Author Ingrid Rojas Contreras had become accustomed to the supernatural being part of her daily life.
His grandfather was a curandero in Colombia, known for his ability to speak to the dead, heal with herbs, and move clouds in the sky. Rojas Contreras grew up listening to stories about the people he had healed and the mystical things his family had witnessed.
Then, in her twenties, she suffered a head injury after being hit by a car door while riding a bicycle. The fall left her amnesiac, and from there she had to confront and relearn this unique part of her heritage, this time with a different perspective.
In his new memoirs, The man who could move the cloudsRojas Contreras recounts this journey, his family’s long and complicated history with the mystical, and an unlikely return to Colombia.
She joined All things Considered host Ari Shapiro to share her story and illuminate the journey she takes in the book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the process of losing memories and trying to get them back
I think spending so much time with these stories, revisiting my past, I was able to recast them and tell them again. One of the most magical things that happened to me was having an accident and losing my memory. The opportunity to listen to my life as memories came flooding back, and to write this book, I feel like I’ve finally let them go.
On how she defines a curandero
I thought about it endlessly. I defined the word, and it really means someone who heals. The closest English word I can find is “medicine man”. Someone who can talk to the dead and has a lot of plant knowledge, and sometimes heals through dreams. He’s someone who can do all of those things.
On the importance of this cultural aspect in Colombia
So in Colombia, if I told someone that my grandfather was a curandero, and that he could move clouds, nobody would be surprised by that. I think back in the 90s when Colombia had national soccer games, curanderos were hired to keep the clouds away from the game. So it’s something that’s really part of the culture. And every time I shared a story about my family, someone joined me with their own story.
On the experience of living in a context where the magical seems routine and the everyday shocking
When I came to the United States, I hadn’t realized that having a curandero in the family was unusual. As an immigrant, I realized very quickly that there was something about the way I had lived and grown up that was not readable to Americans. And seeing that, sometimes when I shared stories of my family, I would be corrected, or I would be investigated and questioned and people would say, “Well, you don’t really believe that?” Or, “It didn’t really happen.”
I think there was something about being an immigrant and being new and feeling very insecure, not knowing exactly where I was in the country, that I really understood that . And I really felt like maybe I was wrong and maybe everything I had been through was fictional. It took me many years to come to terms with it and realize it was a version of just trying to erase different worldviews. Once I realized that, I had so much energy, so much drive, and so much love for this story, and I really wanted to do it justice.
On whether being a writer is a different version of being a curandero
While I was writing, I really enjoyed learning about my grandfather. One of the ways he healed was by listening to the stories people told about their lives. And sometimes, while listening, when someone was in a stuck place, they would replay the story they heard, but with changes so that person could potentially find a way out of where they felt stuck. .
My grandfather was obviously a wonderful storyteller, and so was my mother. So I think about how stories are identity cards, and our cards of what we’ve been through, and that way when we recast them, or think about them in different ways, they can bring healing to us.
On how she felt the joy of her amnesia
I just have this memory of being punched, and hitting my head on the sidewalk and the second I just got up off the ground. Luckily I wasn’t hurt anywhere else, I think I had scratches and bruises.
I felt a lightness that I had never felt in my life before, and it felt like freedom. It was like there was a time when I didn’t really know I was in a body. And there was a time when I was just a pure experience, so I saw the sunlight and I saw the wind. And there was a way that I was those things too. And so it was just an incredible sense of connection and a very strong sense of peace and belonging.
This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo