It is the first Monday of the month, which means it is time to go and visit Doña Irene, or la hermanita (little sister) as she was affectionately referred to. The reason for the monthly visit is to receive a spiritual blessing from her in order to suppress any type of bad influences that may be around trying to interfere with my inner peace and tranquility. In addition, this spiritual blessing was to help ward off any type of evil from another person desiring to do me any harm (i.e. evil spell cast through witchcraft). I was young at the time and did not really understand what was going on. All I knew was that it was the first of the month and this was the routine, so off we went to la hermanita’s house.
The usual procedure upon arriving to la hermanita’s house was to go in and sit and wait in the living room for each person’s turn to go and visit with her. La hermanita had an altar set up in her bedroom with statues of different saints, and in the middle of it all was a large crucifix. She would sit next to the altar, dressed in a white robe with a small red cape that covered her shoulders. Her eyes were closed the whole time she was speaking and performing any actions, even when she reached to pick something up. When I got older is when I found out that la hermanita is not to whom I was speaking, but rather someone else who would “enter her body.”
La hermanita was said to go into a sort of trance during the healing rituals, and another spirit would descend upon her to actually perform the healing that was needed. My teenage years is when I started to pay attention to what she was saying when I first would go in and sit in front of her. Her welcome was, in Spanish, “Hello, my little brother, I am Mary of Charity, how can I help you today?” It was around this time when I finally began to understand la hermanita was a curandera and practiced the art of curanderismo. As a young person I never really understood what curanderismo was all about, and never actually did any type of research about it. Now that I am older I find myself asking what is curanderismo, and how does it affect people’s healthcare, if at all? Curanderismo is a practice of healing a person physically or spiritually by use of natural remedies. People who rely solely on curanderismo will not visit a doctor of modern medicine for their health problems and rely solely on the curandero’s advice.
Curanderismo comes from the Spanish word “curar,” which means “to heal,” or “to cure.” The practice of curanderismo is widely known throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the Southwestern United States. According to Reyna-Ovalle (2009) the historical roots of the practice of curanderismo can be found deep within Judeo-Christian religious beliefs, symbols, and rituals; early Arabic health practices; Native American health practices; and also modern beliefs about spiritualism and psychic phenomena including scientific medicine. Curanderismo as practiced in the United States is a blending of Native and Hispanic healing techniques.
Although curanderismo seems to be popular among the Mexican-American communities in the United States, it is somewhat difficult to find someone who practices this art. A person who practices curanderismo is known as a curandero (male), or curandera (female), but they are not easy to find since they do not advertise their services in the newspaper, television, radio, etc. Usually a person needs to have personal knowledge of someone who consults a curandero/a if the person would like a consultation also. As Reyna-Ovalle (2009) points out, there are a variety of curanderos: herbalists, therapists, doctors, chiropractors, and masseuses, however, they all work through the power of God—“the ultimate decider” (para. 12). For this reason, Applewhite (1995) relates that healing is administered by people who have a divine gift for healing; therefore they intervene through natural or supernatural means of treatment. Since the curandero/a is believed to be gifted by God to be able to accomplish the healing necessary, then those who seek out his or her advice and healing will do all that is in their capacity to protect the curandero/a from non-believers, and especially from those who would try to do some type of harm towards the curandero/a.
There is a question that I have often asked myself as to why curanderismo and those who practice it do all they can to keep it secretive. Specific reasons for the secrecy have not been revealed in any sources that I have been able to examine, however it would make sense that the curandero/a himself/herself would keep it a secret in the sense that what they are doing is a gift from God. For this reason, all the honor and praise should go to God, and not themselves. However, when a person has greatly benefitted from curanderismo it would seem appropriate for that person to share the good news with everyone they know, but they do not do that. It is only through a general conversation that they may break the barrier and say something like, “Well, I know this person who might be able to help you with that.” From this point it is up to the person to decide whether they will accept the offer or not, which greatly depends on whether or not they believe in curanderismo in the first place. Applewhite (1995) discovered that Mexican-American communities have always included a great number of curanderos; however their existence is so closely guarded against any outsiders that it is impossible to estimate the number of curanderos. Even though curanderos/as do not advertise, they are out there, and hard to find.
When a person does find a curandero/a it can be difficult to determine if that person is duly qualified to do what they do. There is no certification of any kind to show, or any type of degree from any college that would show the person to be qualified. According to Desy (1999), true curanderismo has a long-standing tradition which is to do no harm. In other words, a curandero can protect, shield, and even confuse, but he/she must never use magic or ritual offensively. So, this would be a way to determine if a person is being true to the practice. If any intention involves any type of evil-doing or intending to harm a person then the person would know that the curandero in question is probably someone who does not have a person’s best interests at heart, and more than likely is not exhibiting a gift from God as expected.
