Curanderos, Shamans, and Plant-Based Remedies

Maybe everyone grows up with a narrow framework for deciding what is normal, what is exotic, and what is abnormal. I certainly did. When I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, in my early twenties, there were many things about life there that seemed exotic to me. Some things, like mangoes and papayas, became normal to my expanding Texan mind, but wherever I look, even after many years, there are sights to see, foods to try, experiences to have, and ideas to explore that still amaze me.

Back in North Texas, sweet iced tea was the only tea I knew anything about, and home remedies were limited to merthiolate and mentholatum. We went to the doctor for just about anything that couldn’t be treated with those smelly substances. The doctor would prescribe dreaded shots, pills, or terrible-tasting liquids in mysterious-looking bottes. If all else failed, he (the doctor was always a “he” when I was a child) would put you in the hospital, cut some part of you open, do some sort of magic, and then sew you back up.

In Mexico, even though my husband was a medical student in a conventional medical school, I learned about a surprising number of alternative remedies that didn’t involve a health professional. In addition to Vicks Vaporub in Mamá’s ropero, there was manzanilla (chamomile) tea in the kitchen to relieve tummy aches and te de tila (linden flower tea) to calm down an overwrought family member. A savila (aloe vera cactus) plant in the patio was snipped as needed for healing gel to treat burns from the sun, the kitchen, or naughty kids playing with matches. American cough syrup reeks of eucalyptus oil, but in Mexico you can buy dried eucalyptus leaves in the mercado and make a potion to drink or gargle as needed. Common cooking ingredients like vinegar, cinnamon, and onions, do double duty as home remedies for all kinds of ailments. Agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower water) has medicinal uses, like lowering blood pressure, but it is more commonly just cooled, sweetened, and served as a beverage.

There is renewed worldwide interest in ancient healing practices, as chemically distilled herbs and other substances, what we call medicines, start to let us down. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and drugs with side effects worse than the diseases they purport to remedy make headlines and cause professionals and laypeople alike to wonder if we maybe threw out a lot of proverbial babies with the proverbial bathwater of old-fashioned remedies. Modern surgical techniques indeed work miracles, but at their very finest, they are alarmingly crude and risky and always leave a scar, no matter how imperceptible.

With renewed interest in healing foods and herbs comes a revival of interest in ancient healers throughout Latin America and wherever remnants of ancient cultures are kept alive. This revival has created a burgeoning industry of shaman-seeking tourism, and with it flourishing business opportunities for neoshamans and faux shamans. Nevertheless, among Mexicans, many city people and most rural residents know where to find at least one authentic curandero. I was shocked to learn that my educated cosmopolitan Mexican friends and family members, whom I saw as perfectly normal and modern by my small-town Texas standards, thought nothing of scheduling a limpia (cleansing) before moving into a new house or after a run of bad luck, and they knew exactly which shaman, or curandero, of their acquaintance could do it.

Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, a researcher at The University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) has published a beautiful, informative, and useful book with the title Plants Used in Mexican Traditional Medicine. It has a brief history of traditional medicine in Mexico, an alphabetical list of plants used for healing, with their scientific names, some of their common names, and photographs of most of them.


An old story that circulates wherever translators gather goes like this.

A Mexican who knew a little English owned a bar in a pueblo near the border. As a rainstorm was approaching, a gringo tourist hustled into the bar. The barkeeper was happy because he knew just what to say.

“Between! Between!” he shouted enthusiastically. “Drink a chair! Here comes the water zero!”  (“Entre! Entre! Tome una silla. Ahi viene el aguacero!”)

Once in awhile, a person will ask me for a word-for-word translation. There may be such a thing, as the hapless barkeeper demonstrated, but the results are often not conducive to effective communication. “Just tell me what it SAYS,” shouts an exasperated client as I try to explain a complex and ambiguous passage.

A translator’s work is to get meaning from the source language and convey the same meaning in a different language. Often, the distance is not great between the words of one language and another language, but sometimes the search for meaning leads to something that is quite different from the source.

