The Call of the Curandera

Old healing art in New Mexico is dying out

It’s 1998. I’m making the slow climb to Truchas on my motorcycle, the high pitch of the engine in my ears. I’m honing in on 8,000 feet, flanked by juniper and piñón and cool air.

It's summer, and I'm looking for a woman by the name of Sabanita Herrera, whose reputation for healing people is widely known in Northern New Mexico and in some cases, local lore has it, across the country.

She's what's commonly known as a curandera—a traditional female folk healer whose practice often involves burning sage, exorcism by egg, miracle teas and herbs, cleansings that rid the body of evil spirits, offerings and prayers made to a higher deity.

The roots of the practice can be traced as far back as the 1400s to the Aztecs, who sought remedies in the plants that grew in the surrounding forests in what is now central Mexico. And in somewhat of a miracle, some have pointed out, the practice managed to survive the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s—but not before Catholic prayer was introduced and it was anointed a new name: curanderismo.

Centuries later it would wind up here in Northern New Mexico, imported by Spanish settlers, and up until the new millennium, it was an alternative medicine. In the truest sense of the word.

It was a way of life in isolated regions, where physicians were few and far between, money was scarce and the application of modern medicine either wasn't an option or simply wasn't that appealing.

Instead villagers turned to the curandera, a woman thought to be blessed by God with a natural gift to cure. She passed the gift on to her daughter, and it ran in the family. It was passed down from generation to generation. Over time, men joined the practice. Patient visits usually took place inside some rustic adobe in a rugged setting that came with the thin mountain air.

It's a holistic and spiritual approach to medicine, but I knew none of this at the time as I made my way up to Herrera's house. Instead I thought I was gunning straight into the eye of black magic or some vicious voodoo, where surely a chicken or two would be sacrificed.

Hey, it'd be something I'd write home about to friends who'd long aligned themselves with corporate America, rising through the ranks of a pricey education predicated on high-interest loans and the wholesale consumption of textbooks.

This is big, I thought. This is going to be an adventure. Wait, maybe I should turn back.

There was a reason for my hesitation, my misconceptions. They grew out of my only other connection to curanderismo, which came in the late 1980s. A half dozen curanderas were hastily summoned by Mexican cops to perform a cleansing at a crime scene where 14 people had been tortured with knives, then murdered.

I was a police reporter covering the US-Mexico border in south Texas, and the site of the massacre was a remote ranch on the outskirts of the Mexican border town of Matamoros, about a half-hour drive from the Gulf of Mexico.

The victims, I soon learned, were randomly kidnapped one by one from the streets of Matamoros by members of a drug cartel that doubled as a satanic cult. Afterward, they were taken to the Santa Elena ranch, spending their final days inside an old red shack with boarded-up windows.

What unspeakable brutality occurred before they were killed, nobody really could pin down. But investigators at the time said they were blindfolded and fed eggs in a ritualistic manner before they were tortured and killed in what the cult described as "sacrifices."

Their bodies were dismembered and then buried in distinctly marked shallow graves nearby. Wires had been fastened to their spines so cult members, years later ostensibly, could retrieve necklaces of vertebra long after the flesh had decomposed.

Among the murdered was Mark Kilroy, a blond 21-year-old University of Texas student who wandered away from his spring break party in Matamoros in late March 1989. From a fairly affluent family, his disappearance ignited a search so great that just about everybody on both sides of the border was looking for him.

Kilroy ended up being the last of the sacrifices, all of which were supposed to give the cartel supernatural powers, make them invisible and protect their shipments of marijuana. But ultimately it all led to the cartel's downfall when one member, thinking he was truly invisible, ran a checkpoint and led Mexican federales on a high-speed chase that ended at the shack in the middle of the night.

Inside, investigators found knives and long swords with traces of blood still on them. Cauldrons, both big and small, contained sticks, or palos, and the brains of some of the victims, police said. Cigars and bottles of aguardiente (a Latin version of moonshine) littered the place.

Journalists had full access to the shack. We walked around it like we owned the joint. There was no yellow crime tape to speak of. We took photographs, we examined the cement floor, we hoped the front door wouldn't suddenly swing shut and lock us in. We joked about it.

We tried to imagine Kilroy's last moments, a ritualistic sacrifice that police would later describe as a twisted form of santería. They called it palomayombe, a misunderstood religion to this day with Afro-Cuban roots and a deep-seated belief in black magic.

And the site where it all took place now reeked of death as the victims were being unearthed. It was the first time I smelled death, and thankfully, my last. Even long after I'd left the ranch, I'd catch whiffs of it. It followed me around even after I'd showered. It somehow managed to stay in my hair, never seemed to leave my nostrils, emanated up from the minuscule amounts of soil that got stuck in my shoes.

It crept out of nowhere and sucker-punched me. This wasn't the flesh of some poor rotting deer by the side of the road in the summer heat. It was much worse, because I knew it was human.

