Early one Tuesday morning in a working class town near Mexico City, a group of men and women gather in front of a modest apartment complex, full of anticipation. Hours later, close to noon, the one they have been patiently waiting for arrives: Maria Ruiz Pena, a tall woman with flowing brown hair and an affable smile. She approaches in a red sedan. She is a healer, a wizard.

She receives patients every Tuesday and Friday — mystical days, according to magicians. Her followers believe that she fixes broken backs and mends broken lives, and the men and women waiting by the door in this hardscrabble neighborhood, known as Los Reyes (“The Kings” in Spanish), have come after exhausting other options.

The people at the gate consider themselves lucky to be here. The “doctora” is known as Nancy, and Nancy is hard to find. As I wait by the door to her apartment complex and listen to the tales of those who are seeking her counsel, I am introduced to a world of poverty, impotence, bad hospitals, bad marriages, bad situations.

Los Reyes is a bedroom community for Mexico City’s low-wage workers. Local employment is scarce and often in the informal sector. We are just an hour from Mexico City but everything in Los Reyes appears to be more dire, more pressing — almost insurmountable.

And more magical. In a country where the government fails to help the downtrodden, these people seem to be taking matters into their hands. Their solution: Engage magic and belief, and obtain the force and the emotional strength to get on with life.

Nancy’s followers toil as maids, drivers, and mechanics. Nancy cures them with potions and advice. She performs “spiritual medical operations” on patients who have exhausted Mexico’s massive medical system, where corruption determines the care you receive. The patients bring their faith. I have come to see Nancy too.

As the doorman opens the grilled metal gate, Nancy’s car enters the parking lot and the small crowd trails behind. Nancy waits for us inside. She wears a white medical smock over a red sweater. She greets each person, and when she gets to me, her large and piercing brown eyes hang onto my gaze. It is my first time seeing her and I am nervous. She marches up the cement stairs with long strides, and we follow. We reach a small apartment, sparsely furnished, where she receives us one by one.

One third of all Mexicans live with magic, according to anthropologists. No matter the economic background or educational level. Nancy is one of thousands of fortune-tellers and sorcerers who offer relief from bad luck and illness to dwellers in Mexico City and its surrounding towns. Getting a referral to the right sorcerer is said to be imperative, to avoid the charlatans.

I found Nancy through a woman we’ll call Rosa, a Mexican friend who is a medical physician but who also consults a battery of brujos (witches), to interpret events in her daily and professional life. One of her brujas is a young woman who reads candles; another reads Tarot cards. In turn, she relies on Nancy for help with medical healing of her parents and children. Nancy helped Rosa with her father’s back problem, and she also did an eye “operation” on Rosa’s ten-year-old son. Rosa keeps her belief in “brujeria,”or witchcraft, private.

I am not a complete neophyte with magic. I visited fortune-tellers and local brujos when I worked as a foreign correspondent in Central America, Colombia, and Africa, looking for cultural and religious clues into the local culture.

I had tarot cards readings in Colombia, aura analysis in El Salvador, and shell readings in Senegal. The magical marketplaces that flourish underground in many countries are mindboggling. I once attended a ceremony in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, where a tribal brujo beheaded a chicken in front of a group of us and interpreted our future through the bird’s intestines.

The key to know whether you are with a bonafide brujo is to pay attention at how he or she interprets your future — but especially the past. Bad ones can make lucky guesses. Good ones can tell you about your history. And then there are those like Nancy, who seem to have some unexplainable gift.

Nancy has a wide following. During the year and half I visited her clinic, I saw about a thousand different people come to see her, not including private patients and others she visits in hospitals. Her customers are largely the downtrodden and her fees are low. She does not advertise. She does not hand out business cards. The people who come to her clinic have been referred by other customers, people who say they saw their lives turn around thanks to her potions and aura cleansings.

To visit her office that nippy morning, I take the A train, an old metro line that connects the Pantitlan station in Mexico City to Los Reyes. The service runs packed trains during morning and afternoon commuting hours, but I am traveling against traffic so the train is empty except for a few sleepy security guards on their way home from the night shift. They wear uniforms with tags on the back of their jackets: “Seguridad Privada.” Private security companies have proliferated in Mexico City with a recent spike in crime.

After a thirty-minute ride, I arrive at Los Reyes and hop on a mototaxi — a motorcycle that pulls on a metal chair with two wheels. It costs ten pesos, or fifty cents U.S., and it takes me to the front of Nancy’s clinic. The few streets that make up downtown Los Reyes are usually bustling — with an open-air market where people sell vegetables, chicken, beef, and counterfeit shoes and clothing. But the stalls are still being set up this early and we easily loop around them.

Los Reyes is semi-urban but has a rural feel. There are few trees and the streets are narrow. The aging stucco and cement houses are mostly one story, and painted in striking hot pink, yellow, and red. Some multi-floor houses have top floors that appear to have been built long after the first one was constructed. Housing is expensive in Mexico, and Nancy tells me that poor people upgrade their homes as they save money. Some home improvements are done when a son or daughter gets married. The parents build the newlyweds a floor of their own above the family home. Such projects are done slowly, and unpainted top floors often have metal construction rods protruding.

