This Date in UCSF History: The Usefulness of Curanderismo

[Originally published in Synapse - The UCSF student newspaper, May 4, 1978] The type of medicine practiced in one environment may be fairly appropriate for that one area, but to assume that it equally applies to another culture is highly questionable. This idea is well illustrated by the existence and success of the Mexican curanderos or folk healers. These semispiritualistic traditional folk psychiatrists and general practitioners provide a service that is highly needed and with apparent success to a people that would otherwise lack some medical attention.

Their function within the social structure is sanctioned by tradition and by the constant contemporary necessity. Efforts by western medicine to supplant these curers have not succeeded because western medicine does not offer a viable replacement for the curandero's services.

Curanderos practice a sort of herb medicine mixed with prayers, incantations, some witchcraft and shamanism, and much counseling.

Some of these men and women feel “chosen” and empowered by God to help their people. Others came to learn about herbs due to their curiosity and the availability of one who would teach them.

Many curanderos have learned by apprenticeship and others are self-taught by experience, experimentation, and visions. There is a tradition of legends and histories of great curanderos such as Don Pedrito Jaramillo who used only prayers and holy water and was said to have cured hundreds.

Curanderos today are found in Mexico and in the border states of the southwestern United States (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California). They exist in the highly culturally isolated barrios and are supported by a faith that people will not give up easily.

Thus a Chicana in East Los Angeles or San Antonio, Texas, might have access to western American doctors (though many probably do not have adequate access), but she also has curanderos to resort to.

People will see both and follow the advice of each, often mixing both treatments. A doctor's shot is accepted and the next day a curandero's herb teas and spiritualistic advice is sought.

People make difficult trips to Mexican' and other northern Mexico towns to see a specially renowned curandero. The folk syndromes that often call for a curandero are various.

They involve both physical and emotional anguish. Susto or espanto (literally: fright) is a common problem. Youngsters and pregnant women supposedly are especially susceptible.

A cure may range from a drink of water to complex prayers, teas, and rituals depending on the severity. Magical etiologies exist for mal ojo (evil eye) and for mat aire (bad air).

In evil eye someone can inflict evil on a child by looking at him. Symptoms may vary from fitful sleep, crying a great deal without apparent cause, and diarrhea, to vomiting, and fever.

Procedures with some eggs, incantations, and prayers are utilized. Bad air involves neck cricks, facial twisting, or paralysis. These are taught to be brought on by evil spirits in the winds.

The treatment varies. Sobadas (massages) topical application of oil, liniments, and herb mixtures and heat might be called on.

Other problems such as empacho (surfeit), bilis (anger, literally “bile”), and nervios (nerves), may require purgatives, special diets, much counseling, changes in environment, and more prayers.

The strength of the beliefs that buttress the curandero’s practice comes from culturally reinforced ideas found in a special view of what it means to be sick.

Curanderos and their patients see illness in a religious and social context rather than strictly in the medical-scientific perspective of the Anglo society.

To Western men, illness is an impersonal event brought about by neutral, non-emotional, natural agents, such as germs.

To a Chicano illness related to an individual’s life, his community, his interpersonal relationships, and to his God. In such a view illness is a social event as well as a biological reality.

In fact, many of the consultations with a curandero come about through a referral system whereby neighbors and friends of the family advise and recommend what could be done to cure someone.

Families are very concerned with the sick person and the family ties are reinforced by this approach. Therefore, therapy, besides appeasing the physical discomfort, involves restoration of the individual to a position where he can function in his social role.

Another important aspect of curanderismo is that many of the herb teas and rubbing cures are mixed with religious symbolism, ritual, and talk sessions. As such, the consultation is akin to a confession (important in the Catholic tradition).

It involves expression of intimacies normally barred from conversation, the admittance of error, and the catharsis for guilt. Someone pays attention to the person and takes responsibility for the treatment.

These folk healers are excellent psychiatrists because they confront psychological, and psychosomatic problems in a manner that does not place negative stigmas oh the patients.

Many of the problems would easily be categorized by an American doctor as psychotic or paranoiac. This difference is but one reason that the curanderos cannot be easily replaced by western medicine.

Treatment under the American health system would tend to pull the person out of his culture and into some strange looking room with its sterile environment.

The very fact that the curanderos are part of the culture makes them more sensitive to many of the psychological pressures placed on the patients by their culture and by other cultures.

In most cases the treatment is a specific set of techniques learned over time that are designed to allay anxiety and relieve fear within a cultural context. It is this cultural context that is the key.

As Kiev puts it, “Illness must be considered an integral part of the motivational economy of the social system. Therapy also must be treated as part of the motivational balance of the social system.”

Each individual is a delicate balance of emotions, beliefs, hopes, and fears. Most of these are culturally ingrained though there is plenty of individual variability.

When a patient loses confidence in himself — whether from a psychological depression or as a result of physical disability — it is this confidence which must be restored if he is to be well and active.

Methods for treatment have to be seen in the cultural context. We all have ideas of what we believe causes illness. We have doubts and beliefs about the truth and untruth of the supernatural.

The Mexican-American culture has a system which restores strength to the sick person because, of belief in its power. This medicine will continue to be a strong factor in some people’s lives.

Doctors practicing in Mexican-American communities must keep this in mind. Many bad experiences with western medicine, impatience from lack of results, and scary and costly procedures have led to a basic distrust.

These curanderos provide a service of importance to the community. They continue to exist because their practice works and the need is there.

We do not know enough about the mind and its healing abilities. If it helps some people, a given method seems worthwhile.

The curanderos with their more wholesome and personal approach to disease have much to teach western medicine.