Curanderos- Mexican Folk Healers February 08, 2006 11:23 AM
Here is an interesting article that I just came across. It does not really mention the relationship between this tradition and the Catholic religion, but Curandismo incorporates a good deal of Catholic prayer as well as herbalism and folk magic.
Curanderos, or folk healers, have been providing remedies along the Texas-Mexico border for some 500 years. Cabeza de Vaca documented this practice in 1528 when he and his companions lived in southern Texas and first observed the Native American medicine men using herbal preparations. In the colonial days, there were no medics along the border, only the curanderos. The combination of folk remedies, herbal medicine, and religious blessings is still used effectively today by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these healers.
Curanderos deal with all types of illnesses, from croup and breech birth to headaches and cancer. They can free a patient from an evil spell, help attract a lover, or bring good luck at bingo. Treatments may be in the form of calling down the spirit of a saint to bless the patient, herbal medication, laying on of hands and massaging the afflicted area, cleansing the body with wands of herbs and religious crucifixes, preparing an amulet to be worn for a specified amount of time, or burning a candle with a specific prayer printed on the candle jar.
The prayers are directed to a favorite saint or one associated with the needs of the patient. Popular Catholic saints along the border are Niño de Antiocha, Saint Martin de Porres, Saint Joseph, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, plus two very important healers revered as folk saints: Don Pedrito Jaramillo and Niño Fidencio Constantino. Don Pedrito Jaramillo, the famous “Healer of Los Olmos” practiced near Falfurrias, in Starr County, Texas, at the turn of the century. Statues and photos of this bearded old man are common along the border. His shrine near Falfurrias is visited by thousands of devoted believers annually. Niño Fidencio Constantino was a famous young healer in Espinazo, Mexico, in the early twentieth century. Tens of thousands of pilgrims visit his shrine each year and Fidencista missions are found throughout South and West Texas. His spirit is believed to continue to cure the ill through modern healers.
As for the herbal concoctions of the curanderos, there is hardly a plant in the Southwest whose virtues are unknown to these healers. A strong liquor made from the heart of the sotol plant is placed in a clay pot to accompany a mixture of herbs and spices that varies depending on the ailment. After being strained and bottled, the amber liquid is used most commonly for colds and flu. The mixture of honey, lemon juice, and sotol is comparable to the home remedy used to treat colds in the Southern United States, with corn whiskey replacing the plant liquor. Some people argue that small quantities of sotol ingested daily will prevent sunstroke in the blazing desert heat. Pulverized rattlesnake meat and sotol is said to be an excellent treatment for tuberculosis.
Ethnobotany Fact Sheet
There is no specific training or conscious decision made by the individual who becomes a curandero. Typically, the healer realizes his or her divine power late in life through a dream, a vision, a voice, or the development of a deep understanding of the sick. This healing ability is seen as a gift from God, so the curandero does not charge a fee. The patient usually leaves an offering or brings small gifts such as vegetables, a chicken, or a bag of freshly ground coffee.
Curanderos may be male or female, young or old, and are highly respected and frequently called upon by their communities. They are found all along the Rio Grande and throughout southern Texas, but remain particularly important in the isolated reaches of Trans-Pecos Texas and northern Mexico where towns and doctors are few and far between.
Contemporary healers vary in cures as well as in where and how they practice. Some work in homes with elaborately decorated home altars, some in small commercial healing centers, and some hold special healing sessions out in the countryside. Some wear colorful robes and caps, but most dress simply, in street clothes. Visitors will find evidence of folk healing practices in traditional Mexican markets and hierberias . Hierberias are specialty shops found in larger cities and some smaller towns in Texas. Their typical wares include blessed candles, packaged herbs, special soaps, incense, perfumes, and statues of saints.
In the Southwest, Hispanic practitioners who make use of medicinal herbs may be divided loosely into curanderos and brujos, or witch doctors. All genuine curanderos avoid anything that resembles black magic, since the progress of their work depends heavily upon the confidence placed in them by their patients. Most refuse to treat cases of bewitchment because success would imply that they had intimate knowledge of dark supernatural power. The brujos combine the arts of curing and black magic, distributing herb charms and dealing in drug plants such as marijuana and peyote.
Unlike Anglo folk medicine, Mexican folk medicine has continued to receive widespread encouragement from the Mexican community and has resisted the efforts of the modern medical establishment to discredit it. This is particularly true at the rural village level of the border area. Folk medicine has also proved surprisingly resilient even in urban areas, such as San Antonio, where a number of curanderos are found. The resistance of some Mexican-Americans to modern medicine serves to preserve a part of their traditional lifestyle. Many diseases treated by the healers are traditional folk diseases such as susto (condition arising when a sudden trauma causes the soul to leave the body), empacho (caused by undigested food forming a ball in the digestive tract), and mal de ojo (the “evil eye,” which is a declining condition placed upon a
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continued February 08, 2006 11:24 AM
patient by another individual’s envious stares), which modern doctors refuse to recognize.
According to researchers, Mexican-Americans, particularly at the village level, tend to first seek medical help from the curandero and seek out the modern medical physician only as a last resort. The Anglo, on the other hand, has been conditioned to seek the help of the physician first and will only seek the aid of the folk healer out of utter desperation, if at all. In the isolation of the West Texas desert, however, many times the curandero is the only available medical practitioner around, and the dangers inherent in the region are many.
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