Use online translators and bilingual dictionaries with caution, and preferably with adult supervision–someone with enough knowledge of source and target languages to warn you of snafus like these:

  • “Enchufe de los Muebles del Hotel” (Hotel Furniture Outlet)
  • “Meat in your juice” (Carnes en su jugo)
  • “Foot of Lemon” (Pie de Limon)
  • “Hecho en Pavo” (Made in Turkey)
  • “Fresh picture” (Pintura fresca)
  • “Hierro chulo” (Cool iron)
  • “Pope with spicy Mexican sausage” (Papa con chorizo)
  • “To Rome” (aroma)

And from the Chinese translators

  • “Chicken rude and unreasonable” (Jerk chicken)
  • “I can’t find on google but it’s delicious” (Menu item in Chinese)





My Spanish teachers liked to show off their advanced knowledge of linguistics with long impressive words like esdrújula, sobreesdrújula, and penultimate. So, I gave up on comprehending those little marks and just did my best to learn words visually, accent mark and all. When in doubt I sprinkled marks randomly like salt and pepper to give my writing that Spanish-ey flavor.

There are many fascinating things that linguists know about language in general and accent marks in particular, but I will not go into that here because if your goal is to speak and understand Spanish in the real world, you can take courage from knowing that most Spanish-speaking four-year-olds and a few two-and-three-year-olds have already mastered more than you will ever need to know in order to reach your goal, and those pre-schoolers have not yet even heard the word esdrújula. If you forego the big impressive words, the facts are really very simple:

An accent mark on a syllable indicates that the marked syllable is to be stressed in the word. So canción will be pronounced something like this: kahnSYON. Well, then, what about all those words that don’t have an accent mark? We can divide those words into two major groups:

  1. Words that end in a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) or the consonants n or s. These words will be stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Ricardo)
  2. Words that end in any letter other than the ones in the first group. These words will be stressed on the last syllable. (arroz)

Accent marks have a few other uses, such as distinguishing between one-syllable words that are spelled alike but have different meanings, like (yes) and si (if).

They also indicate whether two vowels together make a diphthong (no mark) or should be pronounced individually (María).

Now you know.










(Insurgente mexicano ataca a soldado francés, Batalla de Puebla, 5 de mayo de 1862)

La evolución de Cinco de Mayo, de un reconocimiento de menor importancia en México, a una borrachera rampante latina-chicana-estadounidense es un misterio a los que vivimos en México. El 5 de mayo de 1862, un ejército insurgente mexicano venció sorpresiva y rotundamente en la ciudad de Puebla a invasores franceses bien uniformados y equipados. Sin embargo, en 1862 faltaba mucho para que la campaña de los imperialistas mexicanos y europeos para extender el Imperio Napoleónico hasta México fuera derrocada por completo.

Me irrita la emoción excesiva que rodea el Cinco de Mayo, pero a mí me irrita la emoción excesiva en general. Sin embargo, cuando me encontré dando clases de español en un pequeño pueblo tejano, era imposible escaparme del alboroto de Cinco de Mayo. En el colegio, se permitían festejos en el aula en determinadas fechas con fines didácticos y culturales. “A propósito, ¿cuándo es el Cinco de Mayo?” me preguntó el director, cuyos talentos radicaban más bien en las matemáticas que en lenguas y culturas extranjeras.

Los alumnos de preparatoria no perdonarán nunca a la profesora que pasa por alto una oportunidad para traer comida al salón, así que yo, a regañadientes, planeaba una fiesta para celebrar el Cinco de Mayo en honor a taquitos y Coca-Cola. En el closet, mi antecesor había dejado papel cortado en rojo, verde, y blanco, unas banderas mexicanas, y unos serapes y sombreros cuyos días de gloria habían pasado ya hace mucho tiempo. Desempolvé todo y puse a los alumnos a decorar el aula para justificar una pequeña fiesta en horas cuando, de manera contraria, hubiera sido prohibida.

