Mamajuana: Tonic or turnup?
My earliest memory of mamajuana is finding a bottle in our refrigerator and wondering why we had a bottle full of sticks.
I was probably 10 years old.
I don't remember what I was looking for. But I remember holding the bottle and spinning it. I asked my mom what it was and she responded nonchalantly "mamajuana, leave it alone".
True to my nature that wasn't a satisfactory response. Over time I became acquainted with the smell of mamajuana. Spices, sweet and powerful. I would ask how it was made. What was it for? My mom would provide clues but never explained why we had this bottle in the fridge.
Over time I learned that my mom had prepared this bottle for my father in the late 80's. I don't know why she made it. Or why it ended up back in our possession. Eventually I tasted mamajuana at some high school party (stop judging me!) and didn't enjoy it. What I tasted was pungent, and busy. This changed when I took custody of our familial mamajuana.
When I returned to New York City after a decade away I started cleaning grams apartment. In one of my cleaning frenzies I found that same bottle tucked in a cabinet behind the pots. I opened it and was immediately flooded by memories...
The wood was still soaked so I filled it up with some rum we had in the house. I began to make it mine. Over the last few years grams and I would use it by spiking our tea when we didn't feel well. As I built my familial altar I began using it for offerings. It was officially mine. In the summer of 2019 I was headed to Atlantic City for the day with some friends. Because we were mostly Dominican I decided to bring along my mamajuana.
Before we left the city my bag slipped and my bottle shattered. I was devastated. I teared up. I boarded the Coach bus with the plastic bag full of sticks and glass feeling like a family member had died.
When I got home that night I spread out the contents of that bag and picked out glass piece by piece. I rinsed my sticks. I picked apart the leaves. I got to know every ingredient intimately. I then rebottled my palos in a Black Label I received from the owner of the liquor store (I helped his family take on the gentrifier liquor store). Since them my sticks have continued to make magic for me.
During my trip to Ayiti in March of 2021 I stayed in San Cristobal. Being surrounded by Trujillo's history got me thinking about mamajuana again. Trujillo was a vile man, a pedaphile, rapist, racist little man.
But he loved mamajuana.
If you mention mamajuana to any Dominican they'll immediately warn you about its sexual capacities. Dominicans will claim that when men drink mamajuana they become better lovers.
Trujillo criminalized mamajuana. In order to get it you needed a prescription. Seems that Trujillo believed so strongly in the sexual potency that the drink produced that he didn't want anyone else to get some. But mamajuana can actually be traced back to the Tainos.
The behike (herbalist) would have been the one to prepare it. Supposedly, behikes are mentored by elder women on the attributes of organic materials i.e. spices, trees, etc Each cacique (chief) would have a trusted behike. They would heal folks with their knowledge on plants.
Legend has it that behikes would make the tincture today called mamajuana and it would be used for everything from indigestion, to kidney stones. This makes sense as the ingredients are recognized for their healing capabilities.
Anamu: Credited with boosting immunity, fighting inflammation and pain, and treating various chronic diseases, including certain cancers
Anise: Aides with depression, protects against stomach ulcers, mimic the effects of estrogen in your body, potentially reducing symptoms of menopause, balances blood sugar, reduces inflammation.
Canela: Is an anti-inflammatory, improves gut health, lowers blood sugar levels and blood pressure, provides digestive comfort.
Clavo: Found to contribute to liver health, regulate blood sugar, promote bone health, and reduce stomach ulcers.
Honey: Found to lower blood pressure, improves cholesterol, lower triglycerides and heals wounds and burns.
Malagueta: Oil made from malagueta is associated with hair growth, digestion, muscle aches, and headaches
Ojas Canelillas: These fragrant leaves are used for stomach ailments, flatulence, and colic. As a rub it aids with arthritic pain.
These are the attributes which created mamajuana as we know it, and why I decided to brew a batch during my last trip to Ayiti. So what about the rum?
It seems that Spaniards found the drink too earthy and they began to add wine to it. Once rum entered the scene in 17th century it too was added to the blend. Modern Dominican mamajuana was introduced in the 1950's by a man named Jesus Rodriguez.
Then in 2021 spirit asked me to bring it back. This batch of mamajuana began curing upon my return from Ayiti. I used my familial stash to infuse it. As I prepared it I prayed for the knowledge to bring back a piece of what's been taken from us...
It is the prayer I always say when creating for Ojala's community.