Like many towns in eastern Mexico State, Los Reyes is a high crime area. The area was included in a recent U.S. State Department “no travel zone” for U.S. citizens. Nancy’s apartment is on Avenida Puebla, a street divided by the A train subway tracks, and the neighborhood is indeed unsafe at night. According to Nancy’s apartment guards, robbers hide and get away around the train tracks. One or more home burglaries occur each day, according to a local newspaper.

I wait for Nancy with the others in a sparsely furnished apartment, sitting on multi-colored metal chairs covered in plastic. A television blares a 1940’s Mexican movie with Pedro Infante, a heartthrob who died in a plane accident in the 1950s. Most of the people in the room are dressed modestly. None wear jewelry. Nancy sees patients on a first-come, first-serve basis. They spend thirty or forty minutes with her, unless they have a cleansing or a healing operation and they are moved to an adjacent room.

A drawing of Jesus Christ hangs from the front wall. Cherubim and clay figures of a snail, a horse, and a cat — stare from wall nooks. A white stone angel commands the view from the left corner. Later Nancy tells me that all her decorations have magical meanings.

My friend Rosa recommended that I ask Nancy about the string of bad financial events I had endured recently, which Rosa believed were caused by the “evil eye.” Rosa says I need a magical cleansing.

When my turn to see her finally arrives, I walk down a narrow corridor to a small room in the back. Nancy sits behind a wooden table surrounded by candles and ceramic and glass figures. She exudes mystery. I am intimidated.

Other card readers I have visited in the past had more austere reading rooms. Hers feels otherworldly. A small dragon hatching from an egg rests on a bowl on the table. A glass figure of Casper the Ghost, with adjacent hummingbirds, dangles from an overhead light fixture. Owls, dolls, and pictures of volcanoes, waterfalls, and the ocean stare at me from the back wall. The light in the room seems smoky because of the candles and elixirs that Nancy sprays.

Nancy points to a chair and I sit. She asks why I am at her clinic. (Later she tells me she gets images in her head explaining people’s reasons.) I tell her about my friend Rosa, and ask for a reading. She hands me a pack of cards and asks that I shuffle them seven times. Nancy takes the cards and spreads them one by one in front of me. I have never seen such cards before, like a standard deck but different — colorful male and female figures, dressed in medieval clothing, striking poses. When I return home, I search online for their meaning and learn that they descend from the Mamluk divinatory cards brought by Arabs to Spain during the 14th Century.

In my spread, Kings, Queens, and big wooden slugs called Bastos — like clubs in the usual deck — line up. Nancy explains each card carefully. She reveals some of my recent economic setbacks, specific incidents she could not have known about. She talks about my past, about other things she could not have known. As she finishes the reading, she gives me a hug and mentions that I have a health condition. She offers to do a spiritual operation. I politely decline.

As I stand up to go, Nancy sprays an essence from my head to my toes. It smells like coconut. It will draw out bad energy, she says — it will open up the wealth-energy cycle. The container is decorated with a green label with dollar signs.

Forty minutes have gone by quickly. I call Rosa, who tells me the thick of the consultation will be done by Nancy in private late that night, involving more candles, more elixirs, and incantations to bring changes in a patient’s life. Nancy never divulges exactly what she does, but as I leave, Nancy tells me that my life will be better. This is why we go to fortune-tellers, Rosa tells me. I want to believe.

A few weeks later, a business contract I was expecting is approved. Is it a coincidence? I feel justified.

A month later, when I return to see Nancy, I mention the progress I have made. She is pleased and says more things will occur in my life. Before we continue, I tell her what I have been thinking: That I would like her to let me chronicle her life, to write about her. For just a few seconds, her large eyes gaze at me. I sense a combination of attentiveness and doubt. I blurt out: I will be respectful. She can call off the experiment at any moment. She is silent. I do not insist.

She hands the cards to me again. I shuffle, for another reading.

She gives me a progress report on my finances. She is accurate. She asks me to believe in myself. Then, at the end of the reading, she again sprays elixir over my body and gives me a hug: “You can do the story,” she says. “I will tell some of my patients.” I am elated.

For the next sixteen months I became a permanent fixture. I had weekly consultations with Nancy, which I used to briefly interview her about her craft and her life. She only agreed to one long interview during the whole time, but I gathered bits of personality, quirks, and wisdom from her during our weekly readings, and through interviews with her assistants and patients. I tried to understand her divinatory powers. I only learned to respect her abilities.

In the waiting area, I noticed, many patients cradled large envelopes, with X-rays and medical tests results for Nancy to read. A high school dropout, she has taken medical courses at a local university. She is an expert on the spinal cord, she tells me. She reads medical books voraciously. Nancy is a healer.

I ask her how she does this. She says she gets visions of spirits of deceased doctors who guide her. To understand illness, Nancy always starts with a spread of the Spanish baraja for her patients. “The cards guide me. They tell me if the illness has a spiritual reason.” Many illnesses are brought on by depression and emotional instability, she explains. “I never tell people how I am going to cure them,” Nancy said. “The mystery also helps them heal.”

To Nancy everything in life, the good and the bad, is linked to energy flows. “Bad luck and good luck is made up of energy and there are lots of people who are in the business of moving bad energy around,” she said. We get ill when we catch this energy or when it is sent to harm us, Nancy said.

Nancy is a private person. When I probe too much or ask questions she feels are impertinent, she shuts me off. But these moments, thankfully, are few.

