Culture

Puerto Rican by Way of Superstitions and Rituals: Avoiding the “Mal de Ojo”

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Yes, I am Puerto Rican by Way of Superstitions and Rituals: Avoiding the “Mal de Ojo”

I am always on the lookout for an evil eye: or the “mal de ojo” There are people who are so jealous of you that their energy gets converted into some weird negative force field around you causing you recurring harm.  Yes, I totally believe in the evil eye because I am the queen of superstition and more importantly because I am Puerto Rican.

Superstition is a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any physical process linking the two events that supposedly contradicts natural science.  It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by certain unrelated actions or inactions. I have been trained in the scientific method and I am appropriately skeptical of certain higher-order beliefs. However, one can’t ignore or escape from one’s upbringing.  Growing up there were all sorts of odd things that till this day I am trying to figure out. Now that my mom has passed away, I am trying to find some answers on my own.

At the entrance of my current house, I have a piece of artwork that I found in a random thrift store in Portland, Maine that depicts an upside-down broom.  I could not believe my eyes when I saw it in the store’s bin! Growing up, I had been told that if you wanted unwanted guests (or guests that had overstayed their original welcome) to leave you should place an upside–down broom by the door. By having this painting next to my house’s entryway, I won’t have to look a bit strange by placing an actual broom by the door.  Really comes in handy.

Now of course, many of us grew up thinking that if we were to break a mirror that would be seven years of bad luck; which makes me wonder why haven’t  we developed better ways of protecting compact mirrors and such.  Seems like we are just tempting fate in a worldwide level (hmm, maybe that’s what’s wrong with the world).

I started “touring” my house to get a sense of where superstitions lie in my world. Starting from the entryway on up, there are bits here and there that show rituals are just a very common part of life.  Let me walk you through these rituals.

  • Dropping utensils: Supposedly, if you drop a fork, a man will come to visit; drop spoon, a woman will come to visit and drop a knife, there will be a fight. I seem to apply the “five second rule” because as soon as I drop a utensil I quickly hurry to pick it up as if by picking it up quickly no one will come and no fight will occur.
  • The rule of threes:  Everything comes in threes; especially deaths. This is very much true. Just the other day I nearly got hit twice by a car and I just knew there was bound to be a third near-miss (or hopefully near-miss). Sure enough, right as I neared my house a van made a wide turn and nearly hit me. Of course, the scientist in me recognizes that the data shows most accidents happen within 5 minutes of one’s house and that I was changing the song on my ipod at the time (so I was distracted, blah blah blah). But, I also just knew it was bound to happen. The law of 3’s is without fail. It just is.
  • When your palm itches, you will come into some money: For some odd reason I never make it to the bodega to buy a lottery ticket when my hand itches. I guess deep down I realize that one may not be true, eh? But I do see that palm-itching is a way of instilling hope in certain impoverished blocks in the South Bronx.  And, hope, is a good thing to have folks.
  • Don’t open an umbrella or walk around with one shoe on in the house: There are a lot of rules as to what could be done inside the house and if these were violated very bad, bad things could happen.  Opening an umbrella inside the house could lead to someone’s death. Wearing just one shoe could lead to the death one’s mother. My god, the guilt was laid on thick!  I admit I have heart palpitations when my son takes these actions. I haven’t shared these particular superstitions with my son yet. Why cause him to be feel so guilty about potentially causing harm to his mother?  Hmm, maybe I will share some of these words of caution when he starts dating.
  • You have to be careful of looking in the mirror and combing your hair at night: I never understood this admonition. But it was one of the creepiest ones.  It really did frighten me and till this day I don’t see the point of it (psychologically or anthropologically). I can tell you that one night I did quickly glance at the hallway mirror (next to the bathroom) and I saw a man staring back at me with a crazy red eye. A few days later, someone I knew suffered horrible eye burns at the restaurant he worked. Coincidence?
  • You can suffer bodily harm if you open the fridge with a hot head ( “Te puedes palmar”): Meaning that you should not open the refrigerator after showering or right after waking up because your body is warm in both instances.  This became a major issue at times when everyone woke up at the same time and people were hungry.  And, let me tell you there was no changing my mom’s mind on this one.
  • If you dream about your teeth falling out while eating, it means someone is going to die:  I actually had that dream a lot while I was growing up. But then again, I was growing up in the South Bronx in the late ‘80s and yes, there were a lot of people dying. Spurious correlation?
  • To get rid of hiccups, use a small red thread with saliva placed on the forehead. When I first saw celebrities such as Madonna with a red bracelet on, I thought they were just warding off the hiccups (or being zealously over-prepared).  I didn’t readily get the Kabbalah connection. In any case, I have a spool of red thread in my kitchen drawer.
  • A full glass of water behind the door will absorb bad spirits and energy in your house. For some reason, this also applied to elephants. So, throughout the years, I gave my mom a lot of porcelain elephants as holiday gifts.
  • If you have a nosebleed, put a penny on your forehead. This one makes actual sense in regards to the properties of copper.  But my main concern with this one was: why are there so many nosebleeds to prepare for? It reminds me of a Saturday Night Live skit in which an ad touted the great strength of this cleaner that could clean up pools of blood.  If you have that many pools of blood to clean up, you may have a larger problem at hand. Nonetheless, keep a penny in your pocket for good measure.

