Curanderismo is a 500 year old medical system born in the Americas, it’s
inception began when the Spaniards arrived on this continent and blended their medicine
with that of indigenous peoples from Mexico and the Southwestern United States. 500
years ago the indigeous people of the Americas already had a system of healthcare which
was thousands of years old, the Spaniards also had an established system which was at
that time one of the most advanced in the Western world.
The Spanish system of medicine utilized the concept of the humors; blood
phlegm, yellow bile and black bile and the subdivisions of wet and dry and hot and cold
to classify illnesses. This Spanish medicinecombined Judeo-Christian beliefs fused with
the indigenous system. The Native American system based it self on the balance of the
physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self along with the natural world. With the
arrival of African slaves, West African medicine was also adapted into curanderismo,
for example West African medicine was much like that of the Native Americans,
according to Elena Avila in her book Woman who Glows in the Dark, she says that one
of the most important concepts in West African medicine is that of community, that
health is connected to community because it reinforces our sense of identity , meaning
and purpose. Another aspect of west Africans medicine was the belief that the living
needed to maintain a connection to departed ancestors, they have ceremonies in which
ancestors are honored and petitioned. A parallel can be seen in the Day of the Dead
celebration in Mexico where the dead are honored and given offerings.
Curanderismo addresses illness that are called “folk” diseases as well as
maladies that are recognized by Western medicine. There are four categories in which the
illness can be placed, these are physical, mental , emotional and spiritual. The physical
diseases treated by curanderos are known as mal aire (bad air), empacho (blockage), and
bilis (rage). Mental diseases are those that are also recognized by western medicine such
as schizophrenia, depression, or nervousness. Emotional diseases are those such as
envidia (envy), mal puesto( hexes), mal ojo is described by curandera Elena Avila as a
sickness caused by staring, which is often incorrectly translated to “evil eye” and, Mal
suerte (bad luck). Spiritual diseases are known as susto ( soul loss) characterized by a
frightening or traumatic experience, and espanto ( fright) characterized as fright by
seeing a ghost or being awakened suddenly by a something frightening.
For these maladies there are different types of curanderos who specialize in these
areas. There is the hierbero (herbalist) one who specializes in the wildcrafting,
preparation and dosages of medicinal plants. A sobadora who uses massage to help with
internal physical illnesses, such as empacho. The partera (midwife), who are very few
where these is medical care, but still very prominent in rural parts of Mexico. The
consejera (counselor) a therapist or type of psychologist. A Espirtulisto/a (a medium), a
person who will heal through a trance state. A huesero a bone setter or chiropractor of
sorts, then there is the curandero/curandera total who is incorporates all methods into
healing, this is the most powerful of all curanderos.
Because curanderismo is a holistic model, the curandero/curandera will look at
not only the physical illness but all aspects of a persons life, Paula Gunn Allen author of
Grandmothers of the Light, says:
“Doing medicine this way entails knowing....the patients, their families, their
spiritual , mental , social , emotional, environmental, and physical condition and how
they will combine in the healing process.”
A healer will use oils, candles, incense and Judeo-Christian symbolism in their practice,
as well herbs for limpias (cleanings) and barridas ( sweepings). Curanderismo can also
be very diverse, and will have regional differences. For example, the curandersimo
practiced in New Mexcio will perhaps use different saints and herbs than would a
curandero from California. In a phone interview with curandero Charles Garcia, a
teacher of curanderismo who leans more to the Native American (Cahuilla) way,
“California has a unique form of native healing, California has many different
types of tribes so that the effect is unique, the techniques range from the desert to the
northwest, and unlike the southwest, the church influence was not that strong.”
Curanderismo has evolved with the times, although curanderismo relies on faith from
both the healer and patient, the use of Judeo-Christian symbolism is not always used, in
places where the church influence is not so strong, or those who choose not to use the
symbolism, other means have been used.