She warns me that magic, whether you believe in it or not, is a mysterious art that can only be taken in small doses. Its mysteries are revealed to those born with a gift. But a person with a gift needs to know the boundaries, and to understand the power of the ancient art and its negative side effects.

Throughout the years I have met people who are addicted to magic. They do not carry out any major or minor decision unless their fortune-teller does a reading. They wear amulets that protect them. They invoke magic as their religion. Nancy Reagan, the former president’s wife, was one of them, although she used astrologers. My friend Rosa, the medical doctor, is one too.

When I first came to visit Nancy, I thought I was dealing with a fortune-teller, a seer, a sorcerer. But after my first visits and my first talks with her patients, I realized I had found something different. She has a way of mixing her thoughtful views on life with her fortune-telling. She told me that if I change my attitude I will get more out of life. And over time, I think some of that wisdom sank in.

During all my months at the clinic, I arrived early in the morning and did impromptu interviews out on the sidewalk with the first patients who gathered there early. During those private interviews people confided about otherworldly experiences that involved miraculous healings. Little by little, I got to understand Nancy’s work.

At first I thought I would have to write a story that would determine whether Nancy’s powers were real or fake. But Rosa and other medical friends told me Nancy’s work was faith-based healing, a controversial concept, but one where the patient’s trust is fundamental. I began to understand that my story would just bear witness to the experience, not judge it.

Still, I was shocked that people believed in Nancy so deeply. They expected her to cure serious illnesses, like cancer, tumors, infertility, mental illness. Nancy told me she could do it. But one had to believe.

It is one thing, of course, to have your fortune read and to believe that Nancy could help you improve your life along material lines. It is another to trust your health and life to someone other than a doctor. Still, my friend Rosa, the doctor, warned me that even with medical doctors, the practice ventures beyond science. “Some doctors are better at their craft because they have a sixth sense,” she said. “It is something medical school does not teach you.”

When I asked Nancy if I could witness one of her spiritual operations, she flatly refused. In interviews with patients who had undergone healing operations, I learned she uses sprays of strong elixirs and a pair of scissors during these interventions. Before an operation, Nancy asks for black pepper, gauze, high-grade alcohol, and one red onion. But unlike a medical doctor, she never reveals the procedure, or its outcome.

Patients stay awake during the interventions but close their eyes. Most patients seemed to be bewildered by the experience. I would ask patients if they remembered what they saw, what they smelled and heard. But they did not recall much. Only a few remembered vague details. They recalled feeling a cold metal, a knife, touching their bodies, and the clipping sound of scissors.

After the procedure, a white medical bandage full of herbs and onions is wrapped around the spot on the patient’s body near where it is injured or ill. The patient is instructed to take off the wrap the following day, and to discard it in the garbage. Patients must return to the clinic a week later to remove imaginary “stitches.”

Patients who had been operated on told me their body would swell up after the “operation,” as if they had truly been cut. That is why sometimes when the medical intervention is serious, like a treatment for cancer or major back surgery, Nancy conducts it in the patients’ homes. Nancy starts her work early in the morning, visiting patients at their homes or in hospitals. Her day ends late, in those evening magical ceremonies that she never reveals.

After a few months of visiting Nancy’s clinic, I sensed my limits. I never asked about those ceremonies, for example. Maybe I was spooked. Or maybe I had learned a little more about the depths of the dimensions she travels in.

Nancy charges little for consultations — $2.50 in U.S. dollars. For healings: $120. If a patient has no money, she works out a payment plan or does it for free. “I knew I had to work with poor patients. That’s my calling,” she said. That’s why she opened a clinic in Los Reyes twenty-three years ago. She also attends to wealthy patients and has some politicians in her practice, but she stays away from people who she believes have a dark energy, or are involved in criminal activity. “They want sorcerers to engage in black magic,” she said. “I don’t do that type of magic, so they don’t stay with me.”

Nancy has helped victims of organized crime, however, including a teenager who joined the vicious Zetas drug gang when he was thirteen and ended up in jail for a murder he said he did not commit. He could not leave the gang because he would be executed by the gangsters if he tried. His parents came to see Nancy, who says she managed to help the young man get acquitted and escape to another country. That was a couple of years ago, but the young man was so frightened that when I tried to talk to him, he refused. I told Nancy he was an ingrate, but Nancy reprimanded me. “You never know other people’s experiences and their fears,” she said.

There are explanations for Nancy’s work. Experts say healing is influenced by a patient’s belief in the healer. Jack Saul, a clinical psychologist from Columbia University, says healers teach patients to modify negative thoughts, and by doing so, target many illnesses that are psychosomatic. “There is a lot we don’t know about the energy Nancy is handling, but she is doing things that impact wellness,” he said. He pointed out that mainstream psychotherapists also work with patients on behavior modification, and some of Nancy’s work may be in the same vein.

Nancy tells some patients to combine her treatment with traditional medical care. And some patients are more comfortable with that combination. For example, Yulia, a Russian woman who lives in Mexico City and has advanced breast cancer, complements visits to Nancy with chemotherapy sessions.

After two decades of work, Nancy seems comfortable with her abilities. “The only time people died on me is because they brought them too late. The illness was well advanced and I could not do anything,” she said. Still, she understands how some people may not feel comfortable with her work. “A big part of the healing is believing. If you do not believe, you will not do well.”

