The passion flower has medicinal uses that Amadahy is learning in her Curanderismo practice | Image source : Zainab Amadahy
In Spanish curar means “to heal”. Curanderismo is the art of healing. The practice of the southwest of the US and Mexico has a variety of origins and influences. These include:
- Mexica, Huaxtec, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and other Indigenous healing practices
- West and East African traditions brought by Black peoples once enslaved in the region and
- Islamic medical science, which was practiced in Spain until the Inquisition and infused with Asian and South Asian philosophies.
- Spanish folk medicine
Because all of these healing traditions differ in their approach to wellness you might expect some confusion if not contradictory approaches. Yet somehow they have all come together in a wondrous and effective set of practices. It would be difficult to explore all of the knowledges that contributed to present day curanderismo. In this post, we focus on the Mexica contributions.
From the first day the Spanish conquistadors set foot on Turtle Island they intentionally attempted to destroy the knowledges of the First Peoples. There is no argument on this fact. The historical record clearly spells out the barbaric methods and intentions of the colonizers. Like elsewhere in the Americas, not much remains of the original Indigenous medical system. Still, it is nothing short of miraculous that any record of the original healing practices survives at all.
The Mexica (often referred to as Aztecs) tend to be known in colonial culture for their pyramids, fierce warriors and practice of sacrificing humans to the gods. Like any other colonial version of Indigenous history, there are exaggerations, falsehoods and misinterpretations that, unfortunately, can’t be adequately addressed here. But Indigenous activists are taking back their histories and identities. Under told stories about the Mexica (pronounced May-SHI-ka) tell of their advanced levels of medical technology, agricultural skills, urban infrastructure and social organization.
The Mexica gardens were legendary on Turtle Island, larger than the Spaniards had ever encountered in their exploits around the world. Captivated by the abundance, fragrances and exquisite beauty colonizers wrote about and sketched these vast and splendid gardens in their journals. The botanical specimens included tens of thousands of herb and root remedies, classified and categorized in books that explained how to prepare the medicines and for what conditions. The Mexica also had healers that engaged in medical research, using volunteers from the community who would test out different plants to learn of their effect on various illnesses and disease.
Under orders from their Crown and edicts from the Catholic Church, the Spanish destroyed whole libraries of written texts, burned the great gardens and executed thousands of healers. Medicine people were forbidden to practice and many were tortured and murdered for disobeying such laws. Still, some of the knowledge survived, ironically in part due to the efforts of a few Spanish scholars who tried to capture what was left of the teachings centuries later. Mostly of what we now know came from practitioners who took their healing work underground and kept it there for centuries. Knowledge was passed down orally and through apprenticeships, mixing with other traditions, in order to attend to the wellbeing of communities.
The knowledge that is now available to us, though a fraction of what it was, is vast and takes a lifetime of learning to grasp. Even so, no curandera (or curandero if he is a man) has a complete knowledge. Still, according to Mexica philosophy, there were two causes to every illness: one was physical and the other was spiritual. The healers were grouped into categories accordingly. Though both groups used spiritual tools to get their work done, one group tended to rely more on material resources (plants, food, massage, cupping, clay and other medicines) to support healing for their clients. The other group engaged exclusively in spiritual practices, seeking out wellness solutions through ritual, ceremony, consultation with Spirit Beings and traveling across time for insight, as examples. This latter group might use songs, rattles, drums, hallucinogenic plants and other inputs to alter their states of consciousness so they could receive the answers they sought on behalf of clients. Remedies for illnesses might involve clients offering prayers to specific gods, going on vision quests, fasting, visiting sacred sights, performing rituals to seek ancestral help and/or any combination of the above.
Another feature of Mexica medicine was the belief that wellness required you to schedule your time in a very specific way. Ideally, 70% of your activities were to be devoted to physical, mental and spiritual self-care, while the remaining 30% would be devoted to serving family and community. Self-care wasn’t about seeking external pleasures so much as it was about educating yourself, expanding your wisdom and deepening your relationships with the gods and other Spirit Beings. Also, participating in communal ceremonies and family rituals was a form of self-care — as was sleep. Whether this division of time was possible for all classes of people is a question. Certainly some folks worked harder than others as the Mexica had urban populations of rulers, priestesses/priests, artisans and warriors who benefitted from the work of the majority that produced food, clothing and shelter. Nevertheless, that ratio of time management was set out as the ideal.
In any case, today’s curanderas specialize in different practices or combinations of practices. There are midwives, herbalists, massage therapists, bonesetters, tarot readers, mediums, cuppers (which we’ll look at later in the series) and so many more. All of them engage in spiritual healing practices that involve rituals, ceremonies, consulting Spirit Beings and other practices. Many hold medical credentials in nursing, naturopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, reiki and so on.
Furthermore, some of today’s healers have relationships with the Catholic Church or other Christian denominations that are fraught with tension. Though they may identify as Christians and might be affiliated with churches, they and their work are often maligned, denigrated and ridiculed. Others might identify with non-Christian belief systems such as Buddhism, Santeria or a specific Indigenous medicine practice. The identities, beliefs, philosophies and practitioners are quite hybridized.
Still there are many people who seek out the services of curanderas, returning over and over again, to get their wellness needs met. The practice continues to survive and adapt itself to the wellness needs of communities. One can only conclude it is fulfilling a purpose.
In my next post, we’ll explore the concept of “being medicine”. Until then, be well.
Read more from Zainab Amadahy here.