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In the Newsroom

June 12, 2009
Coca fortunes read amid crucifixes and Bolivian war heroes

Coca leaves have both a practical and spiritual use in Bolivia.

Ivette Feliciano reported on Bolivia’s coca plant cultivation as part of the signature series “On the ground in Bolivia.” The coca plant is still used to make teas, pastas, shampoos and medicines, in the same way that generations of indigenous Bolivians used coca leaves in years past.

For extended multimedia coverage of the issues facing Bolivia today, go to On the Ground in Bolivia.

One day while heading back to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, our driver Mauro told me about a use for coca that surprised me. Mauro is an indigenous Aymara Indian, and he told me how dried coca leaves are used by indigenous Bolivian fortune tellers, or brujos, to help guide people in communities like his on their life paths.

Mauro is originally from a town a few hours outside of La Paz.  He said that he and members of his family typically go to see a brujos if they are sick, need guidance on a business decision, or are having trouble in their love lives. The last time Mauro had visited a brujo was a few months before, when he and his wife opened a new liquor store. They wanted to make sure that an offering was made to the Pachamama, or mother earth.

Mauro took me to a neighborhood in La Paz high in the hills that seemed isolated from the other bustling La Paz neighborhoods. There were about 40 or 50 small blue shacks, and if you peaked inside one, you might see a fortune teller saying a prayer or breaking down an altar they had prepared for a previous customer.

We walked into two different shacks and had our fortunes read by two brujos.  The first brujo was in his late 70s.  He said he’d been born into the tradition. His grandfather was a brujo, as was his father.  He’d been practicing coca leaf fortune telling for 33 years. He explained that for most people in his profession, you were born into the tradition. But some people received the calling later in life, like a man he knew who’d been struck by lightening and survived — and from then on had the gift of being able to read coca leaves.

He performed a simple reading. There was a crucifix on the table along with dried coca leaves. On the walls were pictures of Catholic saints and indigenous war heroes. He asked what question I’d like to ask, and then proceeded to say a prayer using both Spanish and Aymara words. After a few minutes of prayers, he began tossing the leaves around the crucifix and observed the pattern they formed as they fell, and then answered the question I had asked. His price was a little less than a dollar, and the entire experience lasted about 10 minutes.

The second brujo said he wanted to perform a cleansing ritual on me after reading the coca leaves. He built an altar that included grass, incense, walnuts, confetti and of course coca leaves.  After saying a ten minute prayer, he burned the altar and placed a string bracelet on me.  This was meant to rid me of fear. This ritual cost close to fifty dollars.

On our way back to hotel after going to see these two men, Mauro told me he thought the second brujo was very good. He also expressed how happy he was that I was able to experience the sacred uses of coca.

– Ivette Feliciano

For more Worldfocus coverage of Bolivia, visit our extended coverage page: On the Ground in Bolivia.


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