Nancy is a high school dropout but she began taking courses at a local university soon after she initiated her healing work. “I never went to medical school but I have studied medicine,” she said. Besides the unexplainable appearance of the “spirits” who help her when she operates, she said, she needs to know specifics about the body to apply her healing.

In fact, she works with members of the medical community. Javier Ramos, one of her assistants at the clinic, is a health worker at a local hospital. Doctors and nurses at many local hospitals often ask her to visit their patients.

To be initiated in magic, one needs to find a guide, and for Nancy the search was not easy. She entered it as a matter of life and death.

The first time Nancy knew she had a gift, she tells me, she was five years old. “One day, I got terribly sick and my mom took me with my aunt, who also had a gift and worked at a spiritist center in Mexico City called the Templo de la Fe. There a medium used a white feather to heal me. They counseled my mother that if I did not use my healing powers, I would keep getting sick,” Nancy told me. We spoke over lunch at a popular chain restaurant called Bisquets, on Zaragoza Avenue near her office.

Her parents refused, she said. And, as predicted, Nancy got sick a second time, when she turned ten. Her aunt took her again to the Temple. Again, the healers warned her family. The illness was a warning. They promised to bring Nancy to the Temple and help her become a healer.

But time passed and her family forgot about the promise and the warning. Nancy got married at nineteen to Guillermo, her high school sweetheart. She had three daughters. Then the prophecy came true.

When Nancy turned twenty-six, she became deathly ill again. Her aunt reminded her of the promise they had made. Nancy decided to embrace her calling.

With her aunt’s help Nancy visited several brujos, to find one who could teach her the trade. Her first candidate was Panchito, an elderly man. He who would clasp his tongue and whistle, she said, making a sound like a snake. He was from Guerrero state, a tropical area in central Mexico known for a type of magic that combines sorcery brought by former African slaves with indigenous magic.

Panchito would hold his right hand upright and move it slowly as if it was a snake’s head. The hand would send patients into a trance. When Panchito tried it on Nancy, though, he failed.

Nancy was looking for purity of heart, she said. And even though Panchito had promised to cure her illness, Nancy felt he was evil. She left his clinic quickly.

She visited another magician from the state of Oaxaca, known for its powerful shamans. The magician this time was a woman with pale skin and a long black braid. She practiced black magic. And again, Nancy did not get a good feeling.

Then came Raymundo, a tall, thin, powerful sorcerer from Catemaco, Veracruz. “You are seriously ill. I will cure you and you can learn with me,” he said to Nancy. She had found her teacher.

Raymundo is a shape-shifting sorcerer, according to Nancy. He can shape the perception you see of him, and appear to you to be a wolf or another animal. This is a long tradition in the Nahua magic realm that dates back to before the Aztecs and Toltecs. Raymundo is a direct descendant of powerful Mexican indigenous shamans who transfer their knowledge along family lines. Nancy says Raymundo has a rare ability to work with the whole realm of magic, from black to white.

Nancy’s own magic is a mixture. She is mestizo and says she inherited European magical knowledge brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. She has combined that knowledge with the indigenous magic she learned from Raymundo, and the knowledge of the world of the spirits she learned at the Templo de la Fe.

According to Nancy, brujos need to be versed in all types of magic. But she insists that individuals are born with a mark to handle certain type of magic. “Some people have to practice white magic, others are born to practice black magic,” she said. Black magic goes from using animal blood to using human cadavers. Some books talk about evil spirits brought to our realm through incantations, she said. “It is not something we talk about.”

For five years Nancy was an apprentice with Raymundo. Her eldest daughter, Marisol, was in high school when her mother found her calling. “We did not see much of her,” she said. “She worked from morning until dawn.”

One Tuesday afternoon when I arrived at the clinic, Nancy was getting ready to close early. Her favorite aunt had died, and she had to go to the cemetery. She wore a white shirt beneath a black jacket to protect her from dark energies that she said could attach to her in the cemetery.

She took me to her office for a few minutes and we talked about her aunt and other members of her family who also have magical abilities. One of those relatives, she said, was told she had to engage in black magic. “One does not decide.”

I asked if she had tried to heal her aunt who had died. She said her aunt died of an illness the doctors did not discover until it was too late. Could she have done something to make herself more aware of such problems? “Magical people cannot perform magic on themselves. I have to see Raymundo or another seer that can help me with my personal problems,” she said. She also can’t protect her daughters, she said, nor her husband.

In the months I worked on Nancy’s story, she allowed me inside her world of trust and belief. The most important part of this access was the friendships I forged with some of her patients. These were people I would never have met in my daily life in Mexico, where social class dominates relationships and people tend not to mix. Low-income and middle-class Mexicans have formal relationships through work and commerce, but friendships that transcend class lines are not the norm. The patients I was able to befriend opened up their lives and allowed me to witness how, through trust in Nancy and in magic, they were able to navigate the pain of lost loves, bad relationships, lost jobs, and violence.

Magic and Nancy were protecting her clients from the precariousness of their present and the uncertainty of the future. I used to tell my more fresa, upper-class, friends in Mexico, that I had been shown el Mexico Profundo, the deep-down Mexico where family ties and strong beliefs keep you sane.

Many of Nancy’s clients have been coming to her clinic since she first opened for business two decades ago. She is a major stabilizing force for them.