And now it was the job of these curanderas to clean the place up, extricate all evil, remove all traces of sacrifice; then, and only then, would police even begin to entertain lighting the shack on fire.

And as I was driving up to Truchas, all these memories came rushing back to me, especially the role of the curanderas. They were a considerable part of Mexican culture, held in such high regard that they were called in to do the dirty work and help put superstitious cops at ease.

Herrera, the immediate curandera at hand, was from New Mexico, not Mexico. She was a simple healer in a remote village, not one summoned to some crime scene. She was an herbalist more than anything else, but I still had no clue what was about to unfold.

I wish I could say I was tripping on psilocybin mushrooms or had just eaten some peyote as I made my way up to her house with the simple cardboard sign out front announcing her practice. I wish I could say I was heavily under the influence and I was going to chronicle her traditional approach to medicine Gonzo-style, à la Hunter S Thompson.

The reality was, I had a persistent ringing in my right ear. It had come on a few weeks earlier, as I'd beaten a 15-hour, 800-mile path from the desert floor of the Imperial Valley, east of San Diego, to the higher altitudes of Santa Fe.

It was in Tucson that the thunderstorms hit and the lightning struck on all sides, but I kept going, only stopping to gas up. I was a waterlogged blur along the highways as I drove, hunkered over the entire time, my wrist bent back, the throttle out on the Yamaha crotch rocket.

I was pushing my tolerance levels. I was still relatively young at 34. Eventually the chills would set in, followed by a fever. By the time I got to Santa Fe, the ear was completely blown. I decided to act on the advice of native Santa Feans, who said if anybody could fix it, it would be Herrera. And it wouldn't be with the usual round of antibiotics, it would be with something natural, something super.

In her early 60s at the time, Herrera had carved out a profession for herself, combing the woods outside her back door for plants that help keep diabetes in check, lower blood pressure and soothe stomachaches, backaches, headaches and earaches. A cure for seemingly every malady could either be found in her tiny makeshift herbal store or resolved in a special session.

And so there I was, patient and traveler, straddling the cheap plastic and dull chrome of my bike. I was caught between two distinct periods of time: the dawning of the pharmaceutical age and the tail end of curanderismo, although I didn't know it at the time.

Both were polar extremes in their delivery: one a high-yield, factory-made synthetic, the other an extension of nature involving herbs, prayers and ritual.

Big pharma hadn't yet covered the country with its commercials promising quick fixes, tempered by terrifying disclaimers; curanderismo was still in practice, but the red velvet curtain was lowering, and just what reincarnated sequel would emerge remained to be seen.

One thing is for certain: The practice was dying out then and even more so today, as the elders are closing in on the end of their lives.

In 2007, half a million people practiced it, according to a study by the National Center for Contemporary and Integrative Health in Baltimore. Today, that amount is cut in half, and in Northern New Mexico, while there are no hard and fast numbers, there's no question that the practice is flatlining.

The children who grew up with it have either branched out and become experts in trendier forms of traditional healing—like acupuncture, meditation or Chinese medicine—or they've outright abandoned it for a lack of market, turning to more practical 9-5 jobs.

Some, however, have circled back and done "the loop to loop," in the words of Tonita Gonzales. Now in her mid-40s, she grew up learning about curanderismo from her mother and grandmother on Gonzales Ranch, just south of Las Vegas.

But for years, Gonzales worked in an Albuquerque office before waking up one day and heading south to live among the curanderas in the villages of Oaxaca.

She's always encouraging children to talk to their elders and to learn their ways before it's too late because, as she put it, "Grandma isn't on Facebook."

Yet a revival is in the works, and Gonzales, who specializes in sweat lodge ceremonies, is a part of it. She'll be among the dozens of alternative health practitioners speaking at a University of New Mexico event this month.

Every year for the past 15 years, the university has offered an intense two-week summer course. Nearly three dozen curanderos are expected to fly into Ciudad Juarez on July 18, then ride buses to a health fair at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, south of Santa Fe, the next day as part of the Viva Mexico celebration.

Eliseo Torres, a south Texas native, is the administrator of the class and the university's vice president of student affairs.

"People still specialize in it over there," says Torres, who studied under some great curanderos in Mexico. "Over there, there's an herb store on every corner. But over here, we're losing it. It's nobody's fault, really. We're just a different society than we were at the turn of the 20th century."

There are more doctors now, more hospitals, more pharmacies, an urgent care on every block, says Torres, who says he feels it's his job to preserve curanderismo through his class.

"We're not trying to convert anybody," he says. "We're just trying to show them that there are other ways. You have to open your eyes, your souls, your heart. You have to experiment."

The word itself is an experiment in pronunciation: curar, the verb to heal; curanderismo, the five-syllable noun describing the practice.

At one point, the word was a semblance of Náhuatl, the spoken language of the Aztecs, who are responsible for words like cacao, chile, tequila, aguacate and peyote. But it would soon change with the Spanish conquest of 1521.

