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A Curandero/Curandeiro is a folk healer. Terms such as botá nico, curioso, or empírico are local variations. Folk healing is found in practically all Latin American cultures and can be traced back to the Iberian peninsula. Although its practice varies widely, the two major styles are American Indian and urban. The typical American Indian curandero is a shaman, often a respected community member, who bases his or her work on native beliefs, such as the idea that the soul can wander and be captured or that magical objects can be shot into the body. In addition to shamans, there are native specialists who prescribe herbal medicines, or set broken bones, or massage the body. Generally speaking, both styles offer healing for physical as well as spiritual ailments. The typical Indian curandero, whose work may seem exotic to non-Indians, follows a cultural pattern that is more orthodox than the eclectic, personal styles of most urban curanderos.

In the cities and towns of Latin America, religious ideas from all over the world have mingled to create a wide variety of urban folk-healing practices. The typical urban curandero is a healer who claims religious power and who uses techniques derived from different sources. Almost any religion or healing theory can be the basis for the urban curandero's practice. Naturopathy, spiritism, spiritualism, Catholicism, Buddhism, African-American religions, homeopathy, and indigenous traditions all have had roles in Latin American urban curanderismo. The synthesis of practices and beliefs is the rule rather than the exception. In spite of the variety, a specific region may be known for a particular type of curanderismo. For example, some cities in Brazil (Belém, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Pôrto Alegre) abound in Umbandista curing; Salvador da Bahia is known for Candomblé remedies; Iquitos, on the Peruvian Amazon, is known for healers who give their patients a hallucinogenic drug made from the Banisteriopsis vine; and healers on the north Peruvian coast conduct ceremonies in which the participants drink a potion derived from the San Pedro cactus.

The old Native American Indian traditions of folk healing were effective both psychologically and physiologically and have continued into the present. The high civilizations of the Andes and Mexico developed healing arts based on magic and medicinal knowledge. The Aztecs of central Mexico had both shamans and herbalists. Aztec herbal medicines were effective in correcting what was believed to be the cause of a disease. For example, if the healers felt that excess urine caused an illness, they prescribed an effective herbal diuretic. They used bleedings, baths, purges, dressings, plasters, and the extracts of plants, as well as magic. Aztec medicinal knowledge compared well with that of then-contemporary Europe. In Peru, Inca folk medicine men were low-level priests who divined the causes of illness and then provided cures. The ancient Peruvians developed extensive pharmacological knowledge. Skeletal remains and pottery drawings reveal that the ancient Peruvians also were excellent surgeons. The people from the Paracas region of Peru performed a prodigious number of successful skull trepanations probably to relieve pressure on the brain due to war club injuries.

Yet despite the long-standing popularity of folk remedies among Spanish and non-Spanish alike in both the cities and countrysides of Latin America, curanderos faced great scrutiny and even prohibition. Curanderas in Mexico City during the colonial era were denounced as witches in Inquisition trials. In Andean Peru, Catholic Church authorities led campaigns to rid the populace of ritual objects and materials used in healing. Still, the acceptance of some fluidity between magic, medicine, religion, witchcraft, and spirituality continued to be potent into the early twenty-first century.

In the early twenty-first century, Indian shamans are ritual specialists who claim to know about unseen, supernatural worlds. Male shamans are more numerous in Indian communities, but the office is open to women as well. Shamans may speak of a supernatural experience that has brought them the power to cure. They learn their profession from other shamans, and they may undergo a period of formal training, such as that given by the Ixil Maya shamans of Guatemala. In the regions where ancient civilizations once flourished, the profession of shaman may include such nonhealing services as priestly officiating. There is a tendency for shamans to deal more and more with the psychological components of illnesses as modern medicine becomes more successful in dealing with physical infections. Modern shamans often divide illness into a sorcery-caused type, which they will treat, and a natural type, which modern medicine and doctors treat.

Shamanic healing rituals have significant psychological effects. A belief in the shaman's magical power over animistic life forces supports the psychological component of shamanic work. Such a belief can be extended to include the power to harm or kill. Shamans often struggle on mythical battle lines between the good use of their power, curing, and the bad use of it, sorcery. In their rituals they combat the sorcery caused by the enemies of the patient. Sometimes they become involved in counter-sorcery aggressions themselves. However, many shamans prefer to be called curanderos (healers) to highlight the positive, healing function of their work. They prefer not to be called brujos (sorcerers).

In many parts of Latin America, Indian shamans take hallucinogenic drugs to induce visions. Various plants, such as Banisteriopsis, Virola theiodora, Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), and Datura, aid the shaman in seeing into the supernatural world. The drugs are seldom given to patients; they are used primarily by shamans to arrive at the correct diagnosis of a disease or the solution of a personal problem.

The early European medical traditions introduced into Latin America also were effective models of disease and healing. Humorial theories introduced by the Moors influenced Iberian medical concepts of the sixteenth century. These concepts entered Latin America with the missionaries, who founded hospitals and ministered to the Indians. Once the accepted knowledge of educated people, these traditions became the lore of the people of Latin America. Popular recetarios (home-care manuals) published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contained medical information for home use and explained illness in humorial terms. The humorial qualities of wet and dry became less significant, and the qualities of hot and cold came to dominate Latin American folk medicine. Many of today's folk-healing systems seek to maintain a balance between hot and cold essences in the body, particularly in reference to what is eaten. In Guatemala, for example, peaches, chocolate, and honey are thought to be "hot," while tomatoes, squash, and carrots are "cold." People are careful not to eat too much of one or the other type of food.

The modern urban curandero goes well beyond the common beliefs in hot-cold imbalances. He or she may perform psychic surgery, purification rituals, or other types of healings. He or she may treat magical illnesses, such as sorcery, susto (debilitating fright), or soul-loss, and "natural" illnesses, such as cancer, tuberculosis, and obesity. Each urban curandero seems to have a personal twist to what he or she does; idiosyncratic styles are prevalent. Urban curanderos diagnose illnesses by talking with the patient; by examining the patient's urine, iris, skin, hair, or personal object; or by using such instruments as stethoscopes and magnifying glasses. Urban curanderos are less socially involved with their patients than are shamans, and they seldom include the entire family in a treatment. Urban curanderos usually charge modest fees or accept only donations. Some religious groups in Latin America practice healing in larger group ceremonies. For example, the public attends Umbanda rituals in Brazil to obtain healing and spiritual benefits from possessed cult members.

See alsoDiseases; Indigenous Peoples, Medicine.


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                                              James Dow