In my interviews, I would ask some patients whether they understood her healing methods. The responses varied. Some said they did not understand, but they trusted her. Others said it was their belief in God. That’s why they were at the clinic. Nancy is their angel.

Don Emiliano, at eighty, comes for magical treatments twice or three times a week. He has prostate cancer and he believes Nancy is curing him. One day I find him with Nancy in “El Cuarto de Limpias,” the tiny cleansing room in the back of the clinic. The room is crammed with chairs, shelves, and tables. Roman Catholic religious figures are lined up on a table. Herbs and candles surround the figures. Also in the room is Eduardo, Don Emiliano’s thirty-year-old son. Nancy is frying red onion slices she will use in a cataracts “operation” on Eduardo.

Don Emiliano gave up going for cancer treatments at a government-run clinic. The doctor was giving him the wrong medication, he found out. “I had nobody to complain to, so I just stopped going,” he said. For the last three months, he has come to Nancy twice a week for energy sessions with homemade elixirs she prepares. He does not know what he is drinking, but he feels better. Recent tests showed his cancer had subsided, he told me.

The day I see him, Nancy is cleansing his aura with herbs and he is sitting on a wooden chair, his eyes shut tight and his hands on his knees. Nancy douses him with scents along the body and over the head. At one point, she asks Don Emiliano to step over an herb bouquet, to release the last bit of bad energy. When the session is over, Nancy admonishes me. “He is exuding bad energy,” she says, “and you are standing too close to him.”

Maria is another patient who sees Nancy for her health. But for her, trust in Nancy did not come easily.

Maria, who asked me not to use her last name, is in her fifties. She first came to Nancy because her mentally ill adult son had not shown any recovery through traditional medicine. He suffered breakdowns. Nancy was a last resort.

But within a few months, Maria said, Nancy was able to make her son “whole” again. Impressed, she began to trust Nancy, yet did not understand the healing process. She asked Nancy to operate on a large inflamed varicose vein she had on her right leg. Nancy did the operation and told her to stay off her feet for a few days. Maria ignored the warnings.

“I did not have open wounds, so I went to work,” she told me one afternoon. Her leg ballooned to twice its size and she had to go to emergency care at the local hospital. “I learned my lesson,” Maria said. “Now I listen to all her indications.”

Hugo is a thin, swarthy elderly man, a former Mexican Navy officer. I met him one morning outside Nancy’s gate, and as he talked and gestured with his hands, I noticed he had Nancy’s name tattooed in black ink on his right forearm. “Is that the doctora?” I asked him, pointing to the tattoo. He nodded yes.

After we had entered the clinic he explained: “I’m a Navy man,” he said. “She cured me. So, to thank her, I got a tattoo.”

I did not press Hugo. He seemed a proud man and prodding was out of the question. (To get access to patients in Nancy’s clinic, I had to agree not to use their full names.)

Nancy told me Hugo had Stage Four stomach cancer when he came to see her, and that recent medical tests he had done proved she had healed him. The day I met him he was bringing his wife to be treated for diabetes, a common ailment in Mexico.

America Garcia — a forty-year-old divorced mother of four daughters — believes Nancy is “a gift from God.”

America is attractive, and wears her long straight black hair loose. A devout Catholic, she works as a secretary for a Roman Catholic church in a town a few miles east of Los Reyes. “I could not have survived without Nancy,” she told me one morning as we had coffee in her tiny office.

Before finding Nancy, America saw sorcerers as devil-worshipers. Then, six years ago, she said, her husband became abusive. He pulled out a gun at her during a verbal fight and attempted to hit her. She called the police, but they refused to take him to jail.

She began divorce proceedings shortly thereafter, ending twelve years of marriage — a marriage, she said, that had been “perfect” until then. What happened?

She said she finally understood that. She had had an altercation with a couple who practiced witchcraft and were tenants in a house America owned. The neighbors complained that the couple held midnight ceremonies with chickens, goats, and other live animals.

America finally got them evicted, but they cursed her, and she paid a price.

A few months later, problems began at home. Her husband Julio started drinking and became violent. “He told me he felt a shadow following him,” America said, “but I did not believe him.”

The divorce proceedings took months. An official at the Los Reyes courthouse revealed to her that the husband had paid off local officials to obtain a ruling in his favor. “This guy said he could speed up the procedure if I went out with him,” America recalled. Disgusted, she consulted her mother, who recommended she go see Nancy.

And with Nancy, America’s life turned around within a few weeks. Her husband agreed to the divorce and now they have an amicable relationship. They share in their custody of their daughters.

What did Nancy do? America said she has no idea. All she knows is that with Nancy, she feels protected.

A steady client I met the second time I visited Nancy’s clinic is Marta Flores, a short, stout woman in her mid-fifties who holds on to Nancy for strength and comfort. Nancy has helped Marta feel entitled to happiness.

Marta is a traditional mother and wife. The first six years she visited Nancy, she got advice on how to put up with her first husband, a man who tortured Marta psychologically. He is gone now, and Marta is happily remarried. Now she comes to mend the lives of her three grown sons, Enrique, Francisco, and Raul, and their families.

I became close to Marta and visited her several times in her modest apartment, where we talked about faith and choices in life. Marta first visited Nancy in 2003. She had visited several healers and brujas through the years, but she believes Nancy was the most powerful. “She’s helped me to treasure the happy moments in life,” she said.

