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A head injury gave Ingrid amnesia. Then came the journey to rediscover her history

Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
Jamil Hellu
Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

Author Ingrid Rojas Contreras had become accustomed to the supernatural being a part of her everyday life.

Her grandfather was a curandero in Colombia, known for his ability to speak to the dead, provide healing through herbs, and move the clouds in the sky. Rojas Contreras grew up listening to stories about the people he had healed and the mystical things her family had witnessed.

Then, in her 20s, she suffered a head injury after getting hit by a car door while riding her bike. The fall left her with amnesia, and from there, she had to confront and relearn this unique part of her heritage, this time with a different perspective.

In her new memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, Rojas Contreras recounts that journey, her family's long and complicated history with the mystical, and an unlikely trip back to Colombia.

She joined All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro to share her story, and illuminate the journey she embarks upon in the book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the process of losing her memories and attempting to gain them back

I do think spending so much time with those stories, revisiting my past, I've been able to recast them and tell them again. One of the most magical things that happened to me is having an accident and losing my memory. An opportunity to listen to my life as memories came back, and to write this book, I feel I finally had let them go.

On how she defines a curandero

I've thought about this endlessly. I defined the word, and it really means someone who heals. The closest English word that I can come up with is "medicine man." Someone who can talk to the dead, and has a lot of plant knowledge, and that'll sometimes heal through dreams. It's someone who can do all of those things.

The cover of Contreras' memoir.
/ Doubleday
The cover of Contreras' memoir.

On the prominence of this cultural aspect in Colombia

So in Colombia, if I told anybody my grandfather was a curandero, and he could move clouds, nobody would be surprised by that. I think in the '90s, when Colombia was hosting national soccer games, curanderos were hired to get the clouds away from the game. So it's something that's very much a part of the culture. And every time that I would share a story about my family, someone would rejoin with their own story.

On the experience of living in a context where the magical feels routine and the quotidian is shocking

When I came to the U.S., I didn't realize that having a curandero in the family was unusual. As an immigrant, I very quickly understood that there was something about the way that I had lived and grown up that wasn't legible to Americans. And in seeing that, sometimes when I would share stories of my family, I would be corrected, or I would be investigated and questioned and people would ask, "Well, you don't really believe that?" Or, "That didn't really happen."

I think that there was something about being an immigrant and being new and feeling very uncertain, not knowing exactly where I stood in the country, that I really took that in. And I really felt that maybe I was wrong and that maybe everything that I had lived was fictional. It took many years for me to to get out of that and to realize that's some version of just trying to erase different world views. Once I realized that, I had so much energy and so much will and so much love for this story, and just really wanted to do it justice.

On whether being a writer is a different version of being a curandero

As I was writing, I really loved learning about my grandfather. One of the ways in which he healed had to do with listening to the stories that people told about their lives. And sometimes in listening, when somebody would be in a stuck place, he would recast the story that he had heard back to them, but with alterations so that person could potentially find an exit from the place that they felt stuck in.

My grandfather was from all accounts a magnificent storyteller, and my mother too. So I do think about how stories are maps of identity, and our maps of what we've been through, and in that way, when we recast them, or think about them in different ways, they can provide healing for us.

On how she experienced joy from her amnesia

I just have this memory of being struck, and hitting my head on the pavement and the second that I just rose up from the ground. Luckily I wasn't injured anywhere else, I think I had scratches and bruises.

I felt a lightness that I've just never felt in my life before, and it seemed like just freedom. It felt like there was a moment where I didn't really know that I was in a body. And there was a moment where I was just pure experience, so I was seeing sunlight and I was seeing wind. And there was a way in which I was also those things. And so it was just an incredible feeling of connection and a very stark sense of peace and belonging.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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