For the last 20 years, I’ve been haunted by vivid memories of a Latino folk story about a witch who is refused food by a rich senora, who then curses the rich lady to starve no matter what she eats. I used to casually scan the shelves of my hometown library in rural Georgia, hoping to recognize the binding and learn the title of the book. I even queried bookstore employees in California, crossing my fingers that one day I’d have this book in my hands again.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned my dilemma to my librarian sister, who quickly identified the book as Tales The People Tell In Mexico. The book arrived today, and I devoured it on the commute home.
The Rich Senora
The people sometimes tell about a certain rich Senora, whose son was the Mayor of Motul. Although she was very, very rich, this woman was also very stingy. Every day, poor people came to her door to beg for food. Every day, she sent them away with nothing.
One day the rich Senora was eating, when a very poor, very old woman came to the door and begged her for a little food. Quickly, the rich Senora threw a cloth over her plate to hide the food piled high there. Then she ordered the old woman away, slamming the door in her face. But when the Senora returned to her food and lifted the cloth from her plate- what do you think? It was crawling with snakes.
This strange event frightened her. The next day, the same old woman came to the door again. This time the rich Senora was not so quick to send her away. She looked around the kitchen for something to give the poor woman. there was plenty of meat, lots of corn and tortillas. But the rich Senora did not want to waste such fine food on a beggar. She scraped a few dry skins from an old onion and gave these to the poor woman.
“Muchas gracias,” said the beggar-woman politely. “Though these are only onion skins, I am thankful. I shall put a little chili sauce on them, and with God’s grace, I shall be filled.”
That evening the Senora suffered a gnawing hunger. In the middle of the night, she had to get up to eat. She ate five tortillas, and still she wasn’t filled. She ate ten, twenty, thirty tortillas, yet she was hungrier than when she had started. And this was only the beginning of her hunger. In the days that followed, the Senora ate and ate and ate. She could not get enough. The more she ate, the hungrier and skinnier she got. Meanwhile, each time the rich Senora saw her, the beggar-woman looked fatter and healthier.
As fast as her servants could cook the food, the rich Senora ate. Tortillas, rice, beans, eggs, meat, chicken– anything! But it did no good. Even while she ate, she wasted away to skin and bone. At last, she became so thin that she died.
As she died, two angels flew down, fluttering about her on their great white wings. The angels reached toward her, holding out something for her to grasp. What was it? Onion skins!
Even though she was a rich Senora, and mother of a mayor, she had no choice. The onion skins were the only things she had ever given to anybody. Only by their strength could she reach heaven. The rich Senora grasped the onion skins and prayed that they would hold.
The angels rose with her. They flew higher and higher toward heaven, pulling her up by the onion skins. But the onion skins were old and dry, like the ones she had given the beggar-woman. At last they broke. Even as she watched the angels fly out of sight above her, the rich Senora dropped into a never-ending sea of darkness.