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.

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