Viejo y Nuevo: The Role of Curanderismo and Traditional Medicine in Mexico

Lizz Dobmeyer

Traditional Medicine in Mexico

Traditional medicine is considered something of the past, seen as old or viejo. However, it has never gone away, and has persevered. Herbalism and religious or faith healing in Mexico, also called curanderismo, are finding their way alongside and in conjunction with modern medicine. New, or nuevo, ways of healing, sometimes called Western medicine, often incorporate traditional medicine. While medicine has modernized, patients are still treated with aspects of traditional medicine today. This article seeks to examine the role of curanderismo and herbalism in Mexico and how they are used in conjunction with and alongside Western medicine. Mexico, while not considered a world leader in medicine or medical care, was at one time considered the dredge of the medical world. It was looked at as backward and stuck in the past. Porfirio Diaz sought to bring Mexico City away from the superstition of the past, and into the sterility and modernity of hospitals and Western medicine. However, he found himself fighting a losing battle. While the citizens of Mexico were in favor of public health, especially when it came to the disposal of the remains of their dead, they did not like the new policies that Diaz put into place. Officials found themselves facing violations of their rules and regulations. It is this clinging to the past that has helped traditional medicine and curanderismo survive in a place that was pushing them away. Mexico was long considered a lesser country by others in Europe or the United States. It was considered a dirty, backward, uneducated country. These images are something that Porfirio Diaz sought to rectify by promoting scientific and sterilized versions of medicine. Curanderismo is “Mexican American religious devotion and traditional healing.” Curanderos (male) or curanderas (female) are the practitioners of curanderismo. Curanderos have practiced openly and successfully in the United States since the Mexican American War. The practice, however, is much older and was born of the Mexican indigenous population. There have been several examples of curanderos who became famous over time, and two who have found local sainthood. One, Niño Fidencio, who still has a large cult following to this day, is found on prayer cards and images of exvotos, or prayer paintings that are popular in Mexico. This religious aspect of curanderismo sets it apart from many other types of folk healing or traditional medicine. With the Catholic faith having a tight hold on the Mexican people, one would expect some aspects of religion to seep into the traditions of curanderismo. As often happens with religion, curanderos mix these beliefs with older and more primal ones as they seek out nature and its spirits to help with their healing. For thousands of years, religion and healing were combined, using prayer as well as plants and herbs to help treat patients. Niño Fidencio is one of the better-known of the older curanderos due to his cult that is still popular today. Called the Fidencistas, they travel annually on St. Joseph’s Day, Fidencio’s birthday, and his death day to Espinazo, located in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. They attend large fiestas where they become possessed by his spirit and become curanderos themselves. They can perform healing miracles and are able to dispense healing advice just as Niño Fidencio did when he was alive. Those that go to the fiestas are not all Fidencistas; some are looking for healing miracles to be performed. While some believe that those under limpio, or spiritual possession, are merely faking it or putting on a show, others are true believers. They seek out the Fidencistas for the cures and miracles and put their full faith into the healing ritual. Teresa Urrea, also known as la Santa de Cabora, or the Saint of Cabora, is a curandera with a modern-day following. Also called the “Mexican Joan of Arc,” Urrea was known not only for her healing and miracles performed but for her fighting spirit and unwillingness to back down just because she was a woman. A reenactor is often asked to perform similar miracles to what Urrea performed. While this woman, a Chicano studies scholar named Elena Díaz Björkquist, does not believe herself to be a curandera like Urrea was, she has stopped refusing to give her blessing to those who come asking. She realized that most people seeking her were looking for hope, which she did not want to take away. Like the Fidencistas, people still put their faith in this healing and these healers. Mother Lane was a curandera who practiced in the 1930s. She gained quite a following, and she sought to treat those who came to her with traditional medicine. However, Mother Lane’s curing was different because she made more of a show with her cures. When she would cure a patient of gallstones, for example, she would physically “pull” gallstones or inflamed appendices from the patient. While this led many to be skeptical of her, her cures did seem to help her patients. Witnesses have often said that what she “pulled” from the patient looked suspiciously like chicken parts, which her assistants would have recently bought from a butcher. Her assistants would also have been seen gathering stones along the roadbeds like those “pulled” from her patients.
Viejo y Nuevo:   The Role of Curanderismo and Traditional Medicine in Mexico
A representation of a Curandero and their Patient

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Viejo y Nuevo:   The Role of Curanderismo and Traditional Medicine in Mexico
Curandera performing a limpieza