Mucho antes de aceptar dicha asignatura docente, yo había vivido en México, donde el Cinco de Mayo no es un día de fiesta oficial. Los profesores de historia mencionaban la Batalla de Puebla en sus clases, en televisión se proyectaban documentales anticuados, y los periódicos sacaban uno o dos comentarios editoriales de sus archivos. En la Ciudad de Puebla, sitio de la batalla, hay conmemoraciones modestas. De vez en cuando, el Día del Trabajo, primero de mayo, que sí es un día feriado oficial, se juntaba con un fin de semana y el Cinco de Mayo de modo que daba pretexto para un puente, siempre recibido con regocijo por profesores y alumnos quienes en mayo luchan para sobrevivir el final del año escolar. Tal es la emoción en México para el Cinco de Mayo.

Determinada que los alumnos cuando menos comprenderían que el Cinco de Mayo NO es el Dia de la Independencia de México, yo buscaba la única herramienta docente a la cual prestarían atención durante una fiesta: una película. Encontré una que era entretenida e informativa, cuando menos para mi y algunos adolescentes aficionados de la historia mundial. En Juárez, lanzada en 1939, Bette Davis, estrella icónica con ojos enormes de los primeros días de la industria cinematográfica, destacaba en el papel de la hermosa Carlota de Bélgica, también de ojos enormes pero de triste porvenir, quien junto a su igualmente desventurado archiduque de Hapsburgo, Maximiliano de Austria, ocupaba el trono imperial en el Castillo de Chapultepec desde 1864 hasta 1867, cuando el Presidente Benito Juárez, finalmente victorioso, trasladó el sede de su gobierno desde su carroza al Palacio de Gobierno en la ciudad de México, y ordenó la abdicación del Emperador. Cuando Maximiliano rehusó por cuestion de honor, Juárez lo mandó a fusilar junto con Miramón y Mejía, sus fieles generales imperialistas.

El caso es que la victoria sorprendente en Puebla el 5 de mayo de 1862 había sido tan amarga como dulce. Los franceses y los imperialistas redoblaron sus esfuerzos, empeñándose aún más en prevalecer en el continente americano. La película detalla más o menos fielmente la lucha de México para mantener su independencia, y los hechos de Benito Juárez, celebrado como heroe de aquella lucha. Juárez era un gran admirador de Abraham Lincoln, un detalle que no ignoraron los cineastas.

Como estudiante del español en la secundaria, me había fascinado una ilustración en el libro de texto de Carlota luciendo un vestido de muchos olanes y una diadema que relucía en su hermosa cabellera. México, a solo un día de viaje de mi pueblo en Texas, ¡había sido gobernado por unos verdaderos Emperadores quienes vivían en un verdadero castillo, el de Chapultepec! Pasarían muchos anos para que yo me diera cuenta que esa noticia no era nada buena.

“Mamá, ¿qué onda con eso del Cinco de Mayo?” me preguntaban mis hijos poco después de trasladarnos a Texas desde Guadalajara. “La profesora de español quiere que les expliquemos a sus clases como celebrábamos esa fiesta asombrosa en Mexico.”

“Díganles,” les dije, “que la celebrábamos más o menos como se celebra aquí la Batalla de Gettysburg.”

Mexicanos en todo el mundo fuera de Mexico ahora celebran el Cinco de Mayo, en compañía de no-mexicanos quienes buscan una excusa para beber tequila y comer guacamole. Conmemoran una batalla mexicana, mientras que en México la gente hace lo que hace en cualquier día común y corriente.

Lectura sugerida: Abraham Lincoln and Mexico por Michael Hogan

Un corto antiguo de la película Juárez

Un documental excelente sobre los Emperadores de Mexico y los 60 años de locura de Carlota



“Shipwrecked” by Joanna C. Cooke

Joanna C. Cooke says, “I am a passionate artist who believes in re-using and up-scaling outdated things people get rid of to create new and beautiful projects.”