Since there is not a certificate or degree program to enroll in, how can a person become a curandero? Torres (2006) explains that usually an individual becomes a curandero/a because he/she received a message from God in some manner to let them know that they have received the gift of healing. There is a case in which Desy (1999) relates that a curandero’sgrandfather was a curandero himself, and his mother was a midwife; and the grandfather picked him to be a curandero. As can be seen by these examples, once a person determines that he/she has been gifted by God in some manner to heal, they set up their practice in their home and announce to close friends and family that they have received a special gift from God.
It seems to me that once a person has decided to take on this practice of healing, whether it is through a gift from God or not, the success of their practice will depend greatly on the faith of the people who come to him/her. According to Applewhite (1995) everything depends on a person’s faith. A curandero may have a gift of healing, but just like a doctor has an education to heal, ultimately it is through God’s divine will that either the healer or the doctor will be able to cure. In order for me to believe that a person really does have a gift, I would have to be able to have enough faith in God that this person can really help me with whatever type of ailment I may have. When a person decides to go see a certain doctor, it is usually because a close friend or family member has visited the same doctor and had a good experience. The same is true for curanderos: word of mouth is the best type, and only type, of advertisement that will convince someone to go visit a certain curandero.
In comparing a curandero to a doctor of modern medicine, a question arises in my mind as to whether a person who visits a curandero instead of a doctor is causing detriment to his/her health. However, Applewhite (1995) has noted many people will move freely from traditional healing to modern health care depending on the type and seriousness of illness they may have, along with whether they had enough faith in the doctor and the money to be able to pay for the visit. As noted earlier, curanderismo is popular among the Mexican-American communities in the United States, especially in the Southwestern U.S. From my own experience of visiting a curandera when I was a child, I can remember that everyone I ever saw going to visit la hermanita were in the same economic condition as we were: poor. It would make sense then, that if a person is poor, or is in a situation where a doctor is not affordable, a visit to a curandero/a, who does not charge for their services, would be the best option. However, I do remember la hermanita insisting that a person visit a doctor when she saw that it was a situation where more intervention would probably be needed.
It seems to me that curanderismo will continue to thrive especially among the Mexican-American communities. Although curanderos are hard to find, unless you know one personally, or know of someone who has visited one, they will continue to pass on their knowledge to someone who they feel may have the calling and be open to receive the gift of healing. I feel that modern medicine should encourage and welcome those who practice curanderismo to share their knowledge with the doctors and nurses who work in the hospitals and clinics where many families go to receive their healthcare. The reason is so that the patient can be more open with the doctor by saying that he/she has visited a curandero and what remedies have been taken. By working in conjunction, the doctors and curanderos can better serve the people they are both intending to help.
Whether a person should rely solely on what a curandero advises, or rely more on modern medicine for their ailments depends on how well the person listens to the curandero giving the advice. A person visiting a curandero may or may not actually listen to what he/she is advising the person to do. One example that I found that illustrates this point is given by Torres (2005) in the following manner:
- A week after I had given a talk at a women’s club, a woman stopped me in a grocery store.
- “Professor Torres,” she said to me, “I hate you!”
- I looked at the woman in amazement. I am not the kind of man who inspires this kind of negative passion in people, certainly not in people that I cannot even remember having met.
- “Lady,” I said to this apparent stranger, “why do you hate me?”
- She replied, “A week ago you spoke to our women’s club and gave us a cure for dandruff. For years, I have been suffering from a bad case of dandruff, and I used your remedy.”
- As she continued with her story, the cause of her anger became clear.
- “You told us that we should crush fresh garlic, mix it with honey, and put it in our hair as a cure for dandruff. Well, one night I did this before I went to sleep, and in the morning when I woke up, the first thing I noticed was that my husband was sleeping on the floor because of the terrible garlic odor in my hair. And, when I looked in the mirror in the bathroom, I noticed that my hair was full of flies and ants because of the honey! The pillows,” she continued—her excitement was mounting as she recited her woes, and she grew a bit breathless as she related the details—“The pillows were so badly stained that I had to throw them away! And that, Professor Torres, is why I hate you!”
- I started laughing in spite of myself.
- “Let me apologize for giving you that remedy,” I said. “But I must tell you that you weren’t listening carefully when I gave it to your group, because I mentioned, as I always do, that this was a remedy that people used in earlier times. I also mentioned that you can simply purchase Head & Shoulders or Tegrin nowadays for dandruff, and I recommend that you use these instead, since they smell much better and they aren’t as messy!” (pp. 134-135).
