Curanderos: From “The New York Times”

Today’s N.Y. Times Science Times features a fascinating piece about integrating traditional Mexican healers, or “curanderos,” into a conventional U.S. medical environment.

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September 20, 2005

Advancing Medical Care to Include Old Remedies

By BEN DAITZ, M.D.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Our patient seemed to be dying, and we did not know why.

The medical students, residents and I had all examined her, probing for hidden masses, for swollen lymph nodes. We X-rayed and scanned her but she continued to waste away, to push her food aside, to refuse visits from her family.

I had met her at our clinic, months before. Her daughter brought her in from a rural village. She was concerned about her mother’s abrupt transformation from a cheerful, doting grandmother to someone the family no longer recognized.

A worn woman in her mid-50’s, she sat staring at her lap, mumbling answers to my questions. She had lost weight, but her exam was normal. I ordered lab tests and X-rays, and started her on an antidepressant.

When she returned to the clinic, it was clear she needed to be hospitalized. She was thinner. The antidepressant had made little difference. I asked Pancho Fernandez to see her. Mr. Fernandez, a social worker, was raised in northern New Mexico, and he understood the cultural nuance and customs of the isolated villagers whose conquistador ancestors settled here 400 years ago.

Mr. Fernandez suggested calling in a curandera. “She thinks she’s bewitched, hexed,” he said. “She thinks someone put a curse on her.”

I remember the body language of the medical students and the residents gathered outside her hospital room, their poses the equivalent of a collective “Duh?”

Think exorcism. Or as curanderos, traditional Mexican folk healers, call it, a “limpia,” a spiritual cleansing.

No one witnessed the limpia, nor did I meet the curandera, an elderly woman whom Mr. Fernandez described as one of the most venerated traditional healers in New Mexico. But the next day our patient had a smile on her face. She had eaten her breakfast. She wanted to go home, and did.

The discharge diagnosis on her chart was
depression. The real diagnosis, according to Cheo Torres, was “susto pasado,” a loss of spirit.

Dr. Eliseo Torres, known as Cheo, is vice president for student affairs at the University of New Mexico. He is a scholar, an author and a teacher, and his passion is the study and practice of curanderismo, the ancient art of Mexican folk healing.

“I grew up with it,” Mr. Torres said. “When I was 10, I started working in a pharmacy in south Texas, and I was fascinated watching the pharmacist make tinctures and potions for the Mexican-American population.”

“My people couldn’t afford to go to a physician, much less buy mainstream
pharmaceuticals,” he said. “They still can’t. Hispanic immigrants to this country have limited access to affordable health care. My goal is to study a new model for bringing primary care services to the growing Hispanic population.”

That is why Dr. Torres has brought 40 curanderos from the Mexican state of Morelos to Albuquerque and to the University of New Mexico campus for a two-week course, “Traditional Medicine Without Borders.”

In one class, Dr. Torres stood at the podium as students overflowed into the aisles. The audience was a multiethnic mix of undergraduates in their 20’s, practicing nurses and social workers, anthropologists, massage therapists and physicians.

Behind Dr. Torres was his personal armamentarium of medicinal plants, magic potions and milagros, or amulets, that he had assembled over the years.

In boxes like those used to hold butterfly collections were hundreds of vials and packets of dried herbs, decorated with flowers and pictures of saints. There was a “snake oil” section, an array of bottled byproducts of rattlesnake, decorated with somewhat conflicting claims, both increasing libido and preventing gossip, for example.

The visiting curanderos wore white cotton skirts and pants, with red bandannas around their heads, traditional Mexican peasant clothes. But a majority were master teachers, faculty members in a program at the State University of Morelos in Cuernavaca.

The program cross-trains curanderos with medical practitioners, creating an integrative approach that results in official certification of curanderos. It is a model that Dr. Torres wants to introduce here.

“Our emergency rooms are filled with poor, uninsured people, many with minor complaints,” Dr. Torres said. “They could be seen by a cross-trained curandero using traditional medicines and massage to treat minor problems, referring the more serious cases to conventional practitioners.”

Every morning of the course, Sergio Gómez, a curandero, conducted a simple but powerful ceremony. Mr. Gómez is a handsome man with a bearing reminiscent of the Aztecan heroes represented on Mexican wall calendars, particularly when he raises a king conch shell to his lips and trumpets a series of three long notes to the spirits of the four cardinal directions. The Mexican curanderos, holding clay pots of copal incense, wafted the sweet smoke around every person.

Afterward, the students learned about traditional herbal medicine or watched an acupuncturist, who said she learned her craft not from the Chinese, but from the 13 surviving Toltec Indian Codices that describe the ancient Mexican culture and medicines. Students also learned about traditional Mexican massage, acupressure and reflexology.

Many students choose to get a limpia. Tawni Auxier, 32, an aspiring novelist, told Elena Avila, a curandera from Albuquerque, that she was thinking of giving up writing. She was frustrated, and somewhat blocked.

Ms. Avila, a former psychiatric nurse, is now a full-time curandera who lectures and sees clients in the Americas and Europe. Ms. Auxier’s limpia was essentially short psychotherapy, but with considerably more empathy and touch, tied together by an arpeggio of wisps with a large condor feather.

At the conclusion of the course, the Mexican curanderos joined their American colleagues to conduct a health fair in a predominantly Hispanic Albuquerque neighborhood. Large tents covered a field. People wandered and waited in line for therapeutic massages, limpias, packets of dried herbs, tinctures and potions.

Watching the curanderos, I was reminded of what anthropologists call grooming behavior, the innate sense that all primates and most other animals have to touch and nurture one another. Perhaps the reason so many people are turning to so-called alternative healers is that physicians, whether because of the press of time or the loss of touch, are not doing the grooming job as well.

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