Old-School Healing

Curanderos demonstrate truly affordable health care

Aide Avendaño sits perched on a plastic chair, giving careful instructions on ridding oneself of bad energy: Fill a glass jar with water and sugar; write the names of the bad-energy-bringers on slips of paper and place them in the jar; let stand, open, for seven days, stirring occasionally.

Nicole Chamberlain leans in close to hear Avendaño’s soft-spoken instructions. Avendaño is a trained biologist, but her specialty is medicinal plants. She’s here, in an upstairs room at the Center for Lifelong Education at the Institute of American Indian Arts, for a festival of curanderismo, or traditional Mexican folk healing.

After Avendaño sets her up with an herbal tincture, also for energy, Chamberlain heads outside to wait in line for a limpia, or cleansing ritual, accomplished with rosemary, incense and tequila, and among the most popular stations at the second annual Indigenous Healers Festival.

Inside, more than 15 healers from Cuernavaca, Mexico, offer bodywork, acupuncture, realignment and energy restoration treatments. All of it is free (after the $5 admission fee).

“A traditional curandero doesn’t charge a fee,” Dr. Cheo Torres, the vice president for student affairs at University of New Mexico and instructor for an informational course on curanderismo, explains.

Affordability is part of why curanderismo is so popular in Mexico, a country where 67 million people can’t afford modern health care, Dr. Arturo Ornelas tells SFR.

Ornelas is the director of the Centro de Desarrollo Humano hacia la Comunidad, a center of traditional and integrative medicine in Cuernavaca. This marks the second year he’s brought a group of trained healers to share their practice.

“We don’t want to teach; we don’t want to do lectures; we want to do treatments,” Ornelas tells SFR. “People learn by receiving different treatments. By curing themselves, they’re also going to learn.”

According to Ornelas, 62 percent of the Mexican population visits a curandero—evidence, he says, of the importance of traditional healing methods. But New Mexico is not without its own curanderismo tradition.

“In Mexico, it has [been] adapted,” Ornelas tells SFR. “Here, the Spanish language and tradition for health is still [the same as it was] 2,300 years ago.” Curanderismo has been maintained, he says, in individual families with “the will to conserve the tradition.”

Anyone can become a healer, Ornelas says; his three-year certification program in Cuernavaca has trained more than 4,000 curanderos.

Torres’ class is meant only as informational, not actual training. Nonetheless, it’s now in its 10th year and attracts undergraduate, graduate and continuing education students from across the country.

Shebana Coehlo, who works as a producer at IAIA and helped organize the festival, took Torres’ class for the first time last year. It helped her connect with the power in her natural surroundings, Coehlo says, while at the same time helped her realize “the healing is inside you; you can be the instrument of your own change.”

Santa Fe’s receptiveness to alternative healing methods isn’t the only reason curanderismo is gaining traction here, Torres says. The influx of Mexican immigrants who rely on curanderos for much of their health care is also creating a market for their methods.

Granted, there are still some skeptics.

“They don’t quite understand it,” Torres says. “They think it’s witchcraft.”

At even the mention of witchcraft, Ornelas bristles.

“We believe the plants have a chemical effect on the body, and the spiritual vibration of the plants helps cure bad energy,” Ornelas says. “We live intertwined with the energy of nature—the air, water, earth, woods. But we don’t do witchery. We don’t know how to do it.”

Upstairs, Avendaño is busy diagnosing a man’s back pain.

“Are you angry?” she asks. The man laughs and shakes his head.

“In Mexican tradition, we think emotions are here,” she explains, indicating her lower back.

“I’m not an angry person,” he replies. But, he concedes, his job is stressful—so Avendaño consults the array of herbal tinctures to find one designed just for that.

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