Marta and her family live in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood north of the Basilica, the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the northern part of Mexico City. For thirty-three years she was married to Marco, a violent and taciturn man who worked as a bus driver. Marco barely provided enough money for the family, but Marta was never allowed to work outside the home. “Sometimes we did not have money for dinner,” she said. “We were always short.”

Her weekly visits to see Nancy at the time helped her find patience to put up with her life, which, she said, was gray and dull. She was always depressed. Then, in mid-2010, tragedy struck the family. And that tragedy freed Marta.

Marco had been having seizures and he apparently got dizzy and fell from the entrance to the second floor apartment. He died immediately. She did not love him, but she mourned him.

Almost a year after Marco died, Marta met Toño, a muffler repairman who worked at a shop near Marta’s house. Toño started flirting with Marta, but she was afraid to reciprocate. “I had met my husband when I was seventeen. And I was married to him for thirty-three years,” she explained. “I did not know what to do.” She liked the man, but thought that women her age do not get second chances. She went to see Nancy and posed a question: “Should I listen to Toño ?”

Absolutely, Nancy said.

Today, Marta and Toño are married and live in the modest, two-bedroom apartment where Marta lived with her first husband. Toño moved his muffler shop into Marta’s garage. They share the house with Marta’s thirty-one-year old son, Raul, the youngest of her children. “Toño is a gift from God,” Nancy told her. “You have to cherish the opportunity.”

One Saturday morning I visit Marta at home. I enter the house crossing Toño’s car shop, where soot covers the floors and walls and mufflers are lined up like decorations. An unpainted staircase leads to the second floor apartment.

Marta built this apartment ten years ago, on top of a one-floor house she inherited from her father. For years, she and her children and husband slept crowded in one room in the area where the muffler shop is located today. Her first husband had been opposed to building the new apartment. But Nancy gave Marta the impetus to borrow money and rebuild the apartment anyway. Marta said she began the house renovation because a ghost started appearing to her children, a ghost that came after a jealous neighbor spread cemetery dirt in front of her house and on the roof.

Marta’s challenge today is keeping her family safe from crime and promoting the education of her grandchildren. Her oldest son, Enrique, lives in another small apartment, which she built for him on the second floor next to hers. Enrique is only thirty-three, but he has two teenage boys because his girlfriend got pregnant when he was seventeen.

Without an education, Enrique had difficulty finding a good job, but he finally found work — with Nancy’s help, according to Marta. He is a warehouse attendant at a local supermarket. His wife, Lorena, works as an assembler in a nearby textile factory. Marta has helped raise their two sons, her grandchildren.

Marta’s second son, Francisco, lives in Chalco, another low-income neighborhood in Mexico State, where he works as a truck driver. Marta sees little of him because his wife does not get along with her. But every time she sees Nancy, she asks the cards about Francisco.

Lately, Marta has been more concerned with her youngest son, Raul. A reserved young man, Raul has finally found a girlfriend. But the relationship is complicated.

Raul’s girlfriend used to live with an enforcer for a local drug gang, called La Familia. The group is originally from the state of Michoacan, but they have a large presence in Mexico State, especially in Los Reyes and nearby municipalities, where they engage in drug dealing, extortion, and theft.

One day, in front of Nancy’s clinic, Marta shows me a computer printout of an Instagram photo. A young, pretty girl with long black hair is smiling — and holding a large revolver. She is fifteen.

“This is the daughter of my son’s new girlfriend,” Marta tells me.

Raul fell in love with the girlfriend while the ex-husband was in jail. And now that the ex-husband has been released from prison, Marta fears he will attack her son. The day she showed me the photo, she had come to see Nancy, seeking protection for Raul.

Nancy knows her patients come to her with enormous needs. In the eastern section of Mexico State, where her clinic is located, poor health services, corrupt police, and inefficient justice facilities trap the residents of these tattered communities.

Battered women can’t get local authorities to issue restraining orders against violent husbands or boyfriends. Parents have teenage children involved in drug gangs, facing violence and threats. They can’t find solace. Residents who have worked in the informal sector have no health insurance and can’t qualify for the government’s medical programs. Or if they do qualify, they encounter corruption. Medicines that are supposed to be free are sold to patients at prices they can’t afford.

These are the patients Nancy sees. Many of them come to her after making the rounds of two medical health systems. Mexico has a state insurance system for those who enjoy full employment, called the Instituto Medico del Seguro Social, IMSS. A second system called the Seguro Popular, is for those who are self-employed. The IMSS is overburdened in Mexico State. Resources are poor and the care varies depending on the doctor and nurse assigned to your case. Medicines are often not available. Problems with misdiagnosis, long waits to see a doctor and doctors prescribing the wrong medicines abound. Similar problems occur in the Seguro Popular.

Some of Nancy’s early morning visits are to patients who are being treated by doctors at the IMSS hospitals. They ask for her help; they are afraid they won’t get good care otherwise.

Half of the Los Reyes population lives below the poverty line, and another 30 percent lacks proper access to housing, healthcare, and food. Poverty is linked to high unemployment. National statistics rank the unemployment in Los Reyes at six percent, but random interviews with residents suggest a higher rate. A large segment of the Los Reyes residents have simply stopped looking for work. They barely survive by working in the informal economy.