Many laugh at these beliefs and rituals as silly and as signs of ignorance. But as a psychologist, let me bring up a psychological experiment from decades ago.  In 1948, seminal psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, describing what appeared to be superstitious pigeon behavior. One caged pigeon was turning circles and another swung its head in a pendulum motion. Because these pigeon behaviors were being done ritualistically to receive food, even though the dispenser had was programmed to release food at set time times, Skinner believed they were trying to influence their food dispensation by performing these actions.  The pigeon behavior is similar to humans performing ritualistic superstition based behaviors (i.e. wearing a particular set of underwear when flying).

Rituals can be rooted in reality and represent an attempt to moderate that reality accordingly. So, I leave you with a new superstition that I will pass on to my children: be careful of eating cheese during certain times of the month because cheese can lead to pregnancy. It’s true, I tell ya. It’s true.

48 replies »

  1. Some of those are new to me. A few I heard over the years: a bird inside the house is bad luck (even an image of one); the ace of spades signifies death and should never be pointing at someone during a card game, sneeze and you’ll get into an argument or kiss a fool; put a slice of wedding cake under your pillow and you’ll marry the man you dream about.

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  2. I grew up with alot of those spiritual ritutals. New York Rican myself. I have done some cleansing to my house on and off. I was told to do it best on Tuesdays or Fridays. I need advise who ever is experience with this, is it true or not is best to due to cleaning of your house with out your family home.

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  3. Interesting. We had a belief about an owl on your house’s roof predicts death. Much later the explanation for this was that owls catch mice. Mice carry germs. So in the olden days before good medicine the mice brought the germs and the owls were there to prey on the mice.

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  4. Wow…this is interesting stuff! It’s neat that we both have such strong beliefs and we adhere to them so strongly I’ve always wanted to go to Puerto Rico. Now I’ll know what it means if/when I see a broom near someone’s door. ;0) I’m a Christian, so my belief stems around Jesus and the power of His Blood (which brings me protection of any unwanted spirits, etc. I guess you could say He’s my “broom”…heheh.) – either way, faith is a powerful thing! Whether it’s a broom or a holy man’s/Deity’s blood- our faith works in powerful ways to make those things even stronger for us.

    I admit that one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Puerto Rico (besides the El Yunque rain forest and the rum!) is the mofongo. When I saw that on an episode of a food travel channel- I fell in love with Puerto Rico. And after I saw the entire episode and saw how beautiful the island is and how warm the people are- it’s at the top of my list of places I want to go. (In my dreams!) Maybe one day my dream will come true. 🙂

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  5. I get yelled at whenever I put my pocketbook on the floor. Random people, not even family, remind me that it would make my money go away. I wish I grew up at least knowing the superstitions. They’re part of a culture and sometimes have historical context, as one of your readers stated.

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  6. I’m so glad I discovered your blog and this post in particular. I grew up Hispanic in New Mexico, and many of the rituals my great-grandmother’s used on us resemble the ones you’ve written about. I have found, whether consciously or not, that I tend to put symbols of protection over every door and window. I didn’t notice it until I moved a couple of years ago, but I have crystals, angels, a hand of Fatima, and various other good luck charms protecting every entry way to my house. This was a great post, and brought back some very great childhood memories, the copper penny and protection against el ojo mal being the best.

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  7. A great many of your “rules of safe behaviour” (rather than superstitions ) I inherited from my Irish parents. My mother took seven years to get her life back on track after breaking a large mirror. One of her rigid rules went as follows :- If, after leaving the house to go somewhere, you have to go in again to pick up something you have forgotten, you MUST sit down on a chair for a moment or two before going out again, to ensure a safe journey. Des.

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  8. The “evil eye” is prevalent in many cultures: Arabic, Greek, Indian, Spanish, Romanian to name a few. And every culture has a way to avoid or ward off this “negativity that can ruin happiness or good fortune”. The cures are just as fascinating, from the shape of an eye on a boat or amulet to applying a black mark behind the ear with Kohl (apparently kohl to the eyes was applied to ward off the evil eye). Superstition raises more questions than answers. The complexity of the world around us cannot be explained easily, and when bad things happen we need someone or something to blame, and the “evil eye” fits conveniently to assuage this need.

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  9. Like you, I have my “reasonable” side and my “superstitious” side. Whenever I talk about someone who is alive dying or being killed, I have to knock on wood! And when my son doesn’t come home as expected, I send a little ptayer out to God to keep him safe. So far both of these things have worked!

    I definitely believe in the rule of 3s, as you do! Science simply can’t explain some weird coincidences.

    Have you ever heard that you should not eat ice cream or go swimming when you have a cold?

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  10. Here’s another one: put pomegranate seeds in your wallet or pocketbook on New Year’s Eve to have good luck in the new year. This one is from Brazil. Another one is about the “figa”, a little amulet of a fist with the thumb sticking out between the forefinger and middle finger. These are common as pendants for necklaces. If someone gives you one, it’s supposed to give you good luck. However, you must never lose it or it will bring bad luck! (You can, however, giveit away to give someone else good luck. )

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  11. Ah you made me laugh. Reminded me growing up in Washington Heights and the Bronx surrounded by friends and family speaking about all of these and then some. A few of them are true i wont lie. I really was seeking info about the elephants but this was a great read thank you 😃

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