Modern Curanderismo

While modern curanderos do not have quite the popularity or fame their predecessors did, they still perform rituals the curanderos of the past performed, such as using an egg to pull bad spirits from a patient’s body, lighting candles and praying over a patient, or waving branches over a patient to blow away the illness. There are professors of religion at major universities, who perform rituals, and set up traditional altars for students to see. Others go on television or take interviews for newspapers and books. There are also those that practice out of their homes and in small buildings right along the street who do not advertise what they do. These are sought out by those in the know and are looked at as highly respected healers by their neighbors and family. While the idea of being brushed off as a fake healer is one thing, curanderos have genuine concerns about their practice. Mother Lane was brought to trial more than once for practicing medicine without a license. However, the judge dismissed these cases because she was a religious healer. Modern curanderos also face this fear. With medical malpractice, curanderos need to be very careful about how they treat their patients. Some curanderos find that Western medicine can be helpful to their cures, and they employ items such as aspirin and Vicks Vapo Rub in conjunction with their plant remedies. Since they are not prescribing medication and instead are just guiding locals in how to use plants and their suggested uses or using over-the-counter items with those plants, they are within the spirit of the law. This juncture of curanderismo and Western medicine, the use of over-the-counter items with plants, is an interesting way to look at traditional medicine. While the curanderos still stick to their roots with the use of plants, they recognize the importance of available items and use them to help their patients. This is not something that is seen in Western medicine, as it often shuns or simply dismisses the validity and usefulness of traditional medicine. There are exceptions to this, in that Western healers are becoming more accepting of practices such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage therapy, all of which can be considered holistic medicine. Also, the resurgence of midwives for obstetric care, which has long been a role for curanderas. The idea of a curandero may seem odd or backward to many who seek Western medicine to cure their ills. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken notice of the fact that traditional medicine seems to be thriving in many nations across the world. In the 1980s they created a program to work with traditional medicine practitioners instead of against them so that healthcare would be accessible to all. The fact that the WHO recognizes the potential of traditional medicine for people worldwide speaks volumes about its continuation. In Mexico, especially in areas with rich Maya heritage, traditional medical practitioners often work alongside and with Western medical practitioners. They do not hesitate to refer their patients to a physician when their remedies will not sufficiently help them. A few even have Western medical training, such as pharmacists. While there are local clinics put together by the government, many residents either cannot afford them or, if they are free, are rarely open and therefore ineffective. The residents of these towns where curanderos live and practice seem to trust the curanderos. They are their neighbors, family, and friends. Unlike a Western doctor that the government has provided to a clinic that they may or may not be able to go to, they know the curanderos. The curanderos are personable, and care about their patient in a holistic way, and in a more approachable way than a Western medical practitioner usually would. In rural areas of Mexico, such as Chiapas, it is not only accepted that curanderos practice traditional medicine, but it is expected. Chiapas is a southern state of Mexico that is stricken with poverty. Local, state, and national governments expect those citizens that cannot afford medical care to turn to curanderos for remedies and treatments. The government has made it their policy since the 1980s to blend traditional medicine with Western medicine. This is what Porfirio Diaz should have been striving for. Instead of trying to completely change the way his country operated, he should have embraced local cultures and tried to implement them into his plans. Many curanderos refused to accept payment for their treatment, and it is considered by some the mark of a true curandero to not charge for their treatments. It is this refusal of payment that some followed that allowed patients to seek curanderos out when they could not otherwise afford desperately needed medical care. While this financially helped the patient, it is another facet of the curandero giving hope. The patient knows in seeking out the curandero that they will not be turned away for not being able to pay, nor will they be saddled with bills that will cause them hardship. The cost of healthcare is something that many people do not have to worry about. Private insurance or federal and state health care assistance programs help many around the world. In 1983, Mexico began formation of a national healthcare system. In 2003, it was implemented, and every citizen of Mexico was entitled to healthcare at little or no cost. However, in rural areas of Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Chiapas, citizens may not have had ready access to healthcare clinics or Western medical providers. It would cause patients undue hardship to take off work to go far away to see a doctor, or to pay the money to travel that far if they do not have easy access to transportation. This is where the curandero shines. They are local and they want to take care of those around them.
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Curanderos and Herbalism

