María Sabina was a Mazatec poet and sabia, or “one who knows”. She lived a modest life in an Oaxacan village in southern Mexico and dedicated much of her life to healing others through sacred psilocybin mushroom ceremonies. She accidentally became famous after conducting one of the sacred ceremonies for a foreigner named Robert Gordon Wasson. He wrote an article about her and her sacred practice, majorly influencing the 1960s psychedelic counterculture in America. But before being ‘discovered’ by the Western world, María Sabina had her own complex life and local influence that had been neglected by media outlets during that time. Her image and identity, along with the sacred practice of mushroom rituals, have been exploited and commodified over the years, leaving only a shallow rendition of who she was and what she stood for. As we move past the exoticized lens of María Sabina and explore the deeper layers of her life, we find a woman who was deeply rooted in her indigenous culture and spirituality. Her role as a sabia went far beyond facilitating psychedelic experiences, but instead about connecting with the spiritual side of nature and healing her community.
María Sabina Magdalena García was born on July 22, 1984, in the lush, mountainous Sierra Mazateca region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Her parents were campesinos, or “peasant farmers,” who worked hard to support her and her younger sister, María Ana. Unfortunately, when María Sabina was still a young girl, her father passed away from an illness. As a result, she and her family relocated to her maternal grandparents’ home in the village of Huautla de Jiménez. They lived in poverty and had to help their grandparents with farm work, such as raising animals and silkworms, taking care of plantation work, and assisting with other domestic chores.
Several relatives on her father’s side were shamans and used local psychedelic mushrooms to communicate with God during ceremonies. María recounted that she used to hear her family members sing and chant during their mushroom rituals many nights before she went to sleep. These experiences inspired her to one day experience this altered state of consciousness herself. She first tried the hallucinogenic mushrooms when she was around seven or eight years old after she and her sister recognized them growing along a hill during their walk. After consuming them, the sisters laughed and cried together, experiencing a sensation that remained significant for the remainder of María Sabina’s life. This encounter set the stage for María’s future as a mushroom healer for her village.
María Sabina was married at fourteen to a twenty-year-old street vendor named Serapio Martínez. Together, they had three children — Catarino, Viviana, and Apolonia. Because of his occupation, Serapio would frequently travel to Tehuacán to trade. During one of these trips, he joined the fight in the Mexican Revolution with the Carranza forces. Shortly after his return, Serapio passed away due to an illness he contracted while fighting. They had been married for six years. After her husband’s death, the widowed María became ill and could not move her body, possibly from grief. María took some mushrooms as a medicine to cure herself and experienced a newfound clarity and revolution. From now on, she knew her purpose was to worship God and heal others with the sacred medicine.
María carried on raising her children, vending on the streets, and tending to her land. She helped cure some individuals with the mushroom ceremonies, but this calling was set aside as María focused on caring for her family as a newly single mother. Twelve years later, she remarried a healer named Marcial Carrera. Her new husband was an alcoholic and physically abusive towards María. She went on to have six more children with Marcial, but all died except for one of her daughters, Aurora.
During this time, Maria’s sister fell ill, and the town’s healers believed she would die. Despite this, Maria successfully held a ceremony to heal her sister. After this occurrence, the word of Maria’s healing powers spread quickly.
Several years into their marriage, Marcial was caught cheating by his mistress’s children and was killed by them. María Sabina claimed that mushrooms helped heal her during the times of abuse from her marriage and the sadness that came from being widowed once again. After Marcial’s death, she returned to her purpose and became fully committed to becoming a mushroom healer for her community.
María Sabina consistently treated several kinds of ailments for people in her village — from physical illnesses to emotional distress and even family disputes. She collected mushrooms growing near the mountains in her town, most commonly used Psilocybe caerulescens, but also Psilocybe mexicana and Psilocybe cubensis. She referred to these mushrooms as her Niños Santos, or “holy children.” In her lifetime, María had several hundred mushroom ceremonies, changing the lives of many.
The ceremonious vigils, known as veladas, were often performed in gatherings in her home. During the ritual, she often sang and chanted in the Mazatec language to help guide the participants through their trip. María Sabina went beyond providing the mushrooms for her patients; she helped mediate between the spiritual realm of mushrooms and the physical world, helping people tap into a higher consciousness that helped them find remedies for their ailments.
María Sabina has been commonly described as one of the first contemporary Mexican curanderas, or shamans, who specialized in traditional medicine. However, María Sabina claimed she was not a curandera but rather a sabia, which were two entirely different practices. She had tried to be a curandera in her past but believed the path was not meant for her.
As her reputation as a sabia grew beyond her village, people came from afar to seek out her expertise in these ceremonies. María Sabina was cautious about sharing the sacred practice with outsiders, fearing they would not treat it with the reverence it deserved. And despite her growing popularity, she faced heavy criticism even from some members of her own community since they considered her practices to go against Catholic beliefs. Despite this, María Sabina continued to follow her calling and help heal people in need.
