When you are sick, do you Google your symptoms for a diagnosis? Do you go to the pharmacy and scan over-the-counter remedies? Do you call a trusted friend or relative for advice? Do you book an appointment with your internist? Or do you go to Urgent Care? To the ER? That is more or less the gamut of options in our contemporary urban culture. But not everyone follows this route.
I attended a conference on Alternative Healing methods at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and was struck by the variety of healing methods utilized by Hispanic people living in rural areas. Since they have limited access to modern healing centers, they rely on multiple traditional modes of treatment.
One might go to a curandero/curandera, someone who heals in a time-tested way. They might give you a limpia or cleansing, a common treatment where the healer moves branches or flowers or herbs downward on the body to physically and metaphorically sweep away the sickness. They may also use a raw egg in the same manner. Traditional healers frequently say prayers or light incense during this ritual.
Smudging is another popular traditional healing method. Native Americans burn sage, whereas, the Latino population burns copal, the common incense of the Catholic church. In the Mexican tradition, they burn the copal in sahumerios, open ceramic torch-like containers. The healers pass the copal smoke all around the body to purify it of any maladies.
Sometimes, patients visit a temazcal, a sweat lodge. Akin to a Native American sweat lodge, it looks more like an oven made of bricks or cement blocks. Inside the pitch blackness, they burn specific herbs for particular problems: eucalyptus for respiratory needs (think Vicks); rose petals for anniversaries and weddings; basil for fertility issues or postpartum depression. Sitting inside the intense heat is similar to being in a sauna where toxins are released through the skin pores. But unlike the sauna, the temazcal is a sacred experience where participants sing songs calling upon the ancestors for their help.
Cupping is another method of removing sickness from the body. The patient lies down and the healer first removes oxygen from glass cups via a flame then quickly inverts the glass cups on specific locations on the patient’s back to create a suction. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, the goal is to bring the toxins to the surface of the skin where they can be released.
This reminds me of how my mother used to make dry mustard plasters and place them on my chest where they would heat up and make my skin turn red. She believed that the hot mustard would draw out and alleviate my bronchitis.
What I took away from this two week conference is that traditional healers spend more time listening to, putting their hands on, and honoring their patients. Through more ritualistic interactions, they involve the mind, body, and spirit of the patient. This is so unlike today’s urban relationships of patients and physicians where time restrictions, testing in locations removed from the healer, and prescription fixes seem to prevail and make it seem impersonal and less satisfying. This probably explains why many Americans from Latin American and the Caribbean often turn to curanderos even while living in Los Angeles, New York, Miami or El Paso
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who has an appointment today for her flu shot.