When we get sick, most of us make an appointment with a doctor trained in Western medicine. But in New Mexico, for some ailments people might head to their local curandero, a practitioner of regional, traditional healing. And in parts of Mexico and South America, curanderismo is sometimes the only option for medical care.
It was a little after 6 p.m. in the North Valley of Albuquerque, where women—some of them curanderas—gathered at Tonita Gonzales’ home. Her garden full of healing herbs, her sweat lodge rising out of the earth, a half globe—this place stood in contrast to busy Osuna Road just on the other side of the tall wall encircling her property.
About 15 women traveled in from around the state. They sat around a patio table and figured out who would take on which of the four directions in the coming ceremony.
The sound of Gonzales’ conch shell blotted out the traffic. The women threw herbs on the crackling open fire, then they went into the sweat lodge where they’d be just as the full moon reached it peak.
The ceremony was private, and I was only invited to record the first part. Earlier though, Gonzales explained the temazcal, or sweat lodge practice, as she brewed tea and atole, a corn-based drink.
"Well the temazcal is pretty intense in that it heals on many fronts," she said. "Inside it works on several levels. It works on this physical body. If we start looking at it medicinally, it’s great to cleanse your lymphatic system, to cleanse toxins out of your body."
Gonzales said one idea central to curanderismo is that people need to take responsibility for their own healing. "On a spiritual level," she said, "when people are in the dark inside, they’re able to connect with themselves."
She studied the tradition at a school in Mexico for a few years but says her practice actually started a long time ago, when her mother and grandmother taught her how to use herbs to settle colic in babies or manzanilla (that’s chamomile) to help people sleep.
"The word 'curar' is to heal," she said, "so when we start thinking about that, for me, even when a mom touches your head, their intention is to be a curandera to help them feel better."
Gonzales said because of historical traumas—people’s roots being broken as they were asked to assimilate—curanderas were sometimes thought to be akin to witches. In recent years though, traditional healing is much more understood and accepted.
Gonzalez even provided videos for an online curanderismo class at the University of new Mexico taught by Professor Cheo Torres of the Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies Department.
The Spaniards came to Mexico in 1519, he said, and brought traditions with them that they had borrowed from the Moors. "The Natives had their own knowledge here. So there was a mixture of Native and Spanish knowledge," Torres added.
Over the years curanderismo has borrowed from Chinese medicine and other cultures. Today, it’s practiced in New Mexico, Mexico and South America.
"In many third-world countries," he said "it’s either this medicine or no medicine at all."
Professor Torres has been teaching curanderismo courses for 14 years now, since before the World Health Organization endorsed traditional medicine as a part of national health care systems about a decade ago. He says the tradition was being lost in the United States, but because it’s being researched now, people know more about it than at any other time.
"We’re beginning to see another type of curandero," he said. "Maybe they’re not called curanderos, but they know the traditions and they know the proper ways of working with curanderismo."
Torres gets treatments from these healers and participates in ceremonies to deal with aches and pains, and he takes herbal medications for minor ailments. "However if I’m really really sick, I rush to the hospital or to my physician," he said. "So you are able to use good judgment on whether you want to use traditional medicine or allopathic medicine."
Many physicians take his course and have an open mind about curanderismo. One of them is Dr. Anthony Fleg, who divides his time between the Family Community Medicine Department at UNM and the Sandia Pueblo Health Center.
"It’s hard when you spend many years basically being encultured into a profession," Fleg said.
Too often doctors and Western-trained providers may believe healing comes only from the pharmacy, he said, and can find traditional ideas challenging. "It’s very different, how to compare the things we’re really confident that work from a pharmacy to something that an abuelita’s making up as a tincture."
The conflict comes up, say, when a patient is taking an herbal cure for an ailment.
"I assume that if it is something they believe in and makes sense to them, I would encourage it," he said. "And ultimately, if that patient gets better, be willing to say it was probably a mixture of the two, the antibiotic from the pharmacy and the herbal remedy, probably worked together."
Dr. Fleg says there’s a richness where medicine intersects with culture, and in New Mexico, there’s always a mixture of perspectives on the body and health, including ceremonies and traditional healers, as well as the Western ways.
And he’s far from alone on this. Professor Torres’ online curanderismo course enrolled more than 33,000 people from 174 countries this fall.