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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

Used by many Mexican-Americans to supplement conventional medicine, curanderismo is a mind-body-spirit healing approach steeped in tradition and ceremony. Although meant to enhance wellness at many levels, for people with disabilities, curanderismo especially targets the soul.

Because of the growing societal role Hispanics continue to play, it is important to integrate culturally attuned methods such as curanderismo into our healing spectrum.

I received training from several leading curanderos, including David Atekpatzin Young and Elena Avila (photos). Reflecting curanderismo's mestizo (Spanish and American Indian) origins, Young, hailing from New Mexico, is of Spanish, Apache, and Pueblo Indian ancestry. Avila, originally from El Paso, Tex., is of Spanish, Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec ancestry.

Although trained by many traditional folk healers, both Avila and Young have extensive experience in mainstream healthcare. For example, Avila has a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing, and Young was trained as a psychotherapist and ran an organization targeting Native American health problems. Both believe that curanderismo does not substitute for but supplements conventional medicine.

Curanderismo was long suppressed, starting with the Spanish conquistadors, who ruthlessly imposed their cultural values on indigenous populations. In contemporary times, health authorities dismissed curanderismo, in part because its philosophy clashed with modern medicine's core belief that our body parts can be fixed in isolation of an overriding, integrating soul.

Because of the opposition it faced, curanderismo wisdom was preserved by being passed down from teacher to apprentice for generations outside the medical mainstream view - that is until relatively recently, when people such as Young and Avila stepped forward to bridge the ancient with the modern. One of the results of this thrust is Avila's book Woman Who Glows in the Dark.

Many people seeking curanderismo training are conventionally trained health-care professionals. Although deeply committed to their healing roles, they believe modern medicine - as shaped by economic, high-tech, and pharmaceutical concerns - does not foster the deep relationship they desire with patients. For example, Avila gave up nursing, in part, because she believed patients, especially Hispanics, often could not achieve lasting benefits with traditional approaches alone.

Indigenous Contributions
Curanderismo sprang out of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, whose contributions, although largely ignored, have greatly shaped today's world. For example, many drugs have origins in botanical medicines, and a huge portion of today's food staples were foods enjoyed by these civilizations. The inclusion of these edibles significantly improved the overall nutritional value of the European diet. Given such examples of the abilities of these contributions to nurture and keep us healthy in today's world, it follows that their healing principles also have relevance.

Historical Origin
Curanderismo stems from the Spanish word curar, which means to heal, and is practiced throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the southwestern United States. Specific procedures may vary depending on regional influence. For example, what is emphasized in Texas will differ from practices in northern New Mexico with its unique Native American influences.

According to curanderismo, disease is caused by social, psychological, physical, and spiritual factors. A mix of healing traditions, the practice is grounded in ancient Aztec medicine. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the early 1500s, they rejected the healing practices that evolved into curanderismo, partly because they emphasized non-Christian spirituality. As a result, many spiritual components changed to forms more palatable for the conqueror's Catholic faith. For example, anthropologists suggest that that the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose image is a ubiquitous presence in curanderismo rituals, is a Christianized version of the Aztec lunar mother goddess Tonantzin.

Over time, Aztec healing traditions were influenced by Spanish medicine, which itself was shaped by Arabic medicine practiced by the Moors, who, at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, had been only recently expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. Considered the most advanced at the time, Arabic medicine's influences dated back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and, given the extent of the Arabic contact into Asia, reflected oriental healing principles. Finally, African slaves and Native American cultures wove their insights into this culturally rich healing tapestry we now call curanderismo.

Like modern medicine, curanderismo specialists have a don (a God-given gift) in one or more areas:

A hierbero (herbalist) uses plant remedies to treat disorders and ailments. For example, chamomile is used to sedate; mint or rosemary for indigestion; prickly pear cactus or nopal to reduce blood sugar in diabetics; and cow parsnip to treat injured nerves and stimulate regeneration. Many fragrant herbs, especially rosemary, are used in rituals to call in spiritual assistance. 

