Curanderismo: Mexican Folk Healers

Healing from the Soul

By Shirley Vanderbilt

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2001.

Guadalupe Dominges was born in Taos, New Mexico, into a family of Hispanic folk healers known as curanderos. After being called “baby” for the first month of her life, her parents took her to church for the Feast of Guadalupe, where the local priest chose her name. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint for many curanderos, folk medicine practitioners, and the most beloved by Mexicans.1 As a young child, Guadalupe Teofista Valerio — both Guadalupe and Teofista (Greek) meaning daughter of God — began training in the healing arts under the tutelage of her grandmother. “Doctors were scarce,” said Dominges in an interview from her Taos home. “We had to rely on using plant life to survive illness, diseases, even fractures.” In addition to learning about healing plants and their usage, Dominges was taught the skills of a sobadora, from the Spanish word sobar, meaning to massage or touch.

“The work that is done is similar to Shiatsu,” said Dominges, describing the techniques of massage, stimulation and acupressure work for the hands and feet, head and neck. “I was taught how to apply the work and never to touch anyone without asking their permission. My grandmother showed me there were differences in how the toxic energy felt, where we held different types of energies. Holding on to the energy is what makes your body toxic. It all comes into the abdomen, and to us the core of healing is your abdominal space. I never touch extremities until I have resolved what is going on in the abdominal space.”

Curanderismo is a holistic approach in which the focal point of the healer’s work is the soul and its connection to God. “In the work my grandmother showed me,” said Dominges, “you never think of curing anyone, because we are not the healers. God is the healer and all we are really doing is mirroring back to the people how they manifested their problem. If I don’t point this out, you will continue to have pain — it won’t leave you until you decide to do something about what is going on at the emotional and spiritual level.”

Among the curandero’s tools, the most important is the heart. The tangible implements are symbols of the healer’s spiritual faith and relationship to Mother Earth. There is a great awareness of ceremony, honoring nature and making offerings of gratitude. Natural elements are brought into physical healing with the use of feathers, rocks, crystals and wood. For limpias (energy cleansings), sage, cedar, juniper or copal (resin) are burned to make purifying smoke. Naturally fertilized or organic eggs, salt, cornmeal, water and soil are also used for limpias. Alters contain symbols of the four elements — earth, water, fire and air — and other articles illustrative of forces called upon to assist in healing. Candles with pictures of saints, religious statues, flowers and herbs are included.2 Everything in the curandero’s healing practice and lifestyle is infused with a relationship to nature and God.

In the tradition of Hispanic culture, curanderismo is used by all family members within the home, but only the one with the don (gift) will become a curandera or curandero in the public sense, providing healing to the whole community. Typically, curanderos inherit their healing powers from the previous generation, but at times someone outside the family may be blessed with the gift. In Dominges’ recent family history, the title had skipped every other generation.

When the family’s Indian medicine blanket that had been passed down from Dominges’ great-great-grandfather, a curandero, was presented to her by her grandmother, “I knew that I was the selected one,” said Dominges. “Until then, I was just hanging out with Grandma, not that I was seeking the title in any way.” Dominges began working as a curandera in her community at the young age of 14. As with most curanderos, she does not advertise her practice or hang out a sign. Her large clientele has been built solely through word of mouth.

In 1995, Dominges became a licensed massage therapist. “My clients pressured me to do this because their insurance wouldn’t pay. They said, ‘We have to go to the massage therapist to get touched and come to you to get healed.’ I did it for my own benefit, too,” she said, commenting on the advantages of taking courses in anatomy and physiology and learning other modalities. Dominges received her MT training at the Scherer Institute of Natural Healing in New Mexico, where she now teaches classes. Although she sometimes incorporates the new techniques she has learned, she continues to practice primarily in the tradition of her grandmother, noting that it benefits people more quickly. “But I can’t always practice like her,” said Dominges. “Because I am a licensed MT, I have to also honor that training.”

The Curanderos

Curanderismo evolved in the Americas as the cultures of Spanish immigrants, indigenous tribes and African slaves came together. The Spanish arrived with advanced healing methods including herbology and duality theories of body humors, as well as spiritual beliefs in curses, possession and Godly punishment for sins. These concepts blended with those of Aztec, Mayan and southwestern Indian tribes whose medical approach was holistic and earth-oriented. With the importation of African slaves came similar indigenous beliefs of spiritual energy and earth-based rituals.3 Thus, curanderismo is not only a blending of cultural roots, but also a continuation of each culture’s ancestral ways. The legitimacy of this rich medical inheritance is perpetuated through the actions of curandero and patient, conveying value on their ethnic healing norms.4

This blending of healing practices is evident in Dominges’ family history, with the inheritance of her Indian medicine blanket. “We are native to the land in more than one way,” she said, suggesting that in addition to her Hispanic roots, some of her ancestors may have been Pueblo Indians from the area. Speaking of some of the practices used in her family, she said, “Who gave it to us is not really known, but we honor those people every time we take a recipe, with the knowledge that Holy Spirit enabled them to create this cure.”