Joanna is a Canadian artist who now makes her home in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. “Some challenging experiences gave me a greater knowledge of what life is about and taught me to follow my dreams and never give up,” she adds. Joanna describes her early life on Canada’s west coast in British Columbia as that of a “fairly untamed, creative beach baby.” She envisions making a more beautiful world, re-created in part from objects that people discard. She shares that vision in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, where for the past decade she says she has “found a place where her heart, soul, body and mind flourish and yearn to be.”

She continues, “My work with the Shamans as a Solar Initiate of the Itza Maya is very profound and has left an impact of the greater wisdom of the cosmic universe and knowledge of the ancients. My studies as a Mayan Day Keeper (keeping track of the days of the Maya calendar) for close to 15 years has gifted  me with a resonance to the stars, a deeper connection to all living beings, plant, mineral, human, animal, earth sky and water, and myself.” Sacred Geometry is a common thread of Joanna’s work in familiar forms like sunflowers, as well as abstract complex geometric designs. She finds inspiration in “the mystery of the ocean, the warmth of the sun, and the light of the stars and moon in the night skies.”

Her formal education includes Color Therapy and Crystal Therapy. She mentored with Canadian artists James Picard and Robert Genn, and studied at San Miguel de Allende and Langara College. At Vancouver Community College she learned jewelry design and goldsmithing.

Her paintings and art installations have been exhibited in Canada, Mexico, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. Her labyrinth work was featured on HGTV’s “That’s Clever” and in an article in “Labyrinths of British Columbia–A Guide for Your Journey.”

I joined Joanna and an enthusiastic group of women one balmy Tuesday afternoon at La Sirena Restaurant. A long table, set with easels and canvases was ready for us on the restaurant balcony with a view of the turquoise water of the Caribbean. She provided brushes, paint, water and a painting for inspiration. The restaurant served cocktails and wine. With Joanna’s gentle encouragement and as much or little instruction as we wanted, each of us produced something that looked a little like her professional rendering of the lopsided lighthouse, icon of Puerto Morelos. The damaged lighthouse commemorates the fishing village’s “Never Give Up” spirit after Hurricane Beulah almost erased it from the map in 1967. We relaxed bodies, minds, and spirits, focusing on the magic of paint, brushes, canvases, and our own hands to create beautiful and satisfying shapes and colors.

Artsy Cocktails is just one of the many ways that Joanna C. Cooke shares her gifts and insights in the Riviera Maya. She offers classes, workshops, retreats, private sessions, 3D installations, and collaborative projects. Her long-term visions and goals include the creation of an Artists’ Retreat Center in Puerto Morelos with a focus on healing and learning to re-use resources. A limited number of her paintings are displayed and available for purchase at El Nicho and Chilpayas restaurants. Her future plans include creating functional and decorative home art from garbage and beach finds for a gallery space opening soon in Puerto Morelos. and leading a community project to create a house in the jungle using only garbage.

JEWEL OF THE MUDRA by Joanna C. Cooke

Joanna says she has been brought to Puerto Morelos “as if by a hand of fate over the past decade.” I wonder if that hand of fate brought me to the balcony of La Sirena Restaurant on a balmy Tuesday afternoon.

See more about Joanna C Cooke at





“Naufragio” por Joanna C. Cooke

“Soy una artista apasionada. Creo en el uso de objetos descartados para crear cosa nuevas y hermosas,” dice Joanna C. Cooke.

Joanna C. Cooke es una artista canadiense quien hoy en día vive en Puerto Morelos, México. “Algunos desafíos en la vida me hicieron ver con mas claridad el sentido de a vida y me ensenaron que debo seguir mis sueños y nunca rendirme.” Describe su infancia en la costa oeste de Canadá como la de “una niña de playa no muy domada.” Su visión es de un mundo más hermoso recreado en parte de cosas que la gente suele tirar a la basura. Comparte su visión en Puerto Morelos, México, donde por una década ella dice que ha “encontrado un lugar donde mi corazón, alma, cuerpo y mente florecen y añoran estar.”

