Among Fortune Tellers and Healers
Ingrid Rojas Contreras publishes 'The Man Who Move Clouds,' an autobiography framed by the magical powers of her family and violence in her native Colombia.
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For Ingrid Rojas Contreras, magic runs in the family. Her grandfather Nono was a renowned ‘curandero,’ a community healer gifted with what the family called “the secrets”: the power to talk to the dead, predict the future, treat the sick, and move the clouds.
And as the first woman to inherit “the secrets,” Rojas Contreras’ mother was just as powerful. Mami delighted in her ability to appear in two places at once, and she could cast out even the most persistent spirits with nothing more than a glass of water.
For Rojas Contreras, however, this legacy had always felt like it belonged to her mother and grandfather. Until one one day, while living in the United States — where her parents moved when she was a teenager to escape the violence of the 1990s in Colombia — she suffered a head injury that left her with amnesia. As she regained partial memory, her family was excited to tell her that this had happened before. Decades ago, Mami had taken a fall that also left her with amnesia. When she recovered, she had gained access to “the secrets.”
Driven by this strange coincidence and by the desire to rediscover her family’s history, Rojas Contreras decided to embark on a trip to Colombia with her mother and sisters in 2012 to disinter Nono’s remains. Finding out more about that old man always dressed in immaculate white to whom people went to ask for it not to rain before a soccer match or to banish ghosts, led her to start writing what would end up being her first book of memoirs: 'The Man Who Could Move Clouds', published in English in the U.S. last July. It will be translated into Spanish in September as 'El hombre que movía las nubes.'
“This is a memoir not just of my life, but of two generations before me, my grandfather who was a curandero, and my mother who became a curandera after him. As a storyteller, I loved the idea that there were stories begun in my grandfather’s life, and which only resolved in my lifetime, long after he was gone. It’s a story as much about healers as it is about healing,” explained Rojas Contreras in an email interview with AL DÍA News.
The author, who currently resides in San Francisco, California, says she chose the non-fiction genre because her grandfather, who had the ability to move clouds and other inexplicable phenomena as everyone claimed, would have lost verisimilitude in a made-up novel.
It’s a story as much about healers as it is about healing.
Besides, she added: “The research for the book interested me greatly. It involved interviewing family and strangers about ghosts and the sorts of unexplainable things no one is sure how to talk about.”
With Mami as her unpredictable, stubborn, and often amusing guide, Rojas Contreras traces her lineage back to her Indigenous and Spanish roots, uncovering the violent and rigid colonial narrative that would eventually break her mestizo family into two camps — those who believe “the secrets” are a gift, and those who are convinced they are a curse.
ADOPTING A NEW LANGUAGE
Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, but as a teenager her family decided to escape the political violence in the country and emigrate abroad, first to Venezuela, then to the United States, where she studied at university.
Even though Spanish is her mother tongue, in her teenage years, she started to write in English. It was right after the family left Colombia.
“I felt that the event of leaving everything and moving to Venezuela, warranted a new language from me. I wrote strange poems and stories with a rudimentary understanding of English. I wouldn’t take myself seriously until much later,” she said. “Later, when I moved to the U.S., I found that being in a land that wasn’t my own and writing in a language that wasn’t my own, was an explicit way to write without the cost of immigration.”
Her debut novel, 'Fruit of the Drunken Tree' (published in Spanish as 'La fruta del borrachero'), was the Silver Medal winner in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Believer, and Zyzzyva, among others. She lives in California, and although she misses Colombia very much, she feels that even if she returned, “it wouldn’t be the same, there would be some sort of impassable estrangement.”