The sobadoro's don is loving-touch massage, which is used for both physical comfort and reaching out to one's psyche and soul to initiate higher-level healing.

The partera (midwife) guides expectant mothers. For example, as discussed in La Partera, Young's aunt assisted in more than 12,000 births in northern New Mexico. A perinatal nurse I spoke to said she studied curanderismo to be more sensitive to the needs of her Hispanic clients.

A consejero (counselor) uses heart-to-heart talks called pláticas to bring up repressed issues or problems that need to be released before the client can constructively move on in life.

Similar to a chiropractor, a huesero does spinal adjustments and sets dislocated joints.

An espiritualista channels advice from helpful spirits, such as Niño Fidencio, a folk-saint healer who died 70 years ago. In her case, Avila states that when in a trance state, she does not channel any specific entity but often feels God's energy coming through her.

Finally, some curanderos are energy workers. Believing that our physical body and all of its defects are secondary to our all-pervasive energetic nature (energy fields), they sense dysfunctional energy, get rid of it, and direct beneficial energy to where it is needed, sometimes even at a distance.

Curanderismo treats categories of physical, emotional, or soul dysfunction. Although defined in a traditional way that seems out of place compared to modern medicine, all can be interpreted in a broader healing perspective.

Physical categories include bilis (rage), with ailments aggravated by our frenetic fight-or-flight lifestyles; empacho (blockage), associated with digestive disorders, as well as emotional blocks; and mal aire (bad air), causing ailments in children such as earaches or chills. 

Consistent with scientific studies that suggest that negative consciousness can adversely affect living systems, traditional emotional categories of cuaranderismo include envidia (envy); mal puesto (hex or curse), in which negative energy directed toward a person creates havoc or disharmony; mal ojo (staring), in which children become ill because they can not handle excessive adult attention; and mala suerte (bad luck), in which adversity fuels a vicious-circle creation of bad luck.

"Mal ojo describes what I would attribute to over-stimulation cues, happening due to adult interaction with the baby who does not recognize the behavioral cues and then becomes stressed." - RN & Infant Developmental Specialist, working 36 years, primarily in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

For people with disabilities, the most relevant category is susto (soul loss). With susto, we become blocked from or lose access to aspects of our higher self that are needed for healing. Because we all face in life, as Shakespeare said, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," we all experience susto. You lose a job, your wife leaves you, or a parent dies-you have susto. We define ourselves with certain "who-am-I?" criteria, and when life's inevitable entropy destroys them, we lose aspects of our soul. 

Because severe disability has so much potential to distort one's self-perception, susto is an important factor when a person becomes paralyzed through injury or disease. For example, if a macho veteran becomes sexually impotent due to multiple sclerosis (MS) or an athlete sustains a spinal-cord injury (SCI), his self-definition may be so altered that physical and mental healing will be compromised unless susto is addressed.

Avila's book discusses several men with severe mobility-affecting disabilities. In one case, a double amputee, believing his soul had died in Vietnam, became a substance abuser and attempted suicide. In another case, a person with disabilities from childhood polio had long-term resentment that was being held back. This adversely affected the person's relationships and employment situation.

Part 2 will discuss procedures and ceremonial rituals that deal with susto. Curanderismo may not bring about physical healing through physiological changes but promotes healing via improved quality of life, happiness, and self-understanding.



Because a short, descriptive article can not adequately reflect the strength, heart, and soul of curanderismo, readers are encouraged to consult these books:

Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health, by Elena Avila, R.N., M.S.N. with Joy Parker.

Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by Eliseo "Cheo" Torres with Timothy L. Sawyer Jr.

Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing, by Robert T. Trotter II, Juan Antonia Chavira.

Healing with Herbs and Rituals: A Mexican Tradition, by Eliseo "Cheo" Torres with Timothy L. Sawyer Jr.

La Partera, by Fran Leeper Buss.

Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.

Adapted from article appearing in June 2006 Paraplegia News (For subscriptions, call 602-224-0500) or go to