"What happened to me was nothing less than a transformation from an academic with some personal interest in folk healing ... to someone who embraced folk healing as part of a great tradition and part of my own identity," says Eliseo "Cheo" Torres, vice president of student affairs at the University of New Mexico. After studying the subject for more than 20 years, Torres now teaches a folk medicine and medicinal herbs class at UNM based on his extensive field work in Cuernavaca and Oaxaca, Mexico.
Torres believes the curanderismo concept doesn't have to be relegated to the fringes of New Age thinking or to medical quackery, because he says it is both a proven art and science. "Its spiritual dimension of hope through faith and miracles through ritual might confuse those less accustomed to holistic approaches," he says, adding that for man, "curanderismo resides in that uncomfortable liminal space between respectability and something vaguely smacking of what we might think of as charlatanism."
His conversion has been complete, and Torres staunchly defends his beliefs. "Western biomedicine marginalizes techniques considered alternative, but this is a shifting paradigm, and folk healing has much to teach medical physicians."
Herbs and rituals have been handed down for centuries by poor people who had no access to medical care nor funds to pay for it even if it was available. Torres' mother taught him about the power of nature to heal. "Many parts of the world rely almost exclusively on the wisdom of plants to cure illnesses," she told him.
The folk remedies are seemingly endless, with a purported cure for just about every known malady. Visit a Mexican yerberia, and you'll find it filled with bottles, barrels, jars, crates and boxes of herbs, as well as with dried animals such as frogs, snakes bats, and sea urchins hanging from the ceiling.
The list of remedies alleged to work wonders is long and sometimes exotic, although it includes many familiar Southwestern plants. Prickly pear cactus is touted for diabetes, high cholesterol, gastritis and hepatitis. If your rheumatic joints are on the fritz or it's time for a cleansing of kidneys or colon, the formic acid in stinging nettles gets high praise. Gel from the aloe plant, whose healing properties with burns and wounds have been known for centuries, is also recommended for acne and wrinkle prevention. In liquid form, the gel is mixed with water and used to soothe stomach disorders. Basil and chamomile are recommended in tea form for everything from a cure for colic to an eyewash. Chamomile is also taken to calm the nerves. And forget the patch; fresh or dried flowers can be chewed to help break a nicotine habit.
"This renaissance of folk traditions within the framework of our modern world has already achieved a degree of legitimizing acceptance," Torres writes, citing the example of Harvard-educated medical doctor Andrew Weil, who founded the University of Arizona Program of Integrative Medicine. "Weil preaches integration of the best ideas and practices of alternative and conventional medicine in order to maximize the body's natural healing mechanisms." Torres is especially pleased that Weil "considers simple, inexpensive, low-tech treatment methods, especially when conventional approaches are relatively ineffective." In many ways, writes Torres, these approaches indicate "a modern synthesis of folk medicine, with its rituals designed to involve the patient's mind and spirit in the healing process, with conventional medicine."
Faith is a key ingredient for success of even the simplest of folk medicine cures. Critics call it the power of mind over body--the "if you believe it will work, it does work" phenomenon. Torres cites numerous success stories, all the while cautioning, "In our cynical time, it is easy to dismiss some stories as myth. Just maybe there was some 'magic' in the world back then, perhaps encouraged by people's faith in miracles, that's gone now."
Curanderismo is something Torres believes deserves to be studied, understood and appreciated in its own right, regardless of any potential utility for modern science. "As we move into the millennium, there is a growing concern that Western medicine may not provide all the answers, and alternative treatments through holistic health may be part of the solution. If our society becomes more open to holistic medicine, and we become more accepting of the earth and goodness that comes directly from it, our society as a whole may eventually come to embrace remedies and cures that have existed for centuries to treat many simple illnesses."