“Mi trabajo con los Samanes como Iniciada Solar de los Maya Itzá es muy profundo,” sigue, “y ha dejado un impacto de la sabiduría mayor del universo cósmico y de conocimiento de los antepasados. Mis estudios como Guardadora de Días Maya (siguiendo los días del calendario maya) durante casi 15 anos me ha otorgado resonancia a las estrellas y un nexo más profundo a todos los seres vivientes, plantas, minerales, humanos, animales, tierra, cielo, agua, y a mi misma.” La Geometría Sagrada es un hilo común en el trabajo de Joanna, manifestándose tanto en formas conocidas como el girasol como en diseños geométricos complejos. Joanna se inspira en “el misterio del mar, el calor del sol, y la luz de las estrellas y la luna en el cielo nocturno.”

Sus estudios formales incluyen Terapia de Color y Terapia de Cristales. Sus mentores son James Picard y Robert Genn, artistas canadienses. También estudio en San Miguel de Allende y Langara College. Aprendió diseño de joyería y orfebrería en Vancouver Community College.

Sus pinturas y construcciones artísticos se han exhibido en Canadá, México, Japón, Holanda, Suiza, y los Estados Unidos. Sus laberintos se presentaron en el programa “That’s Clever” de HGTV y en un artículo en “Labyrinths of British Columbia–A Guide for Your Journey.”

Me reuní con Joanna y un grupo entusiasta de mujeres en La Sirena Restaurante un martes tropical. Ya estaba preparada una mesa larga con caballetes y lonas en el balcón del restaurante con vista de las aguas turquesas del Caribe. Joanna nos proporcionaba pintura, pinceles, agua, y una pintura para copiar o para inspiración. Nos sirvieron vino y cocteles. Con la mano suave de nuestra maestra y cuanta instrucción deseábamos, todas terminamos con algo que parecía cuando menos un poco al imagen profesional del faro chueco, símbolo de Puerto Morelos. El faro dañado conmemora el espíritu de “Nunca rendirse” del pueblo de pescadores cuando el Huracán Beulah casi lo borra del mapa en 1967. Las participantes nos relajamos en cuerpo, mente, y espíritu, enfocándonos en la magia de pintura, pinceles, lonas, y nuestras propias manos para crear formas y colores hermosos y satisfactorios.

Artsy Cocktails (Cocteles Artísticos) es solamente una de las muchas maneras en que Joanna C. Cooke comparte sus dones y sabiduría en la Riviera Maya. Ofrece clases, talleres, retiros, sesiones particulares, instalaciones de tres dimensiones, y proyectos colaborativos. Su visión y sus metas a largo plazo incluyen la creación de un Centro de Retiro para Artistas en Puerto Morelos con un enfoque en salud y en usar cosas descartadas en nuevas formas. Un numero limitado de sus pinturas se exhiben y se pueden comprar en los restaurantes El Nicho y Chilpayas. Sus planes para el futuro incluyen la creación de arte funcional y decorativo para el hogar, utilizando basura y cosas encontradas en la playa. Este arte se podrá ver en una galería que está próxima a abrir en Puerto Morelos. También tiene en la mira un proyecto comunitario para crear una casa en la selva utilizando basura solamente.

Joanna dice que una mano del destino la ha traído a Puerto Morelos durante la década pasada. Yo me pregunto si esa mano del destino fue la que me trajo al balcón de La Sirena un martes cálido por la tarde.

JEWEL OF THE MUDRA por Joanna C. Cooke

Mas acerca de Joanna C Cooke





(Mexican insurgent attacking French soldier, Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862))

The evolution of Cinco de Mayo, a minor recognition of the Battle of Puebla, into a United States-Latino-Chicano drink-fest is something of a mystery to people in Mexico. On May 5, 1862, an insurgent Mexican army surprisingly and soundly drove impressively equipped and uniformed French invaders out of the city of Puebla. However, in 1862, the attempt to extend Napoleon’s Empire to Mexico was far from over.

