Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Got Susto? Call a Curandera

What would you do if you had just experienced susto (magical fright or shock)?  How about mal de ojo (evil eye)?

Eggs, mint, and lemongrass, some of the items
that might be used by a curandera. Beth Morgan photo.
If you were among the Mexican-American population in the U.S. or Mexico who believe in curanderismo, you’d probably seek out a curandera or curandero, for a limpia (cleansing) or other ceremony to counteract the experience.

The ceremonies that I have heard of personally usually involve using an egg, which is passed over a person’s body—sometimes focusing only on a certain part—for cleansing. Usually, the egg is checked sometime later to see whether it is black, cooked, partly cooked, or unchanged.  Often, the egg is disposed of in a ritual manner.

“The use of the egg is quite common in curanderismo,” says Eliseo Torres, in his book Healing Herbs and Rituals: A Mexican Tradition. He explains that others who have gone before him suggest that the egg is an appropriate choice because, although it is used as a food, it also qualifies as a “sacrificial object,” being an animal cell.

Torres, a native of the Mexico/US border near Corpus Christi, Texas, is vice president of student affairs at the University of New Mexico. However, having grown up with this ancient, honorable, and for many, one of the few forms of accessible and affordable health care, Torres came to revere it so much he focused his studies on it and eventually earned a doctoral degree. He defines curanderismo as folk healing which arose around the time of contact between the Spanish and indigenous peoples of Mexico, although it contains some elements of Moorish tradition the Spanish apparently brought with them. It contains the idea that all healing comes from God, and thus, has strong, Judeo-Christian influences, as well as concepts and practices known to the indigenous populations of Mexico.

Some might consider curanderismo a thing of the past. However, this is not the case. While Torres has written extensively about a trio of well-known curanderos, one of whom was a woman exiled to the U.S. because of her political beliefs, he notes that curanderismo is alive and well today. He has worked with a curandera in Albuquerque and annually presents a class at UNM involving curanderas and students from around the country. I’ve also encountered people in my community who have studied curanderismo and traditional massage, and recently, I accessed the Facebook page of a Colorado curandera.

Why do I bring this up here? Well, because some of my mysteries’ characters will be clients of a curandera.  I’m sure that there are male practitioners out there. However, since I began hearing of these healers, I have heard only of the feminine variety, thus, my characters likely will work with a female healer.

Like many other systems of healing, curanderismo is thought to work on the physical, spiritual and mental planes.  Many curanderas, therefore, are those who treat only physical ailments. These folks are usually called hierberas, because they work with herbs. Those who use traditional massage (sobadoras) to treat physical illness may also treat issues affecting the nervous system or the mind. “That sobador might be said to operate on the psychic level as well,” Torres states.

Thus, when we speak of susto, we are not speaking of the medical condition of shock. We are referring to something more. From what I have read, this condition sounds very much like post–traumatic stress disorder, which can be deeply rooted and which may affect all areas of a person’s life. So, for people who are victimized in some way, or who have seen something they weren’t supposed to see, a consultation with a curandera may be just the thing to pull them back from the brink of madness.

You must wait a bit, if you want to know who consults a curandera in one of my Murders in the Mesilla Valley.  As always, your comments are welcomed.

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For more information about curanderismo, see Torres’ book mentioned above, and Curandero: A Life In Mexican Folk Healing, also by Torres, both published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 2006 and 2005, respectively. 
© Beth Morgan, October 2013