Dominges’ specialty, sobadora, is just one of a group of categories defining curanderos. The sobador uses hands-on healing of massage and acupressure, working especially with the stomach and digestive tract, and relies on herbal treatments as needed. In contrast, the hierbalisto (herbalist) uses herbs alone and does not work on the patient manually.5 A partera is a midwife who provides pre- and postnatal care but also uses herbs in her practice.6 Similar to a chiropractor, the huesero specializes in muscle and bone manipulation7, providing spinal adjustments and setting dislocated joints.8 Although all curanderos may use pláticas (heart to heart talks) with their patient, one who specifically counsels is called a consejero.9

Empowering People

Among various villages, there may be other titles and practices10, but throughout the world of curanderismo there is the curandero total, one with extensive experience who practices all the various subspecialties. Dominges uses the term curandero mayor (major or chief). “Curandero or curandera is a big title,” said Dominges. “Mayor is one who has already used and practiced the techniques...herbs, counseling, adjusting bones, healing and other things. They don’t use witchcraft, but they know how to reverse it.” The use of mayor is a reflection of the language of her ancestors. “In this area where we live, we are accused of speaking 17th century Spanish,” said Dominges, noting that the terminology common in New Mexico and southern Colorado has not changed in the past 500 years. Farther south into Mexico and beyond, there has been a transition in the meaning of many Spanish words.

In describing the curandero’s work, Dominges said, “We empower people to look at their emotional, physical and spiritual life so their bodies will heal.” Many of the patients she works with are women who have experienced rape, domestic violence or other traumatic events such as stillbirths or abortions. With these women, she said, “You have to go to the core of why all this has happened. They can be victims of victims. The key factors in this kind of work are forgiveness and loving.” Dominges encourages the patient to forgive herself, to ask forgiveness of others, and to forgive the one who has inflicted pain on her. As part of the healing, she also encourages the woman to express love in these same three aspects. In novena (nine is an important number in curanderismo), she gives nine sessions, three days apart, focusing on memory within the body cells, helping her patient to let go of old issues. By working with forgiveness and safe physical touch, the psychological effect is one of releasing memory stuck in the muscle tissue. “Like squeezing a pimple,” said Dominges, “you get rid of the puss inside and the tissue can heal.” This and other basic concepts learned from her grandmother, though parallel in thought with modern bodywork practice, have long been a part of curanderismo.

Another ancient remedy, now popular in massage circles, is the use of hot stones. “We use wood stoves with a water tank on the side to heat stones,” said Dominges. Hot stones serve many purposes — placed in the cradle for premature babies, for treatment of arthritis or muscle soreness or placed on the stomach for intestinal problems. The stones are cleansed in the sun, where they pick up energy. “Cleansing in the sun is a big part of being grounded,” said Dominges. “Sometimes when the spirit goes back into the body, it’s not sure it should be there. We use the stone to center and ground you, putting the spirit back into the body correctly.”

Curanderos are aware of the importance of limpias not only for their patients, but also for themselves. “I treat myself when I know what is going on,” said Dominges, “and go to other people when I know these negative energies are manifesting too greatly for me to be able to handle myself.”

For the most part, massage therapy training encourages a quiet treatment atmosphere, with the therapist limiting conversation to aspects of comfort and need. “This is totally contrary to what my grandmother taught me,” said Dominges. An important element of curanderismo is verbal interaction between healer and patient, an evolved delving into the inner core of emotion and spirit. Then there is the aspect of time. The curandero takes as much time as is needed to unfold the patient’s history, the emotional/spiritual source of their illness and to perform the healing. Curanderismo is not amenable to our traditional American schooling, in which one attends classes and earns a degree or certificate. It is a life-long process and indeed, a commitment to lifestyle. Some curanderos apprentice with many mentors throughout their life. Dominges began her apprenticeship with her grandmother, but has continued to learn through self-study and work with other healers.

The Curanderismo View of Health

Elena Avila, in her book Woman Who Glows in the Dark, wrote “Curanderismo teaches that humans are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual beings. When all aspects of a person are in harmony with the inner self and the universe, the soul is intact.” She explained that if the spirit, the envelope of energy that protects the soul, “is relatively healthy, the soul will be too.” Avila is a psychiatric nurse who returned to her Aztec roots of curanderismo. From her Aztec teachers, she learned that spirit “is the sum total of our nutritional habits, whether good or bad; it is the energy generated from our feelings, whether balanced or unbalanced; and the energy created by our thoughts.” Spirit also includes education and intentions and “the part of our being that connects us to the “Great Spirit.” In curanderismo, illness occurs when the person carries around unwanted energies that interfere with the balance of spirit, such as distress, fear and worry. “Some people would call this energy negative, but I simply call it energy that doesn’t belong to us,” said Avila.11

