the neighbor had set to cast on her it required one to urinate on the neighbor’s doormat.

"Wait! You squatted on her doormat this morning?" I asked, incredulous.

"No, mi Niña," she replied. "I peed in a cup and then poured it there.

Well, of course.

This should have probably been enough about brujeria to last me a lifetime, but I was intrigued.

Mirna would often go to tarot card readers, and "seers."

One in particular stood out.

Marly was going through a divorce and had moved back to New Jersey to stay with her mom while she was getting back on her feet. Her mother wanted to help her get out of her funk and knew of just the person who could: A psychic named Umberto! He’d tell her what to do to make things better!

She said it takes at least six months to get an appointment, but she called in some favors so she was taking Marly next Saturday. I asked her if I was willing to pay the $60 for a reading, if Umberto would fit me in.

"Claro," Mirna said, the plan set.

Umberto lived in East Harlem so after getting café con leches for the road, we huddled into the car for the long ride.

We finally pulled up to a generic apartment building in an urban area. Kids screamed and played in the street and as we entered, the smell of mojito and lechon permeated the building.

Mirna walked through the open apartment door and quietly sat on a couch as if entering a church. Marly and I followed, squishing in together to fit. There were two other older Hispanic women–viejas–sitting on chairs across from us, one holding a huge box that appeared to move on it’s own. It’d inch it’s way a few inches to the left and the woman would kick it back.

Beyond that, there was a lot to take in.

There was a huge parrot, sitting cageless in the middle of the room, shitting on everything. The couch was covered in birdshit and the smell in the place nauseated me.

The worst part were the hundreds of roaches crawling everywhere. A huge one scurried up the back wall behind the sofa. A few smaller ones scuttled past the parrot who cawed loudly. I kept my purse in my lap and my flip flopped feet off the floor as much as I could.

"What the fuck?" I whispered to Marly.

"You wanted to come…" she replied.

Mirna acted like nothing was wrong. The smell of death, urine and garbage didn’t affect her at all, and I was mortified.

It would be a long wait, Mirna explained, the older women were next and were there for a very serious matter. So serious, they were required to bring a live chicken–that was clearly not happy to be in that box–to sacrifice.

"You have to be kidding me?" I asked.

Marly just shook her head, welcoming me to her world.

I could see Umberto, turbaned, wearing a dirty wife beater and boxer shorts, sitting at a table in the kitchen. Umberto was gesticulating frantically and it was apparent he was a very flamboyant gay man. (Mirna explained later he only dated overweight white men.)

A woman sat across from him. He laid tarot cards on the table and spoke to her in hushed tones. I could see roaches crawling all over the kitchen floor and over the woman’s shoe.

I started scratching and getting some hives from panic. I could not sit here amidst bugs and chicken killing.

Mirna started speaking in Spanish to the two old women and they explained that she was next for her reading and that they were to kill the chicken in the bathtub after we leave.

It was kind of a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to be around for the slaughter and that I’d get my fortune read quicker than I expected, but still, the roaches were crawling way too close for comfort–one got on the couch and burrowed under the cushions we were sitting on—and I jumped up and decided pacing was a better use of my time.

Mirna gave besitos (kisses) to Umberto and listened to him list all his problems before they settled down to the reading. He wouldn’t allow us to sit in the kitchen with her, so Marly and I paced in the living room trying to avoid the hundreds of roaches (and other assorted bugs) in the room.

I really had to use the bathroom and so did Marly. It had been a long ride and those cafe con leches were grande. We walked through the living room, the parrot chasing after us screeching, and discovered the bathroom had no door!

The bigger problem was that there were roaches on the ceiling that kept falling down. There was no way either of us were going to drop our pants in front of everyone else in the apartment and risk having roaches land on us. Still, nature was calling and was just getting louder and louder.

Finally Marly told her mother she was going out for a few minutes to smoke a cigarette. We went into the alley adjacent to the building and Marly asked me to be the lookout so she could pee.

Normally I’d be appalled, but I did so gladly, knowing she’d do the same for me in a few minutes.

I couldn’t believe I was about to take my pants down in broad daylight with playing children just a few feet away. On top of that, the building that faced the alley had open, mainly curtain less windows.

I finally squatted, bare-assed and let loose. The urine got on my flip flopped feet, but I knew there was no way I could go back into that bathroom.

By the time we got back into the apartment it was Marly’s turn to go. She laid her $60 down and Umberto started chanting.

Mirna plopped back on the sofa, no doubt killing a few hundred roaches that had set up camp there, and told me about how Umberto was known to speak in tongues.

At this point I was beyond traumatized. The chicken in the box was unrelenting and was trying to peck its way out.

There were little holes in the cardboard now, and every now and then I’d see a beak. The parrot was also pecking feverishly at the outside of the box trying to get in, in what was either a show of solidarity with the other bird or a way to add insult to injury to it.

Mirna went on to tell me that Umberto was always very special and always had visions.

I asked her about the roaches and she said he has his eyes trained on the future and not the present. That mundane tasks like cleaning and bug-killing were not of any concern.

