Curanderismo is a holistic system of Latin American folk medicine. This type of folk medicine has characteristics specific to the area where it is practiced (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Argentina, Mexico, the southwestern region of the United States, etc.). Curanderismo blends religious beliefs, faith, and prayer with the use of herbs, massage, and other traditional methods of healing. Curanderismo can be defined as a set of traditional beliefs, rituals, and practices that address the physical, spiritual, psychological, and social needs of the people who use it.
The Spanish verb curar means to heal. Therefore, curanderismo is translated as a system of healing. The goal of curanderismo is to create a balance between the patient and his or her environment, thereby sustaining health.
The healer who practices curanderismo is referred to as a curandero (male healer) or curandera (female healer). Healing terms vary with the language and culture of the area in which the system is practiced. For example, a female healer in Argentina is called a remedieras.
Curanderismo in Mexico is based on Aztec, Mayan, and Spanish influences. The ancient native cultures believed that a delicate balance existed between health, nature, and religion. Illness occurred when one of these areas was out of balance.
The use of nature's resources was very important to the native cultures. In the fifteenth century, the Huaxtepec garden was developed by the Aztec leader Montezuma I. This garden was a collection of several thousand medicinal plants. The Aztec priests used this garden to perform research on the medicinal properties of the plants.
When the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico in the sixteenth century, they destroyed the garden and all of the priests' research because the Catholic Church considered these "sciences" to be blasphemous. Although the written knowledge was destroyed, the plant wisdom was remembered, passed down by the native peoples, and became an integral part of curanderismo.
The Spanish missionaries who were sent to the New World introduced the native peoples to the Catholic religion and European healing philosophies. Prayers to Catholic saints were soon integrated into healing rituals. Another doctrine that was passed on to the native peoples by the Europeans was their belief in witchcraft, sorcery, and other superstitions, and the philosophy that illness is often caused by supernatural forces.
As the native and Spanish cultures intermingled over the centuries, a new culture was formed, as was the folk medicine of curanderismo.
Curanderismo is used to treat ailments arising from physical, psychological, spiritual, or social conditions. Illness is said to be caused by either natural or supernatural forces.
Naturally caused illness is treated with herbal medicine, massage, and prayer. Much of this illness is thought to be brought about by intense emotions caused by trauma or a specific event. Susto, for example, is an illness that is caused by fright. A startling event such as a fire, earthquake, dog attack, car accident, or death may cause the patient to become ill. Symptoms of susto are insomnia, diarrhea , extreme nervousness, sadness, depression , loss of appetite, loss of brilliance in the eyes, and lack of dreams. The events are thought to dislodge a person's spirit from the body.
Bilis is an ailment that is the result of excessive emotional stress . Bilis is caused by prolonged anger and fear. The ailment is thought to occur when excessive bile is trapped in the system and causes tension, irritability, and loss of appetite.
Empacho and colic are ailments treated by massage and herbs. Empacho is a blocked intestine disease where the intestines are plugged by something indigestible such as chewing gum or unbaked dough. To treat this condition, the curandera performs a massage in which she pulls on the skin of the back just above the coccyx (tailbone). When the skin makes a snapping noise the food has been loosened. Herbal tea is also given to complement the massage.
Colic is caused by excessive coldness of the stomach, and mint is used for such digestive problems.
Supernaturally caused illnesses or conditions are initiated by witchcraft, sorcery, or hexes. Physical symptoms might manifest as nervous breakdowns, paranoia, schizophrenia , depression, or excessive worrying. Supernatural forces can also create social problems. A person who has a streak of continued bad luck, or who suffers from marital problems, the loss of a job, or car troubles will deem the problem to be caused by a supernatural force. To heal these ailments and remove the hex or problem, the curandera uses rituals, spiritual cleansings, herbs, and prayer.
Prayer is the foundation of curanderismo. Curanderas have strong religious faith and believe that they were given the ability to heal as a gift from God. Curanderas pray to spirits and/or Catholic saints for help in healing their patients, often praying to specific saints for particular conditions.
A traditional healing session may include one or more of the following: spiritual cleansing (limpia ), ritual, massage, and/or herbal therapy. Curanderas use a variety of objects in their healing sessions, including herbs and spices, eggs, lemons, flowers, fruits, holy water, pictures of saints, crucifixes, candles, incense, and oils. Each object has a specific purpose.
Holy water is used for protection from negativity or evil spirits. Eggs and lemons are patted on the patient's body to absorb negative energies. Rosemary , basil, and rue branches are brushed on the body to remove negativity.
Candles are burned to absorb negative energy and create a healing environment. Different colored candles are burned for different reasons: red for strength, blue for harmony, pink for good will. Incense is used to purify the room, while garlic and oils are used as protection from negativity and bad spirits.
Research & general acceptance
Although much of the Hispanic community is currently devoted to the practice of curanderismo, many people fear that it will be lost from lack of interest on the part of the younger generation or reliance on mainstream medical procedures. There is a great deal of research on curanderismo in the field of anthropology.
Training & certification
Curanderas are generally trained informally. The information is passed from generation to generation (i.e., mother to daughter). Often the curandera starts out as an apprentice to a more experienced curandera.
Perrone, Bobette, Henrietta H. Stockel, and Victoria Kru Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Sandoval, Annette. Homegrown Healing: Traditional Remedies From Mexico. New York: Berkley Books, 1998.