Entheogens like psychedelic mushrooms have been used by indigenous communities worldwide for centuries for spiritual and healing purposes. Yet their impact on the Western world is relatively recent. In the late 1950s, American mycologist and banker R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Mexico with his friend Allan Richardson to learn more about the sacred mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatec people.
Initially, María Sabina was reluctant to trust the two foreigners who came to their village since they were not in need of healing. However, she eventually agreed to conduct the ceremony after being assured by a trusted village official. According to María, “Wasson and his friend were the first foreigners who came to our town in search of the saint children, and they didn’t take them because they suffered any illness.” Instead, she claims, they “came to find God.” Through a translator, Maria attempted to explain to the men that her ceremonies were meant to heal people, not give them the ability to experience God. She said, “If you want to find God then you must go to mass, not stay up with the little-one-who-springs-forth.” Regardless, the men were insistent on trying the mushroom and eventually did.
With no ill intentions, Wasson returned home from his experience and wrote an article about María Sabina and the sacred mushroom ritual in a LIFE magazine article titled, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” He changed María Sabina’s name to Eva Mendez in order to protect her identity, yet this protection effort substantially failed.
As an amateur ethnomycologist, Wasson’s goal was to document how different cultures viewed wild mushrooms. In the article, Wasson barely skimmed the surface of Maria’s personal life and the beauty of the Mazatex cultural practices, but instead he spoke about his experience with mushrooms and the divine euphoria he experienced once he took them. Soon after publishing, the article gained popularity and went viral.
Suddenly, the small village of Huautla de Jiménez was packed with foreign visitors — from hippies to celebrities like John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. Many people wanted to find god or encounter a mystical experience, which flooded María Sabina and her town. This explosion of new visitors disrupted the locals lives and exploited an incredibly sacred tradition. The newfound “fame” negatively impacted her in several different ways. Now, even more individuals in her village disapproved of her actions and even raided her house and village for narcotics. She was arrested twice.
Furthermore, the people in her community began to shun her for unintentionally bringing in so many foreigners and their disrespectful habits. They were also highly offended by the commercialization of the mushroom rituals and believed that the high exposure ruined the sacred nature of the mushrooms. María Sabina agreed. Later in her life, she revealed that she regretted ever giving any foreigners access to such a sacred medicine. “From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity,” she said. “They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on, they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”
Years after releasing the article, Wasson expressed deep remorse for ever exposing the sacred mushroom practice to the entire world. He intended to inform the world of an important cultural discovery. Instead, Huautla de Jiménez became filled with psychedelic tourists seeking to misuse a medicine held so dear to the people of the village. “What I have done gives me nightmares: I have unleashed on lovely, Huautla a torrent of commercial exploitation of the vilest kind. Now the mushrooms are exposed for sale everywhere—in every marketplace, in every village doorway. Everyone offers his services as a “priest” of the rite, even the politicos,” Wasson said in a follow-up article published in 1970.
Unfortunately for María Sabina, her initial experience with Wasson was the beginning of the end for her. She was no longer accepted by her community, and her house was burnt down by a rival family. With no one to turn to and nowhere to go, María Sabina left the village she once called home and wandered about Mexico for several years until she was allowed to return right before she passed. On November 22, 1985, she passed away at the age of 91, plagued in her final years with illness and poverty.
María Sabina’s ancestral knowledge of mushrooms and their healing powers far exceeded what modern medicine is just finally beginning to unveil about psilocybin mushrooms. As psilocybin once again becomes accepted in our “Westernized world,” it’s important to remember that indigenous healing traditions should be treated with respect and not commodified for profit. These natural gifts from the earth go far beyond what modern medicine has deemed “scientifically acceptable.” In reality, they come from deep-rooted cultural wisdom and spiritual significance that should be remembered forever.
María produced several chants and poems during her ceremonies and is regarded as one of Mexico’s best poets. She never took credit for these poems, claiming the sacred mushrooms were speaking through her. Though María Sabina heavily impacted the world through her wisdom and conservation of her cultural practices, we must remember that her words meant far more than what has ever been recorded. She could not read or write, so her verses were spoken or sung. Her chants were recorded and translated from her native Mazatec into Spanish and later English, published for the whole world to interpret. But María Sabina never had the chance to fully tell her own story in her own words. Though we may find beauty in María’s words, her wisdom and life experiences could only be understood from her authentic words rather than filtered through second-hand accounts.
“Cure yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.
With the sound of the river and the waterfall.
With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.
Heal yourself with mint, with neem and eucalyptus.
Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.
Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.
Put love in tea instead of sugar, and take it looking at the stars.
Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.
Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.
Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.
Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.
Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember: you are the medicine.”