I couldn’t believe I was trapped here and wanted to leave more than anything, but I had tagged along and it would have been rude of me to insist we leave, when Mirna had so graciously allowed me to join.

Meanwhile, it was clear Marly was moved by what Umberto was telling her. She had tears in her eyes as she flipped cards over. He started shouting and even though I speak Spanish, I couldn’t understand.

Mirna explained he was warding off a spirit that was threatening to take over his body.

Finally Marly’s reading was over and before she could tell me what she was told, I was summoned. In broken English Umberto commanded me to cut the cards. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to tell him the reason I was there or explain what exactly I was hoping to know about my future, but Umberto didn’t seem to want to know.

As he began laying down cards, eyebrows raised, roaches crawled on the table and over them. I stood up and started screaming and he looked at me like I was crazy. He flicked them off the table—mere inches away from me–and told me to sit and stop being silly. That they were there to protect us.

"The parrot too?" I asked.

"No, she is the Devil, but we must know the Devil in order to recognize God."


As he turned over cards he explained to me that the big problem was my mother. That a darkness had overtaken her.

He had no idea who I was or anything about my family. Yet I was pretty surprised when he explained my mother’s schizophrenia very accurately.

He went on to tell me that when women become pregnant they are very vulnerable because they open in a way to allow another soul to infiltrate them. And while my soul was good and normal, another evil soul also entered my mother and from the time she became pregnant she began to be what doctors would describe as mentally ill.

He said that was the ignorant’s explanation, but in reality she was overtaken by a demon and would have that demon in her for life. No amount of sacrificed animals would release her from its grasp, but that I could cleanse myself of the effects if I wanted to.

I was very surprised at how spot on he was in his assessment, especially because there was no way he could have known anything about my upbringing.

He said I was prone to dark moods, not because of a spell or bad spirits, but because of empathy from seeing my mother overcome by the evil one.

Sounded right to me.

He said I should get a big raw steak and wash myself from head to toe making sure there was blood touching every bit of me. He said to stand like this until the blood dried on my skin and into my hair.

I asked if there was another way. The thought of raw meat and blood touching me was nauseating.

He gave me a firm no, took my $60 and told me it’d be a hard life if I didn’t. Further, he said that if I didn’t do it now, the sadness would be forever ingrained in me.

Shaken from his words, the filth and smell, I nearly collapsed, drained, into the back seat of the car as we made our way home.

Marly explained that Umberto was on the mark about a pregnancy she had had and terminated years before and it made her very sad. He said the spirit was now still amongst us on Earth but tortured.

He told her in order to release it she must bring a chicken and be prepared to slit it’s throat in his bathroom and smear its blood on herself.

A vegetarian, she knew she couldn’t do this.

Mirna said she had to pee again on the neighbor’s welcome mat to offensively block any other displays of aggression the neighbor might be contemplating.

I never did rub that raw steak on myself, and on days of tears and ennui, I often wonder if my life would be different if I had.

Kelly Kreth is best known for being fired quite publicly for keeping a *gasp* blog. She chronicles the mishaps and woes of a single woman trying to get and keep the Big Three in NYC: a job, an apartment and a relationship. Kreth has also written a Sex/Relationship column for the New York Press aptly called, "Outside the Box." She is a frequent guest blogger at She was a 2009 Moth GrandSlam Storytelling competition finalist and often feels trapped in a Seinfeldian Hell.


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§ 4 Responses to “Brujeria”

  • Liz says:

    I am interested in retaining services provided by Umberto. Could you provide me with his contact information? Please let me know either way. Thx

  • mauricio says:

    MY STEP DAD WAS INTO BRUJERIA AND CUBAN AND HE DID VERY SIMILAR THINGS !!!! this is very bad and there is no dubt in my mind that u recieved a curse from going to umberto! because i lived with one who practiced the same chicken sacrifice ideas and counter acting spells, when i was a kid i found a black feather and put it in the keyhole of the doorknob because it looked cool “( i was 9)my step dad thought it was a spell against him and put it in a metal pot with chains and magnets , well the point is that There is a God in this world and the whole rubbing blood on urself is just to make u do something very detestable in the sight of God who loves you, he got the information about ur moms shizo problem because he gets his information from demonic forces and the schizo is a result of a demonic power and demons know about each other so it was a matter of demonic information being given to umberto because he opens himself up to these dark forces and thats why his life is so messed up , because he makes dark forces his “gods” and submits himself to them , and thats exactly what you did by going to him , made that dark power ur “god” by accepting its services and believing its divination. but all u have to do to get rid of ur curse is ask Jesus our Lord to forgive you and to come into ur life so that u can have a relationship with him here on earth like i and other christians do , stay away from catholic churches and read the bible foryourself to find out about God he will show u what u need to see as soon as u open ur bible if u ask him to show himself to u with a longing heart for his truth, read the gospel of john to see who jesus was and the new rules he caused to exist here on earth by his mercy for us. Grace and peace to you all from God the father and Jesus christ our Lord.!!

  • mauricio says:

    oh n read the bible privately, God speaks to us the best when were alone a nd our atention is fully on Him

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