I am annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding Cinco de Mayo, but I am annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding anything. However, when I became a Spanish teacher in a small Texas town, I could not escape Cinco frenzy. The school allowed Spanish teachers to have classroom parties for cultural objectives on certain days. “When is Cinco de Mayo anyhow?” the principal asked as we worked out the calendar for a new school year.

High school students will never forgive a teacher who passes up an occasion to bring food to class, so I reluctantly planned a Cinco fiesta for the sake of taquitos and cokes. I dug red, white, and green cut paper, some Mexican flags and a few overworked serapes out of the closet to justify a little feast during otherwise forbidden school hours.

Long before taking that Spanish job, I had lived in Mexico, where Cinco de Mayo is not an official holiday. History teachers mentioned the Battle of Puebla in their classes on that day, television stations projected stock history documentaries, and newspapers published a perfunctory editorial or two from their archives. In Puebla, where the battle took place, there are muted celebrations. Sometimes May 1, Labor Day, which is a holiday in Mexico, and May 5, Mexico’s semi-holiday would come together with a weekend to give a pretext for a puente, a five-day weekend bridge, always welcomed joyfully by teachers and students struggling toward the finish of another school year. That was the extent of excitement about Cinco de Mayo.

Determined that students should at least know that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, I searched for the only teaching tool that students will possibly pay attention to on party day: a movie. I found one that was both entertaining and enlightening–at least to me and a few adolescent history buffs. Juarez, a 1939 release, featured Bette Davis, big-eyed iconic film star from the early days of cinema, as the beautiful but unfortunate Charlotte of Belgium, who, with her hapless Hapsburg husband, Maximilian of Austria, occupied the imperial throne in Chapultepec Castle from 1864 to 1867. That was when President Benito Juarez ordered the execution by firing squad of Maximilian, who refused to abdicate even in the face of defeat.

You see, that surprising Mexican victory back on May 5, 1862, in the city of Puebla, had been bittersweet. It was followed by a long, hard struggle to drive out the invading French. If, like me, you are a somewhat lazy aficionado of history, a Napoleonic Time Line might be just what you need to better understand what was happening in Mexico while our ancestors north of the border were killing each other over the legality of trafficking in human beings.

The celebrated victory at the Battle of Puebla had the unhappy short-term effect of causing the French, backed by Mexican Imperialists, to dig their heels in even deeper, wanting to prove they could prevail on the American continent. The movie provides more or less true-to-history details about Mexico’s fight to remain independent, and about Benito Juarez, the leader who is celebrated as the hero of that struggle. Juarez was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, a detail not lost on the moviemakers.

As a ninth-grade student of Spanish, I was fascinated by a textbook picture of Carlota in overlapping ruffles and a crown. Mexico, just a day’s drive away from my home in Texas, had been ruled by a real Emperor and Empress, who lived in a real castle at Chapultepec. Many years would go by before I knew for sure that this was NOT a good thing.

“Mom, what is the big deal about Cinco de Mayo?” my kids had asked just after we moved to Texas from Guadalajara, Mexico. “The Spanish teacher wants us to tell her classes how we celebrated this amazing festival in Mexico.”

“Tell them,” I said, “that you celebrated it pretty much the same way they celebrate the Battle of Gettysburg.”

Mexicans all over the world, with the exception of Mexico, now celebrate Cinco de Mayo, joined by non-Mexicans looking for an excuse to drink tequila and eat guacamole. They commemorate a battle that happened in Mexico, while Mexicans themselves are doing whatever they do on any other ordinary day.

Suggested reading: Abraham Lincoln and Mexico by Michael Hogan

A vintage trailer for the 1939 movie, Juarez

An excellent documentary on the Emperors of Mexico and Carlota’s 60 years of madness

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