Likewise, the violence statistics are among the highest in Los Reyes. Three out of every four residents of Los Reyes and nearby municipalities report having been victims of violence, according to INEGI, the Mexican statistics institute. Four major drug cartels operate in the area, working in tandem with corrupt police, according to Martha Elena Gonzalez, an editor of the local newspaper, Expreso.

As the violence has increased and the economy has tanked in Mexico, Nancy sees more desperation and need.

Her clinic is full.

It is in the A train that one can see the impact sorcerers have on local Mexico State residents. You can measure their penetration in the psyche of local residents by looking at the wide array of amulets that train commuters wear around their necks or wrists. Sorcerers provide these amarres to their followers for protection against the “evil eye.”

During my weekly travels to Nancy’s office, I saw more amulets worn by passengers in the A metro line than in other lines. They come in different colors: Red for passion, green for money, yellow for good health. Some include small medals, like the one I saw dangling on the wrist of an adolescent girl one morning. Her red-beaded band had a small medal of Saint Benedict, the early Roman Catholic figure, who is a popular ward against malevolent spirits. One also sees the Santa Muerte, a ubiquitous Mexican deity that honors death.

The acceptance of brujos in towns near Los Reyes appears to be wide-ranging. Some advertise in public venues. “Call sorcerer from Catemaco,” reads a sign scribbled with black paint on the tall white dividers along Calzada Ignacio Zaragoza, a multiple-lane highway connecting Mexico City with Mexico State. Thousands of drivers go past the sign daily.

Mexico is 80 percent Roman Catholic, although church attendance is reportedly shrinking. Meanwhile, Mexico’s National Autonomous University, UNAM, recently estimated 30 thousand brujos practice in the country.

Elio Masferrer Kan, an anthropologist who studies the occult at the national School of Anthropology and History, said a third of all Mexicans consult a brujo or a sorcerer all the time. “Then there are others who consult brujos when they have crisis, and the number could increase by another third of the population,” he said. Mexico even has an internationally known brujo festival, which is held in Catemaco, in the southern state of Veracruz, every March. Most of the brujos in this town are shamans from the Nahua ethnic group, where Nancy’s godfather Raymundo was born.

Afro-Cuban Santeria has also spread in Mexico. Brought to Cuba by African slaves, this religion shrouds African deities with Roman Catholic saint figures. It is a favorite among drug traffickers and politicians, making it a serious choice. Seven Santeros, as the priests of this religion are called, have been mysteriously murdered in the last two years, according to press accounts, including three in Mexico City, and one in Mexico State. It is assumed their murders were retaliation for failed predictions.

Nancy’s education as a healer was completed during multiple visits to the Templo de la Fe, the center where her powers were first discovered. This temple is in the working-class neighborhood of San Simon in northern Mexico City, near the Tlatelolco metro station. It is one of several founded in the late 1800s by a man named Roque Rojas. They are alternative healing centers that combine indigenous shaman beliefs with a form of Spiritism invented by Allen Kardec, a French educator who was popular in Europe in the late 1800s.

The temple continues to offer services, and Nancy encouraged me to visit it. So I arrive at the temple one Friday shortly after noon. Service is offered in a cavernous hall painted in white and lined with church pews. Instead of an altar, a large eye inserted in a triangle watches over the congregation. Healing sessions are offered every Tuesday and Friday from noon to two p.m.

When I arrive, the pews are packed with men, women, and children. The service is free, although there is a suggested donation. At the door, I am greeted by a man in a white robe. He guides me to a specific pew when I say it is my first time. I sit next to a long row of people.

Every ten minutes one of us gets up and walks towards a wall. There a middle-age woman is standing. She is a medium, and appears to be in a trance. Other men and women who are also mediums also stand along the wall, and they receive devotees from other pews.

The crowd in the temple is working class, although Nancy told me some of upper class Mexicans visit. The woman sitting to my left tells me her parents first brought her to the temple when she was a child, and she has continued to come for the last fifty years. A man on my right happens to live in Los Reyes. He came to cleanse his aura — his business is slow, he says.

After an hour of waiting, I inch closer to the end of the pew. Finally, the same man who greeted me directs me to the healer, who in turn welcomes me and says a prayer. She asks me what ails me. I tell her I want to be cleansed.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and makes round movements, repeating pleas, invoking God. After five minutes she tells me to repeat some phrases and sends me to another room where I get another cleansing by a woman who washes her hands in water from a white basin. The room is crowded with another group of people waiting their turn, but I feel peaceful during and after the ritual. White flower petals are strewn around the small room.

Almost a year after my first visit to Nancy, I again asked her about witnessing a spiritual operation. Again she said no. My presence would disturb the beings who appear when she operates, she said. But by then I felt more at ease with her, so I pressed her with more questions. She said two or three beings wearing white robes appear to her when she is operating, similar to what happens at the Templo de la Fe.

I decide that the only way to experience the healing is to have one done to me. She said I have a fatty liver, a condition in which triglyceride fat accumulates in the liver cells from food and alcohol intake. She made the diagnosis after one card reading. I did not know I had a fatty liver previous to her warning. It is a reversible condition, and Nancy says an intervention would be quick, except for a few rest days.