It is important that the person really listen and pay attention to what the curandero is actually advising the person to do. However, the same thing can happen when a person visits a doctor of modern medicine, and does not listen to what the doctor actually prescribes or advises the person to do in order to cure whatever ailment they may have. So it seems to me that a person’s health is not so much affected by whether they visit a curandero or a doctor of modern medicine for their ailments, but more so on how well they listen to what either one prescribes or advises regarding the particular ailment.
My personal experience with curanderismo was limited to my early childhood, since as I became older I gradually stopped going to receive the monthly blessing. However, I remember going to la hermanita one time when I was sick. I do not recall what the illness was that I had, but during the visit she gave me “a shot,” like the ones doctors give using a needle. La hermanita did not use a needle, but she used her thumb and pressed it to the side of my upper arm. The strange thing about it is that it hurt as if a needle had been used, and it made me cry just the same.
The practice of curanderismo was not limited to visits with la hermanita only. My grandmother and great-grandmother were well-versed in some of the rituals used to treat certain illnesses. The most common ones were mal ojo (evil eye) and mal susto (illness from fright) and empacho (food bolus). I recall being told that I had received mal ojo from someone, and so I was made to lie down and then my grandmother would cure me by rubbing a non-cooked egg in its shell all over me while praying the Apostle’s Creed or the Our Father five times. She would then break the egg into a clear glass filled with water, and depending on the reaction of the egg, she would determine if I was cured or not.
My great-grandmother performed the rituals to cure me of mal susto and empacho. I remember once when I was very young that it was determined that I was suffering from mal susto; something had frightened me to the point that I was having trouble sleeping at night. My great-grandmother got some branches from the tree in her yard, about a foot or so in length, and had me lie down while she proceeded to “sweep me” with the branches from head to toe as she recited the Apostle’s Creed. She then proceeded to call into my ear, in Spanish, “Come here, Ramon, do not stay.” My response to her was “I am on my way.” The purpose for this, I found out later, was to bring my spirit back to its normal state. The cure for empacho involved massaging my abdomen for a certain amount of time. My great-grandmother would then have me lie face down as she proceeded to massage my lower back, after which she would pull on my lower back in different spots. It was later explained to me that if a “popping” sound was heard during one of the pulls then the blockage had been loosened. She would then have me drink a teaspoon of olive oil mixed with salt.
Curanderismo was always part of my grandmother’s lifestyle. My mother followed in her footsteps, but not as much because my stepfather believed it involved witchcraft so he discouraged her in visiting la hermanita or doing anything involving curanderismo in the house. My mother, however, would still do some things without his knowledge. Needless to say, I slowly stopped involving curanderismo in my own personal life. However, with the research I have done on this subject, and with a little clearer understanding of how this practice can be beneficial, I feel that it may be time to look into it again and begin learning and using some of these great folk healings that have been around for a long time.
At the end of my visit with la hermanita, she would do a final blessing over me, and then tell me to drink a small glass of water. Next to her chair she had a table with a large bowl of water, and several small glasses around it filled with water. I would drink the glass of water. Being as young as I was, I did not know the purpose of drinking the water, only that it was blessed and it was something that was done when the visit was over. I would leave the room and go back to the front living room feeling refreshed and ready to take on whatever came at me. The idea was that because of the blessing I had received from her, any evil that may be directed towards me would not be able to penetrate because I had just been fitted with a “force field” of sorts to protect me. Did this visit affect me in any way? I would venture to say that the answer would be yes and no. I felt fine when it was over, and when I was at home or at school I did not feel any worse physically than how I felt before. However, spiritually speaking, I do think it did affect me in the sense that I felt that I could confront anything and anyone that crossed my path because la hermanita had bestowed on me a special blessing from God. In the end, though, it seems that the answer to the question of whether curanderismo affects a person’s healthcare would be left to the eye of the beholder.
Applewhite, S. (1995). Curanderismo: demystifying the health beliefs and practices of elderly Mexican Americans. Health and Social Work, 20(4), 247-253. Retrieved from www.proquest.com.
Desy, P. (1999, September 10). Hispanic Kitchen Herbs–Hispanic Culinary Herbs for Health and Well Being [Holistic Healing Chat Transcript]. Retrieved from www.proquest.com.
Reyna-Ovalle, P. (2009, October 12). Retired professor talks about traditions of curanderismo. Lecture presented at University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX. Retrieved from www.proquest.com.
Torres, E. (2005). Curandero: A life in Mexican folk healing (T.L. Sawyer, Jr., Ed.). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Torres, E. (2006). Healing with herbs and rituals: a Mexican tradition (T. L. Sawyer, Jr., Ed.). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Ramon Martinez originally wrote this essay for Palabras's official Website back in April 2013.