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Magic Eyes: Scenes from an Andean Girlhood.

In 1982 American photographer Wendy Ewald settled in the small village of Raquira, in the Colombian Andes, to take pictures and teach school. Through her pupils she came to know the rich Andean folk culture, in which magic and nature are inseparable components of equal value. Through the local people she learned that the otherworldly was as real as the concrete and substantive.

Toward the end of her stay in Colombia, she met Alicia Vasquez, a twenty-eight-year-old single mother of three sons, who ran a women's craft cooperative and a milk program for children. Although Alicia lived in a squatters' settlement near Bogota, her roots were in the country, and her stories reflected the same magical universe as those of Ewald's students. Ewald interviewed Alicia and later, her mother Maria, at length. She collected the women's tales and wove them into the fascinating text of Magic Eyes. Because Alicia was camera shy--she associated the lens with the evil eye--Ewald used photographs of her neighbors to illustrate the text. The result is a vivid, visually engaging portrait of an Andean girlhood.

The "magic eyes" of the title are Alicia's. To the largely Indian population of the Colombian Andes blue eyes carry a curse, for they are associated with the Spanish conquistadors who took the Indians' land. Since Alicia was born with blue-green eyes like her father's, her family assumed she carried the evil eye, like him. She remembers her father staring into her eyes when she was a small child. She felt burning and a sudden pain; she was unable to open her eyes and was confined to bed. Convinced that she was going blind, the family called for the girl's aunt, Blind Ana, a healer reputed to know black magic. After being treated with baths and prayers, the child regained her sight and the color of her eyes changed from blue to brown: "They turned normal," she says, "just regular eyes with eyelashes."

But Blind Ana could not prevent Alicia's father from passing his evil power on to her. With chilling matter-of-factness Alicia recounts how her great-grandmother's husband burned down the family's home after he was caught stealing; how her father was imprisoned and later came after her mother and siblings with a knife; how her grandfather Marco Tulio beat his children so badly that his eldest son Elias hacked him to death with an axe; how she was raped by six men on her way to church; how she coped with the evil power of her eyes. In spite of the horrifying violence that permeates Alicia's tale, her words exude sensitivity and poetry.

Magic Eyes is not Alicia's story alone, but the history of modern Colombia. Through the narrator's comments and observations the reader comes to understand better the development of barrios de invasion, or squatter's settlements, on the outskirts of Bogota, the surge of drugs, and the appeal of communism, an ideology Alicia rejects: "The communists say that a person is a material thing and there is no infinite power... I've seen too many things to believe that. On my Uncle Luis's farm there were duendes--wind spirits. They were small boys with large green hats who came out in the late afternoon..."

Wendy Ewald has written a fascinating book, as wonderful to look at as it is to read. Alicia plunges us into the chaotic, brutal world of the slum at the same time that she transports us to another dimension. By introducing us to Alicia's world, Ewald forces us to rethink our own.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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