“In Latin America,” says my friend, Bernardo Aparício, “magic-realism is simply realism.”
In 1969, I went to Brazil a thorough rationalist and agnostic. Academically successful, I had completed my first year at Harvard Law School, then taken a leave of absence. I returned to Harvard five years later to finish school, but I was in many ways a changed man.
Part of the change came from living and working with people for whom the “supernatural” is simply part of life. Bernardo is right – Latin Americans do not generally distinguish between what we call the “supernatural” and the natural: all is part of a single whole. I’ll illustrate with a true story.
In the 1980s, my wife, Brenda, and I were living in a small village on the Araguaia River, in the eastern Amazon basin. We were ministering to a rural parish that the Franciscan priests were able to visit only once a month. Our good friend, Fr. Tom Jones (OFM) was called back to the United States, and asked us if we would take care of his canary. So the canary came and lived in a cage on our veranda, and blessed us with song.
One morning a parishoner, Dona Jaíra, came to talk with Brenda about parish matters. Dona Jaíra was an intelligent woman, raised in the region and active in the rosary group. As she was leaving, they walked out onto the veranda. Brenda looked at the cage and saw that the canary was lying on the floor, apparently sick or dying.
“Someone has given the canary the evil eye,” Dona Jaíra said. Then, after a moment, “Do you mind if I cure it?”
“Please,” my wife responded. We loved the canary. “Do anything you can.”
Dona Jaíra went over to a bush in our garden, selected a small branch, plucked it and came back to the cage. She inserted the branch into the cage so that it touched the canary. She said a brief prayer. The branch wilted; the canary stood up and began to sing.
Such an incident was not an isolated event. A friend’s dead mother-in-law physically appeared to her, calmly asking that a mass be said so that she could rest in peace. When a farm school we helped organize was plagued by poisonous snakes, a local curandeiro blessed three corners of the property and guaranteed that snakes would not bother it for the next two years – they didn’t.
Today our friend, Rich Davis – who also lived in Brazil – sent me a wonderful article from NPR - http://wboi.org/post/letter-beyond-grave-tale-love-murder-and-brazilian-law. An ex-cop and a crime boss had a gunfight over a woman; the crime boss was killed. The court admitted as evidence a letter from a medium who had been contacted by the dead man. The dead man acknowledged (from beyond the grave) that the fight had been his fault. The ex-cop was acquitted.
Brazil – a marvelous and magical country.
Arthur Powers went to Brazil in 1969 and lived most his adult life there. From 1985 to 1997, he and his wife served with the Franciscan Friars in the Amazon, doing pastoral work and organizing subsistence farmers and rural workers’ unions in a region of violent land conflicts. The Powers currently live in Raleigh North Carolina.
Arthur received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and 2nd place in the 2008 Tom Howard Fiction Contest. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many magazines & anthologies. He is the author of A Hero For The People: Stories From The Brazilian Backlands (Press 53, 2013) and The Book of Jotham (Tuscany Press, 2013).