Superstitions that Transcend Borders

Mexican immigrant Leticia Matos carries three garlic cloves in her purse to keep away the bad energy. (Photo by Víctor Matos, via El Diario-La Prensa)

Mexican immigrant Leticia Matos carries three garlic cloves in her purse to keep away bad energy. (Photo by Víctor Matos, via El Diario-La Prensa)

Leticia Matos never leaves her house without three cloves of “ajo macho” (“male garlic”) in a small bag to keep negative energies at bay.

For 15 years, it’s the first thing she puts in her purse.

“I do it automatically,” she says, convinced of a superstition that her mother instilled in her in Mexico and it’s already a habit.

“Things are going well, and I’m convinced that it’s partly because of the garlic,” she admits without embarrassment.

Superstitions have crossed borders throughout time. Although not everyone believes in their effectiveness, many Latino immigrants bring them from their homelands and incorporate them into their daily routines.

Marta Moreno Vega, an anthropologist and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, explained that beliefs or practices of this type are mistakenly called superstitions.

“It’s no different from someone going to a church and praying” for something that he or she wants. “The concept is the same,” she said.

For Vega, a certain prejudice underlies the word “superstition” when classifying these traditions, which aren’t thought of in the same way as the beliefs of established religions. 

“They are part of our culture and you take it wherever you go” because they are passed down through generations, and are “the result of the faith that people put into them.”

This is the faith that Rubiela Montenegro practices when placing two knives in the shape of a cross in her patio so that the rain won’t disrupt her summertime gatherings.

“It’s beneficial; it’s not witchcraft,” she said. “My great grandmother used to do it in Colombia and if it would rain, it would be just a light drizzle.”

Montenegro, who describes her omens as part of her life, said she isn’t the only one in her family. Her husband Marcos doesn’t pass the salt to anyone.

“People say it’s a forewarning that a person will fight with whomever receives or passes the salt.”

Likewise, Emilia Duarte never places her purse on the floor for fear of losing money.

“It’s like a sign of contempt toward money,” said Duarte, of Dominican descent. Moreover, she always carries a folded one-dollar bill to ensure that she’s never out of cash.

Beliefs that attract financial luck aren’t exclusive to Latin America and the Caribbean, where people are in the habit of picking up whatever change they find on the ground in order to “protect their wallet.”

In the Eastern practice of Feng Shui, people are certain that if they don’t do this, they are not valuing money and reject the gift that the universe is giving them. 

So-called mufas exist in the Southern Cone, where people believe that mentioning the name of someone with “bad luck” will bring about misfortune.

“I don’t know where the custom comes from,” said Pablo Ezcurra, from Uruguay, but when somebody says the name of a famous mufa, “men grab a set of keys, and if there isn’t one around, they immediately grab their testicles.”

When trying to dispel “negative energies” (“la mala vibra”) it’s worth having the water of Saint Ignatius within reach, a saint who in South America people believe has “the power to keep away undesirable people.”

Where do these beliefs come from?

Knocking on wood, when someone says something and you ask that it doesn’t happen. This belief comes from the Holy Cross, which was made of wood and rested on earth. The beliefs include that you shouldn’t touch an object with legs.

Not walking under a ladder leaning against a wall. This custom is attributed to the triangular formation (the Holy Trinity), considered a sacred symbol for Catholics, as well as to the gallows, because those sentenced to death always had to pass under a ladder.

The number 13 is bad luck. This belief goes back to the last supper where Jesus was accompanied by 12 apostles. In some countries, Tuesday the 13th is considered an unlucky day, while in others – like the U.S. – it’s Friday the 13th.

Spotting a black cat is believed to bring bad luck. (Photo by Francisco Martins, Flickr Creative Commons License)

Spotting a black cat is believed to bring bad luck. (Photo by Francisco Martins, Flickr Creative Commons License)

Coming across a black cat. It’s said that these animals are carriers of evil.

Broken mirrors mean seven years of misfortune. In divination, this belief is related to death, which is why it’s recommended that people not have broken mirrors at home, nor look at themselves in them.

Dressing in yellow, except on special occasions. This belief is associated with sulfur, which people believe is found in hell.

Sweeping the feet. According to the belief, if the feet of a single or widowed woman are swept, she will never marry.

Saint Anthony. He is known as the saint of impossible things. In some countries, matchmakers cover the Baby Jesus the saint holds in his arms with a red ribbon until a boyfriend is found. In other countries, they place the image upside down.

San Joseph. Protector of the family, he helps people pull through in difficult times. If one buries his image in front of one’s property, it helps to speed up the sale.

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  1. Pingback: The 10 Most Wonderful Superstitions In Latin America | Xpatnation

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