According to Avila, curanderismo identifies four classifications of illness that emphasize the interrelatedness of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual functioning. Physical illness includes bilis (rage), body toxicity and digestive problems caused by excessive secretion of bile due to constant rage; empacho (blockage), which can be digestive due to eating problems, or blockage of emotions or energy; and mal aire (bad air), colds, earaches or facial paralysis caused by exposure to night air or bacteria. In mental illness, whether from chemical imbalance or severe trauma, the curandero considers the person’s entire body, emotions, soul and spirit, rather than treating an isolated mental aspect. The types of emotional illness are envida (envy), sickness of the soul in the envious, or of spirit in the envied; mal puesto (curse), seen by many healers not as a hex but as a resistance of the patient to take responsibility for occurrences in their life, thus blaming others; mal ojo, popularly translated as evil eye, actually meaning illness caused by too much attention or staring; and mala suerta (bad luck) which is considered to be the result of energy and expectations that are expressed, especially in those with low self-esteem, rather than some outside force.12

Spiritual illness is defined as susto (soul loss) or espanto (fright). Susto occurs when the protective spiritual aura is violated through traumatic or frightening events, “a state in which we do not feel fully present or as if we are really ourselves,” said Avila.13 Espanto is the result of seeing a ghost or being awakened suddenly, causing the spirit to wander.14

In the case of abuse, explained Dominges, the spirit moves out of the body to allow (tolerate) the abuse to happen. Healing doesn’t take place unless someone brings the spirit back into that space. “In the type of massage I do,” she said, “my work is pretty deep sometimes. If I get a vision or symbol, all I can do is offer it to my patient, and they can think about it and see if it’s part of their life or not.” While doing deep work with a patient, she had a continuing vision of wooden steps coming out of an external doorway. After telling the patient about the image, the woman replied, “When I was being really abused in my home that was my place of peace.” She had forgotten about it until Dominges brought it up. Dominges told her, “You can still use it (mentally) as a place to go for peace.”

“Negative energy can enter your body in a lot of ways,” said Dominges. When there is shock, she noted, it is sometimes only treated with sedation by physicians. “When we (curanderos) treat shock, we use vientosas, like cupping in Chinese, on the belly and back. The viento (wind) of shock becomes trapped, stagnated,” It’s important that the patient come in as soon as possible, not for massage but for the cupping, to move through the shock and diminish their fear. She also uses velas (ear coning) for healing of negative energy through ears. Velas are good not only for earaches and infections, but also to heal children from the family’s verbal abusive.

The liver, according to Dominges, is the core of heat of anger. “If you’re holding anger in the liver,” she said, “it affects the eyes. In the way I was taught, poor eyesight comes from what you don’t like about what you are seeing and what is making you angry.” You have to step away from it and not internalize it, she said. Any negative energy, such as being hit, will control your life. You have to have it removed — acknowledge it and demand that it leave.

In the Hispanic culture, those who use their powers for negative energy, such as casting spells and causing illness are called brujas (witches). It is a firm belief that has survived many generations. “In New Mexico,” said Dominges, “when Catholicism came to the area, the curanderas were pushed aside. To the priests they were witches. In a sense, it is white witchcraft. I practice removal of the negative energies, but not in giving it.” It is interesting to note that despite the priests’ earlier exhortations against curanderismo, the Catholic religion figures prominently in the healing powers of the curandero. In curanderismo, all healing comes from God.

Faith and the Soul

“God is the exact center, the precise mother drum of the entire relationship we call curanderismo,” said Avila.15 “The Latinos of the world continue, over the centuries, to meld their religious rites that are, in part, Old World, and in part, New World Católico (Catholic). Curanderismo is a part of the great colorful weaving that results.”16 The firm belief that God provides the remedies for cure is one held between the healer and the healed.17 The curandero is chosen by God. It is also God who is the source of their talents and abilities18 If the patient is not cured, it is God’s will that they go elsewhere for a cure.19 In the healing treatment, the names of saints are invoked to assist with, rather than supplant, a petition to God, reinforcing the request and giving more strength to the intent.20

“I always tell them I am coming from my belief in Jesus Christ and the training I have received in my beliefs and Catholicism,” said Dominges. “I say the church isn’t what makes me. My belief in God and Spirit is what makes me. I’m not for everyone and everyone is not for me. Whoever comes is sent by God.” Reflecting on the alter in her treatment room, Dominges explained that she doesn’t intend to offend anyone of another faith. “Your door or journey doesn’t have to be through Catholicism. It is a process of all faiths — the faith and the love of God and trust that God will help you through your healing. Everything from God is good. It is humanity’s perception and actions that make it bad.”

When asked if she performs soul retrieval, Dominges said, “I call it soul alignment.” When the body goes through a state of shock, whether in an auto accident, being traumatized in birth or being hit by another person, the soul is no longer aligned with the body. The curandero brings the soul back into alignment, and the soul knows that it’s okay to be in the body again.

“When you work with your spiritual, emotional and mental being,” said Dominges, “that will heal what is going on with your body. If you can look at what has created that pain for you, that pain will go away. Everything is for a purpose, nothing is a mistake. There are no accidents. If you really look at what’s happened, it’s a way for the spiritual world to make you pay attention, to be mindful.”

In her work, Dominges brings together families to experience touching one another in a way that unites their spirits. “It is not even spoken,” she said. “People don’t even try to understand it because they feel it in their soul. There can be lot of forgiveness, understanding and communication. An entire day can go by and not once were they touched. The biggest problem we have in our world today is no one is touched. When people come in and I begin to help them through touch, one of the key things that happens is a sudden alignment of spirit.”