The day of the operation, Nancy arrives at my house, equipped with various bottles of smelly elixirs. She has a new knife and a pair of scissors. Alarmed, I ask if she will be cutting me. She smiles and says no.

The knife, she explains, is to scrape over the area near where the organ she is treating is located. She tells me to lie on the bed on my back and shut my eyes, so I do so. I feel nervous, although I trust her. I hear sprays doused over my body from head to toe. I smell pungent chemicals and essences that I can’t identify.

I hear Nancy ripping the wrapper off the knife, then feel a light scraping on my skin on the right area of the stomach, over where the liver is located. I hear scissors clipping. Nancy tells me that my black cat has jumped on the bed and is watching her intently. Nancy leaves the bedroom and goes to the kitchen, where she is cooking red onions in oil. The onion smell wafts into my bedroom. She returns and places an onion and pepper concoction over my stomach, and wraps the whole area with a white bandage. She gets ready to leave and tells me: Do not open your eyes for a few minutes. Stay in bed for three days.

The next day I take off the gauze with the onions and discard it. My stomach feels tender. For the next two days the area she scraped is swollen and I feel a slight discomfort. A week later I go back to the clinic to get the invisible stitches removed. She places me in a small room next to her office. I lie on a cot and shut my eyes. I hear her come into the room and close the door. I and hear the scissors clipping again. When she is finished she tells me: “Open your eyes. Go home.”

A few months later, in a check-up with my doctor, I ask about my liver health. My doctor says it looks fine. It is hard to tell if I had a fatty liver before Nancy, but I believed her. I am a wine drinker. I think this was her way of telling me to watch the wine.

My year and a half with Nancy was a wrestling match between my intellect and my emotions. I was in close contact with Nancy, her assistants, and her patients, in a full immersion that put me in a position of constantly examining whether I believed in her healing or not. My decision was to remain an observer, to describe what I saw, and to hold back on analysis.

If I had a serious illness, I probably would try to combine medical attention with Nancy’s healing abilities. But I also envy her patients who fully believe. That is trust and engagement.

Nancy wants her two daughters to follow her footsteps, but tells me that the trade is hard and involves dedication. Nancy works with two young apprentices and a senior assistant. She says the young trainees still do not understand that learning magic is a full-time job. You also may unleash forces you cannot control, she says.

For Nancy, who is constantly facing disease, trauma, and unhappiness, the burden is often too much. She feels a weighty responsibility. Yet Nancy is a happy person and religious — two important attributes that appear to protect her from absorbing all the negativity around her. One day, though, when she felt a bit dark, she confessed to me that people in her position always pay a price for engaging their powers and abilities.

Last year, during one of our meetings, she suddenly went quiet. In a whisper, she told me that her office had been surrounded by dark spirits. I believed her, something I may not have done so easily before I spent months shadowing her practice.

“I do not know why they are here,” she said. “This is what we live with all our lives. Our ability to see beyond the reality that the rest of the population does not see, takes a toll.”

Nancy believes that bad things can happen only when one becomes dark and foreboding. She wear happy colors and avoids darker hues, which she says attract evil energy. Around her, I was forced to stop wearing black, a tendency I picked up living in New York City.

Every few months, Nancy takes a beach holiday. At the ocean, she holds ceremonies and dips in the water to rejuvenate her and replenish her powers. She talks little about this.

One day I found Nancy in the office reprimanding Gerardo, a twenty-year-old computer whiz who works as her apprentice. He is thin and wears glasses, and looks younger than his age. Gerardo first came to see Nancy in early 2015, about an eye problem. His doctor had told him he would go blind within a few years because of various complications with the retina in both eyes. Nancy did three “operations” and Gerardo improved. Today he says he is able to read comfortably. Nancy tells him he will not go blind.

Gerardo says he loves working with Nancy. His mother sells clothing in a local street market and his father is a computer engineer. Ever since he was young, Gerardo says, he could do magical tricks with his mind. One time, he tells me, he told his mother where there was a treasure buried in his house. “We found gold rings and other jewels.” His mother respects his powers, but his father is not so sure.

The family lives in San Vicente Chicolapan, a working class suburb built a few years ago by a Mexican construction company that specializes in prefabricated, low-cost homes. In the past, local peasants planted alfalfa and beans there. Today, the small city is crowded with pint-size ninety-square-meter houses where large families crowd together. The crowded conditions create social problems. Gerardo was almost pulled in to join a rough group of teenagers in the neighborhood. During high school, too, he ran with a fast group, selling and using drugs. He barely graduated. All his school friends were in the same boat, he says. His mother took him to Nancy to save him. Gerardo sees magic as his great savior.

Gerardo thought working with Nancy would be an easy task. It has not been easy. But month by month, Gerardo has transformed himself. He entered a local university where he is studying pre-med. He has also been reading a lot of books to become a better sorcerer. He talks a good game. I see Gerardo in Nancy’s clinic one Friday. He is doing the cleansing ceremonies in the back. He tells me he is reading several books on ancient magic, and that his ability to sense things is getting more acute. Nancy smiles when I tell her about his comment. “He is safe here,” she says. “At least he stays away from the bad crowd.”

People have the wrong idea about the powers of brujas, healers, and sorcerers, Nancy tells me one day. “It is a dangerous trade with many traditions that we do not reveal. But if you are marked to do it, you cannot say no.”

The spirits, she says, have chosen you.


This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.