The plant-based cures of the Mayan-descended curanderos are sometimes found in the traditional way of going into the forest and jungle surrounding the place the curanderos live or in gardens and window boxes at their homes, where they have cultivated the plants. However, not all the cures used by the curanderos stayed secret from Western medicine. In the 1960s, when the birth control pill was being developed, European countries and the United States sought a way to gather large amounts of hormones to create synthetic hormonal medications. Synthetic hormones were not just used for oral contraceptives but could be used as cortisone, which was a lifesaving discovery for patients worldwide. A discovery by a determined scientist would put Mexico on the map scientifically and change the world of synthetic hormones for the better. Barbasco, a wild yam in Mexico, contains the chemical diosgenin, the base to create synthetic hormones such as those found in oral contraceptives. This yam had long been used by locals for various things, including fishing, since when thrown in the water, the water would bubble, and the fish would float up, dead. However, the locals soon discovered that pregnant women who ate the fish or water drunk by livestock downstream from where the yam was used to fish would have miscarriages. Locals soon used the yam more carefully. In the midwifery circle, it was passed down that one cup of brewed beverage using the yam was a very powerful abortifacient. The yam was not without other medical uses. Curanderos had long soaked the yam in alcohol and used it to relieve aching joints. There was abject poverty in Oaxaca, where the barbasco was primarily farmed. Families lived in very small traditional homes, often without even the luxury of electricity or running water at the time of discovery in the 1930s. Once barbasco became the new cash crop, however, the people of Oaxaca found themselves sitting on a veritable goldmine. For Mexico, this meant that they would not only become the leader in the scientific world, but they also had control over the sale of diosgenin. While they would enjoy this freedom and benefit for a short while, it would not last. Mexican companies and laboratories soon found themselves bought out by international firms. Before long, the money that Mexico could have been profiting from was soon going to other nations, who then imported medications back into Mexico at a very high cost. The government tried to step in and stop things, but it was too late. Eventually, the need for barbasco died out as other synthetic hormone sources were discovered. The yam had outlived its usefulness, but it could be said that without the discovery of diosgenin, oral contraceptives would have taken much longer to create. Barbasco yams were not the only plants that have found themselves being used in Western medicine. For thousands of years, indigenous people living in Mexico have used plants to heal, guide them in dreams and on spirit quests, and help flavor their food. Some of these plants, such as peyote and mushrooms, are still being studied by scientists today. These psychedelic plants find themselves listed as harmful drugs and on the DEA list of Schedule I substances, or “...drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” However, scientists are beginning to study the effects of these natural remedies in cases of mental illness, pain, and other psychological afflictions. With the legalization of medical marijuana and later recreational marijuana in many states, medical providers and scientists began to revisit the idea of plants that were previously considered useless medically or even potentially harmful. Micro dosing, which is providing minuscule amounts of a particular plant or medication, of psychedelic mushrooms, which contain the compound psilocybin, have recently found themselves being studied in tests for Alzheimer’s related Dementia, as well as other studies for the treatment of chronic pain and other mental health disorders, including phantom limb pain. Many of the plants used in these studies, such as mescaline and other opioids, are found solely in Mexico or are primarily being harvested there. While many physicians still frown on the use of illegal substances, holistic providers have more open minds as new studies come out about these plants. These studies are reminiscent of the origins of the use of barbasco in that they are remedies and cures that have been known to local and indigenous healers for a very long time. The poppy is a plant that has long grown in Mexico. It has also been used for thousands of years for its anesthetic properties. It has long been used by curanderos and other folk healers for the pain relief it brings, although it is a substance that a user can quickly become addicted to. Once morphine was distilled from it, Western medicine began to use it to help during surgeries. For many years, Western medicine used morphine as their leading pain relief. It was used in multiple wars, sometimes overly gratuitously on the battlefield, which did not help with addictions, but it was a significant source of relief to those who could not be treated right away. The use of traditional cures evolving into modern pharmaceuticals is nothing new, going back to early vaccines and the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming. While the uses of these medications are not always successful, Pharmacology and the search for newer and better medicines is never ending. The jungles not only in Mexico but around the world are endless areas of potential cures and medicines that have yet to be discovered. Barbasco is a great example of this. It was a simple weed until a scientist was able to take it and turn it into something that not only changed the way women handled their reproductive choices and lives, but also saved lives by creating steroids such as cortisone. Curanderos and Western medicine are very different, but they have the same goal- treating patients and keeping everyone in good health. While their methods, in the end, may be different, some of the ways they go about helping their patients are similar, including both using medicinals to help cure. While traditional medicine is still very alive in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, it can also be found in enough places across the world that the WHO has decided that working with instead of against it is the way to go. Western medicine has also taken cures and medicinals from curanderos such as the barbasco yam, opium, and psychedelic mushrooms. The legalization of some formerly non-medicinal medicines has opened the doors to new tests and studies on the effects and benefits of other non-medicinal plants. By working together, traditional medicine and Western medicine will be able to provide the best possible care for the citizens of Mexico.
Viejo y Nuevo:   The Role of Curanderismo and Traditional Medicine in Mexico
A Curandero prepares plants for a remedy
Viejo y Nuevo:   The Role of Curanderismo and Traditional Medicine in Mexico

Lizz Dobmeyer

I am an adjunct instructor at Connors State College. I received my MA in History from Fort Hays State University, and my BA in History from Northern Kentucky University. My research interests include history of medicine, women in medicine, history of nursing, and wartime nursing.
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