Treatment With Care

A University of New Mexico staffer promotes the efficacy of Mexican folk healing

Curanderismo is a traditional form of folk healing that flourishes in Mexico and parts of Latin America. In the United States, it is practiced by many Mexican Americans, especially in the Southwest and the barrios of major cities; outside of the Hispanic community, few people have heard of it.

Arising from the Spanish conquest of the Americas, curanderismo is a true melting pot, mixing Judeo-Christian beliefs, Islamic medical learning, Native American herbal wisdom and remnants of medieval European witchcraft. Additionally, beliefs about psychic phenomena and elements of modern medicine have influenced its practices.

To be sure, some of these practices--eggs are often used to "sweep" patients, drawing out and absorbing illnesses--may be viewed with skepticism by modern-thinking Westerners accustomed to the world of laser surgery, wonder drugs, organ transplants and university trained physicians. However, a growing number of people will tell you that while some of its tenets and rituals may seem a bit far-fetched, curanderismo contains therapeutic aspects often lacking in mainstream medicine.

One such person is Eliseo "Cheo" Torres, vice president of student affairs at the University of New Mexico, whose book, Healing With Herbs and Rituals: A Mexican Tradition, contends that practitioners of curanderismo, working with conventional healers, can help bring needed services to those who, because of economic, language and other cultural barriers, often lack proper medical care.

Torres grew up in the Southwest, steeped in the methods and lore of curanderismo, and it's clearly his passion. He teaches a class on the topic at UNM, lecturing widely, and his book, though sometimes sketchy, will give readers a clear sense of this mysterious world.

While curanderismo is sometimes used to treat serious organic illnesses like cancer (there's no scientific evidence that it's effective in this area), it is most often used on afflictions you won't find in a standard medical dictionary. However, Torres writes that instead of being viewed as fanciful delusions, ailments such as susto (loss of spirit), muína (anger sickness, a kind of hysterical rage) and the sinister sounding mal de ojo (evil eye--actually, not the product of evil intentions but of envy or excessive admiration in which the object of favorable regard is overcome by the psychic presence of the admirer) should be seen as psychosomatic problems, not unlike many conventional psychiatric disorders.

"Curanderismo," Torres writes, "is a system of medicine that recognizes the profound effect that the emotions can have on health. It takes into account the physical manifestations of such feelings as anger, sorrow, shame, rejection, fear, desire and disillusionment."

The link between mind and body is further reflected in curanderismo's healing techniques, an elaborate system of rituals combining religious symbols and a plethora of materials ranging from eggs, brooms and candles to charms, aromatic oils, incense, alcohol and herbs. Herbal remedies are part of just about every ritual, and Torres includes a sizable listing of herbs, their preparations and uses.

Torres insists that many of these rituals will work whether or not a patient believes in them, but he also notes the efficacy of faith--in the rituals and in the power of the healer or curandero.

According to Torres, the connection between healer and patient--which seems to be the primary source of curanderismo's power--stems from cultural factors (curanderos and patients generally share the same language and world view, often living in the same neighborhood) and, especially, the personality of the curandero.

Noting that present-day curanderos are quite familiar with modern medicine, Torres advocates sending Spanish-speaking healers, trained in both folk medicine and orthodox treatments, into areas where conventional care is too expensive or not easily accessible.

"We want to make it possible," he says, "for poor people to be able to go to someone who can tell them whether they have a condition that needs immediate medical treatment, or if they can get a folk remedy for their aches and pains."

Ultimately, Torres says, curanderismo, with its emphasis on touch (massage is an important component), spirituality and the whole person, provides a healthy balance to contemporary medicine, which often comes off as an impersonal assembly line.

"It does not isolate," Torres writes of curanderismo, "as modern science tends to; rather, it embraces. And, like an embrace, it shelters, and it warms."

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