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Healing with Herbs and Rituals
Healing with Herbs and Rituals by Eliseo “Cheo” Torres. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press; 2006. Paperback; 168 pages, black and white illustrations. ISBN-13: 978-0-8263-3961-4. $17.95.

This book is a combination of two earlier books: Folk Healer (1984) and Green Medicine (1983), both originally published privately by the author, Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, PhD, Vice-President for Student Affairs at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

While living and teaching in South Texas, Dr. Torres compiled a large amount of information regarding the folk-healing practices of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living along the US-Mexico border.

Curanderismo (taken from the Spanish verb curar—to heal) is a form of folk medicine practiced in Mexico and some parts of the Southwestern United Sates, particularly by people of Mexican and Hispanic descent.

Curanderismo involves the use of various articles including herbs, candles, eggs, amulets, and various other objects to which a magical action and/or some type of healing energy has been attributed.

As the Hispanic population of the United States continues to increase, the influence of Mexican culture, including popular healing practices, may very well also increase.

Healers can be either men or women of varying ages. The curanderos, or healers, rarely state that their power comes from within themselves, but rather ascribe their healing abilities to a higher power, perhaps God or a particular saint, for example.

Curanderismo is a complex mixture of beliefs that includes indigenous medicine from various ethnic groups from Mexico and the Southwestern portion of the United Sates, as well as cultural adaptations of European medicine, such as Galen’s humoral theory. Arabic and African beliefs may also be incorporated, according to the person’s own cultural or racial origin.

The book contains 19 chapters that are divided into two parts: Part 1 includes 11 chapters and deals with the history and main beliefs regarding curanderismo, as well as a short biography of important healers along the US-Mexico border, both past and present.

Chapter 1 provides a brief history of curanderismo, as well as the very dissimilar cultures that intertwined to mold it into what it is today. The use of eggs, fire, and certain herbs in diverse healing practices are briefly covered here.

Chapter 2 explains the main characteristics of healers, differentiating them into various classes, such as herbalists (yerberos), massage therapists (sobadores), midwives (parteras), spiritual mediums (espiritistas), fortune tellers (card readers), and even witches, either male or female, called brujos or brujas, respectively. Dr. Torres mentions that curanderismo can sometimes be both supernatural and religious, since the belief in the healing power of God can also be intertwined with the casting of spells within a positive force of magic, known as “white magic.” On the negative side, a brujo (witch or warlock) can cast an evil spell on a person, using dark or “black magic.”

A true curandero, according to the author, does not usually charge a specific fee for his or her services, but rather leaves it up to his/her client to decide if a monetary contribution is offered. However, Torres also mentions some of the “modern day” healers in the United Sates who do, in fact, charge by the hour.

Chapter 3 describes the diverse ailments commonly treated by traditional healers. It is worth noting that some of the ailments do not conform to the Western medical model in their origin, manifestations or treatment. For example, the curandero may ascribe the origin of a specific ailment to a hex or evil spell, sometimes known as “mal de ojo” or “evil eye.” Curiously the notion that a person’s gaze can cause harm to other humans is not confined only to Mexican or other Latin American folk beliefs but is also present in various cultures around the world.

Aside from evil eye, various other ailments are covered in this chapter, including mal aire (literally “bad air”), susto (fright), espanto (severe fright, which, according to the curanderos, may actually result in the soul leaving the affected person’s body), bilis (literally “bile” or suppressed anger), envidia (envy or vengeful feelings), latido (palpitations), muína (an open manifestation of rage or anger), and caída de mollera (fallen fontanelle in babies). The latter condition is worth mentioning as a sign of dehydration, which may be due to a multiplicity of causes. If the child is not given proper medical attention in order to correct it, death may result. For this reason, it is important to understand the key clinical symptoms that may be present in some of these ailments.

Chapter 4 contains information about specific healing rituals undertaken by folk healers, as well as information regarding the ingredients used in these practices. Raw eggs, various medicinal plants, olive oil, and candles are but a few of the articles used in the cure and treatment of these bodily or spiritual ailments.

Folk beliefs are covered in chapter 5, which includes the main interpretations of health and disease according to popular Mexican healing practices. Amulets and other good-luck charms are seen as important to many people who believe that these inanimate objects, when worn, are preventatives of disease or even harbingers of wealth, love, and happiness.

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 briefly mention the biographical data regarding three healers—two men and one woman—who were well-known and active during the diverse periods within the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One popular healer, Niño Fidencio (“the child”), was very famous in Mexico. The two other healers mentioned are Pedrito Jaramillo and Teresita de Cabora, who were active healers in Mexico, as well as the United States, particularly in South Texas and Arizona. The information contained herein attests to the popularity and huge following that many of these healers experience in various parts of the United States and Mexico.

Chapter 9 describes the modern-day curanderos, men and women who, far from being crude or unsophisticated, may actually pursue academic and even theatrical activities, aside from being healers.

Chapter 10 focuses on the fusion of modern and traditional medical practices. Here, the importance of being culturally aware and sensitive are rightfully emphasized, since the so-called “modern” or “mainstream medicine” has usually looked upon many folk practices as being utterly ineffective or simply superstitious. This is a very important topic, since conventional medical personnel who are respectful of another person’s cultural integrity may find that this could be a key factor—one that may determine the positive outcome of a specific medical treatment for people of all ages.

Chapter 11 marks the end of part 1 and offers various bibliographical resources for further reading on curanderismo. The books and other publications mentioned contain current and well-researched information about the topic of Mexican American folk healing.

Part 2 contains 8 chapters and provides information about the medicinal herbs used in various treatments and ailments. A brief description of the plant and its uses is given, along with precautions for certain herbs that can be dangerous to use.

At the end of the book are two useful appendices, which include information about the Spanish (and native Mexican) names of medicinal or magical herbs, as well as a glossary of herbs commonly used by the curanderos on both sides of the US-Mexico border. A few black-and-white line drawings of the plants are also included in this section.

I recommend this book both to medical practitioners, as well as the general public, because it includes important information about cultural beliefs regarding health and disease. Even though you may not agree with some of the popular folk practices mentioned in the book, you should be aware that they have been, and continue to be, an integral part of the manner in which many people view disease, its manifold causes, and the cultural context on how common remedies can provide relief and cures.

—Armando González-Stuart, PhD University of Texas at El Paso-University of Texas at Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program Austin, Texas