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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

Curanderismo is a traditional approach to healing used by many Mexican-Americans to supplement Western conventional medicine. As discussed in Part 1, curanderismo targets various categories of physical, emotional, or soul dysfunction. A key type is susto (soul loss) caused by traumatic events, ranging from the relatively minor, such as a marathoner spraining an ankle, to the devastating, such as a woman getting raped.

Susto is especially relevant for anyone disabled by accident or disease. Basically, with susto, we become lose access to aspects of our higher self needed for healing.  Part 2 will provide an overview of key curanderismo procedures, rituals, and ceremonies.


A richer appreciation for curanderismo and disability can be gained through reading contemporary Chicano literature. For example, author Rudolfo Anaya, who was honored by President Bush with the 2002 National Medal of Arts emphasized curanderismo in Bless Me, Ultima (1972). The Nation magazine described this book as “the most important and influential Chicano novel ever written.” The novel’s title character, Ultima, is a wise curandera who nurtures a young boy’s soul in New Mexico in the 1940s.

Anaya’s Tortuga (1979) is about a teenager nicknamed Tortuga (turtle) due to his body cast. The book describes his survival and spiritual evolution as he recovers from a spinal-cord injury (SCI) in a “crippled” children’s hospital in the 1950s. Anaya based Tortuga on his own experiences overcoming a paralyzing diving accident.

In Shaman Winter (1999), Anaya created a neurologically compromised, wheelchair-using detective, Sonny Baca, who relies on curanderismo for strength, healing and to combat the evil brujo (witch) Raven. 

More and more of us seek integrative or alternative medical/spiritual care. Curanderismo is one answer. Years ago I suffered a spinal cord injury. During that trauma the soul suffered as much as the body. I worked to get my body back in shape, but it took me years to learn that in order to cure the trauma (susto) I also had to go back and reintegrate my soul. Teachings such as curanderismo helped me greatly.

Rudolfo Anaya, May 2006

Because curanderismo is grounded in spirituality, it must be explained within that context, just as conventional medicine needs to be discussed within a surgical and pharmaceutical framework. For example, Baca’s never-ending conflict with the dark forces is reflective of a core curanderismo belief that the universe’s duality-based energies - such as good versus evil, male and female, physical and spiritual, etc – all exist in sacred union as a part of God’s greater whole. In this context, when one recognizes that they are a part of, and not distinct from this oneness, they can access previously unavailable healing energies. Given this belief, curanderismo prayers or chants are concluded with the Nahuatl (Aztec) expression Ometeotl, meaning sacred union of all.


To further understand curanderismo, I attended a workshop at Ghost Ranch retreat center in a magnificent northern New Mexico setting where artist Georgia O’Keefe did much of her painting. Led by curandera Elena Avila, participants were mostly conventional healthcare professionals, including some with disabilities, desiring to expand their healing insights.

Most curanderismo procedures are couched in a rich ceremonial context that is virtually absent in Western medicine. According to author Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, “at one time in their history, all cultures have had beneficial healing ceremonies; unfortunately, most modern, white-culture ceremonies have become so sterile they are not conducive for healing.”

As a biochemist, I equate the ceremony to a chemical catalyst. The difference is instead of accelerating the transition from one chemical state to another, it catalyzes a shift to a more health-enhancing consciousness.

Curanderismo ceremonies are characterized by prayers and chants; the use of a resinous incense copal to cleanse or smudge toxic energy from a healing environment; and ceremonial altars containing symbolic sacred objects, such as candles with pictures of Saints (e.g., Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Anthony, etc). The altars are placed in the primary compass directions, which have symbolic meanings. The East represents new beginnings; South, youth and intuition; West, transformation (photo); and North, ancestral wisdom. Offerings are often placed on these alters as symbolic food for the spirit world to enlist the help of ancestors.


In her book Woman Who Glows in the Dark, (1999), Avila says “Curanderismo teaches that it is not enough to diagnose a physical problem, as so many modern medical doctors do without looking at what is going on in the heart and soul of the patient.” She emphasizes that each patient has a unique story. Working with the patient, the curandera facilitates the story’s revelation, which, in turn, opens a door in consciousness that leads to healing at some level.

To open this door, the curandera uses a variety of procedures or rituals, including pláticas, limpias, and soul retrievals:

Pláticas are deep, nonjudgmental, often multi-session, heart-to-heart talks between the curandera and patient in a sacred environment of trust. Roughly comparable to psychoanalysis, pláticas are tailored to the patient’s unique situation and use a variety of mechanisms to help reveal the patient’s story, such as acting out problems, dream interpretation, art therapy, or making masks. The goal is to gain understanding and bring out suppressed beliefs that need to be released to make room for new health- and life-renewing attitudes. According to Avila, patients needs to desahogar, an “undrowning” to get everything out of their heart.

Likewise, curandero David Young says pláticas attempt to get patients “out of their heads into a process that moves them past thinking into their hearts.”

To further develop their story, patients often place personally relevant symbolic objects on the ceremonial altars.  For example, symbols of our past are placed in the North, such as photos of deceased parents or children. In another example, the West is the graveyard of our belief systems. It is where we let go of compromising beliefs about, for instance, a failed marriage or career. It is also the place where we release limiting attitudes about what may be possible, accomplished, or achieved after disability.  Avila simply calls it “energy that doesn’t belong to us.”

This energy release is facilitated by limpias, spiritual cleansings that can take a variety of ceremonial forms. These often incorporate elements perceived as still possessing life-force energy, such as raw fertile eggs, flowers, and fresh rosemary. As a crude analogy, consider unwelcome beliefs as food particles stuck on a frying pan (in other words our soul), and these living objects as the scouring pad that will remove them when used within a spiritual context. 

I have had several limpias. The first, run by Young, used a sweat-lodge ceremony and ritually removed negative energy by the brushing the body with cut flowers. At my Ghost Ranch limpia, eggs (intact) and rosemary were rubbed over my body. In addition, Avila swept an eagle feather around certain body areas in an effort to push out the negative energies she perceived in my energy field. The egg, which had absorbed my negative energy, was later ceremonially buried to be transmuted by Mother Earth.

Finally, after the limpia-assisted release of the negative beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions brought out by the pláticas, a soul-retrieval ceremony reclaims aspects of ourselves we have repressed through the susto created by life’s trials and tribulations, such as injury, violation, or trauma. Through this process, the curandera guides the patient back to balance, allowing more full soul expression. Extensively discussed in Avila’s book, the soul-retrieval can be mediated through many ceremonial mechanisms. For example, if a woman was sexually abused as a child, a doll may be used a symbolic representation of soul aspects lost by such abuse.


As a detached scientist merely desiring to learn more about curanderismo, I initially viewed the incorporation of raw eggs and rosemary in the Ghost-Ranch limpia ceremony as just quaint cultural traditions As such, I was astonished by my limpia-induced perceptual transformation. This transient perceptual state was one of my most powerful life experiences.

As Shakespeare stated in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy" For me, curanderismo’s eggs and rosemary will forever be among them.

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