In the nearly five centuries since then, the practice has morphed over time as it's been added to, subtracted from and divided by other cultures. Today's simplified version of curanderismo is a series of homemade remedies passed down for generations.

It's about knowing the herbs, making special teas, reciting special rhymes, massaging upset stomachs, bringing out the sugar-cane alcohol when there's a void in someone's life or they are depressed over a breakup. A rubdown will do the trick.

The key is simple tender loving care—along with prayer and the burning of sage. The power of simply chatting with the person, known as la plática, also performs wonders.

"Think of it as a spiritual toolkit in cases of emergency," says Grace Sesma, 58, who was raised on both sides of the US-Mexico border and learned the practice from both her mother and her aunt in Mexicali in Baja California Norte.

Usually, the curanderas don't think of themselves as curanderas, at least not in the old days, Sesma notes. She says it's a title that's usually bestowed upon them by the townspeople. Out of respect.

But there's no doubt that there's a darker side of the practice—concepts like the evil eye, or mal de ojo, an imbalance brought on by too much attention, mostly associated with doting on a baby.

Or susto, when the soul leaves the body in a near-death experience and fear takes over, paralyzing patients to the point where they are incapable of carrying out simple tasks in life.

That's when the egg comes out. It's a ceremony so complicated that at times it takes two: One curandera to operate the egg, sucking up the negative energy, another to interpret the yolk once the egg has been cracked open, its contents emptied into a glass.

A few remedies have even caused death and drawn national attention, such as the practice of feeding tinctures containing lead to children to help with indigestion, or empacho.

The remedies among the Aztecs centuries ago were just as varied and are well-documented. Cures for lightning strikes, black blood, numb feet, pains in the stomach that sound awfully like today's version of diverticulitis, they all can be found inside the Little Book of Medicinal Herbs of the Indians.

Tomas Enos, the owner of Milagro Herbs in Santa Fe, found a copy of the book on the Internet and paid $200 for it, using the reference tool for fun and for its history. Among the gurus and botanists, it's referred to as "The Bandianus Manuscript," after Juan Bandianus, an Aztec who translated it from Náhuatl to Latin in 1552.

Enos says there's a connection between herbal medicine and curanderismo, but you have to look closely. They are kind of like democracy in the United States: They started out one way and then changed over time. They're dynamic, always subject to interpretation.

But the medicinal powers drawn from plants are a fact. Roughly 25 percent of modern drugs used in the United States are made from plants, according to the World Health Organization.

Which is what curanderas like Herrera have been embracing all their lives.

I'm here now. I cut my engine and walk inside the village's only grocery store. Inside, I ask the clerk where I can find Herrera. He unloads a series of directions on me, telling me to stay right, keep right, that it's not as difficult as it sounds. The anxiety creeps in. Susto.

But it is easy. I find Herrera's house with no problem. I don't remember much, but I do remember the entire affair moved fairly quickly. She takes me inside and lights some incense, but there isn't much consultation. She makes a funnel from a piece of newspaper.

Then she crushes an herb, puts it in some oil, places it on a cotton swab and dabs my ear. We sit a few minutes before she sticks the funnel in my ear and strikes a match, burning it from the top.

I freak a little, hoping there is no kerosene lying around. It burns slowly, and then, after a few seconds, there is this poof. They call it mal aire, or bad air, I later learn. Then the ear stops ringing. I can hear again. I pay her $20, get back on the bike and head out of town.

I'm not going to lie. The ringing returned over time.

I suppose there is really no fixing it, just drowning it out. I'm usually only cognizant of it when the room is extremely quiet. That's when I bring out the $1 white noise maker and let it fly—medicinal properties found in such an inanimate object.

There could be worse things. Maybe the ringing was meant to remind me of that long ride from California to New Mexico, chasing love blindly at a time when young blood was still coursing through my veins, or maybe it's supposed to remind me of south Texas and of sacrifice.

The ear rings while I write this. I tried getting ahold of Herrera now that I've returned to Northern New Mexico, but she's been under the weather lately and under "doctor's orders not to talk to anyone," she says during a short phone call.

She's in her early 80s now. Truchas residents haven't seen her around too much. Last week was her birthday, and KDCE in Española was playing songs for her all day. I wonder how the great healer is treating herself, but I wasn't about to go knocking.

There's that now-famous story of Maria Sabina, a curandera who experimented with psilocybin mushrooms in Oaxaca and ended up turning on the outside world by letting a LIFE magazine writer chronicle the whole affair in 1957. Visitors would soon flood the place, and the folks in town didn't like it too much. She had let outsiders in on the secrets of a plant they considered sacred.

Toward the end of Sabina's life, her house was burned down, and she had to live at the edge of the village.

While Herrera's life doesn't even remotely approach that of Sabina's, there's something to be said for keeping your distance in what could be a hint of the final days.

But she should know that my ear is still ringing. And if her ears are burning as I write this, she should know I am burning some sage in the name of her health. And she should know people are praying for her.

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