Jody Blackburn, Folk Healer and Tarot Reader

Photograph by Kenny Braun

Blackburn is the founder of the Magick Circle, in Brownsville, where he offers card readings, cleansings, and spiritual healing.

I first learned about folk healing from an elderly woman in my neighborhood named Rita. None of our neighbors in Brownsville liked her much. They called her la bruja . The witch. I was nine then and living with my father and grandparents, just down the block from her home. My grandparents would chide me for visiting her. There were lots of stories, like that she knew black magic and used it on ill-behaved children.

But I had a strange desire to be around her, and as we became friends, I realized that the rumors were just misconceptions. What I remember most about Rita are the plants she used to grow in pots inside her house and around the backyard. She taught me to connect with herbs, to know their scents, feel their textures. I learned how to brew ointments and concoct “kitchen witch” recipes with foods and teas. She taught me that every person, every animal, every plant has its own energy.

Some years later, my father announced that we were moving away. I ran to Rita’s house, crying. “I am not going to be able to see you anymore,” I told her between tears. But she said not to worry, that’d we’d still be very close. Funny thing is, when my family did move, our new place was right across the street from the nursing home where she worked as a cook. It was uncanny. I would see her sometimes when I walked down the alley from school.

About a year after that, Rita passed away. By then I was fourteen and scouring the library for books on herbs, tarot cards—Rita had also taught me about tarot—and Wicca. I wanted to teach myself more about curanderismo, or folk healing, which includes techniques such as prayer, herbal medicine, healing rituals, and limpias, or cleansings. My father thought I was going through a phase, saying I’d eventually get over it. But I read my cards on my own for the first time that year and later started doing readings for friends and family. I haven’t stopped since.

I opened my own shop about eleven years ago. At first we had just one room, where I would do readings and sell a few spiritual items: amulets, oils, candles. Now we have eight rooms, and I offer readings, cleanses, prayers, and chakra balancing, a process that aligns the centers of energy in the body. I sweep herbs across a person to brush off woes and ailments. When someone is experiencing love or marital problems, for instance, I’ll work with sweet-smelling plants, like mint and basil. To create emotional balance, I’ll combine those with bitter plants such as rue and peppertree and mugwort. I keep the rooms dark to focus myself and relax my clients. I use fruits and foods—an apple, an orange, an onion, a clove of garlic—to wipe away negative vibes. I always ask permission of the living organisms I use. They sacrifice to help us.

I’ll be honest—since we opened, we have put an ad in the paper only three or four times. We have a wide following, mostly by word of mouth, with clients who call us from all over the Rio Grande Valley and as far away as New York City, Bangladesh, and Buenos Aires. I think they appreciate that I speak my mind. Sometimes there is bad news to break, like telling a man his ex-girlfriend is not in his future or telling a couple they are better off going their separate ways. But I’ve developed a thick skin. My work is about helping people, about listening to their troubles and fears and holding their hand as they cope and heal.

Once, I performed a chakra balancing on a woman who told me afterward that during the ritual she had been thinking about her struggle to have children. Doctors had deemed it impossible for her, and the thought often clouded her mind. But that night she left my shop feeling calm. A few months later, she called to say she was pregnant, and soon she had her first child. I do not believe it was me who did something special to her body. Often, through stress and worry, people block themselves from the things they want, creating their own issues and obstacles. I help them clean out the clutter, literally and mentally.

Sadly, there are a lot of misunderstandings about folk religions. In addition to practicing curanderismo and tarot, I am a Wiccan. I went through a self-initiation when I was nineteen; I had to do it under a full moon and cloudy sky, and that night I felt like someone laid their hands on me. For me, this initiation was never about spells, which is what a lot of people associate with the religion; my motivation was to acquire the skills to help others. Some say Wicca has nothing to do with folk healing, but I beg to differ. Wicca and curanderismo and paganism are all branches of the same tree—they all take people through a healing process. So why not mix them? I now teach regular Wicca and herb classes at my shop, because when I first started learning, there was not a lot of information. Many of the books I read about Wicca had chapters relating it to satanism, or devil worship, but as a Wiccan I have never invoked Satan. People will criticize what they don’t understand.

I have about fifteen students right now. I call them my sons and daughters. I have great hopes for our involvement in the community; one of the things I’m trying to do is organize a group that can raise funds for people without the means to pay for loved ones’ funerals. I really don’t see my work as a job; what drives me is the desire to bring peace. Before I opened my shop, I was a

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