This article is from the February 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
Los Curanderos : Alternative Health Care in Mexico
There is a widespread belief in Mexico that when a rich person is ill, it is time to go to a doctor. When the rich person is desperately ill, it is time to seek the help of a curandero (or healer). When the poor person is ill, the first alternative is to find a curandero. It is only when the poor person is desperately sick that it is time to go to a doctor.Curanderos, along with brujas (or witches) and espirtualistas (or spiritualists) probably outnumber licensed medical doctors in Mexico and serve as the back-bone of medical care for the average person of Mexico. Their medical lore is rooted in the traditional belief systems of the indigenous population, much as it is in virtually every other primitive” society on the planet. Prior to the advent of modem medicine in the first world, a rich and complex system of rules governing the relation of the person to natural or spiritual forces served to guide the prescription of remedies for health care. Many believe that modern medicine is the stepchild of a long tradition of medicine that derives its power from the curative force of the land and the relation of people to the spiritual world. Most Mexicans, especially those who live in the less developed areas, use herbal remedies and other folk treatments, such as healing massage, with as much confidence as a U.S. citizen might in taking an aspirin.
How does one go about finding a curandero? The best method is simply to ask, for they are everywhere. (Of course, you may arouse suspicion if you allude to searching for someone who practices black magic.. .50 it is helpful to indicate your problem and to ask where you might find “Una persona que same curar.”)
Regular storefront distributors specializing in herbal cures (botanicas), are found in the larger cities, and there is an abundance of sidewalk vendors, usually operating out of a larger store, who are more than willing to talk and to sell their wares. Almost every marketplace has at least one stall and the larger marketplaces will have many. Their herbs and plants are displayed, usually unlabeled, and sometimes they are kept under the counter. In the past it was possible to buy peyote from these stalls, but now that it is illegal, the vendors will usually claim that they don’t have it. Vendors are more than willing to sell their products if the ailment is minor, but because of strong beliefs in black magic many vendors may be leery of discussing their products with foreigners, especially when the stated ailment is of a more serious nature.
The remedies found within the botanicas are usually not described in medical journals, but the formulas have been passed down from generation to generation. Herbalists sometimes conduct examinations using the centuries-old method of iridology, the study of a person’s iris to ascertain certain physical maladies. Most often, all you need to do is to describe your ailment and, if it is simple, you will be given an herbal preparation, usually in the form of a tea.
The botanical tradition is very real and is rooted in a long folkloric history. Modern medicine uses many of the old cures. For example, epazote (or worm-seed) is a powerful cure and preventative agent for intestinal parasites. Toloache (often called locoweed in the United States) contains scopolamine, a common ingredient of sleeping pills. Birth control pills are derived from the hormone progesterone, which is found in the Mexican plant, caheza de negro.
There are powerful arguments for saving both rainforests and the oral traditions of primitive cultures.
One may or may not choose to be skeptical of many of the wares touted by the herbalists and curanderos. Dead hummingbirds, for example, are sold as love amulets. And sand dollars and deer antlers are supposed to bring good luck.
Many plants, however, do have recognized value in addressing physical ailments, especially among those who subscribe to alternative health approaches. For exterior wounds or sore muscles, one may use arnica (or mountain tobacco). For kidney maladies try cola caballo (or horsetail). Raiz de valeriano (valerian root) is commonly used for headaches, anxiety and for sleep. For arthritis, boils and the common cold, many of the herbalists may sell you gobernadora (or creosote bush).
Botanicas today fall under government control. Herbalists are prohibited by law from performing physical examinations and from selling any herbs which have been declared illegal, such as marijuana or peyote. Mexican law calls for botanicas to have health permits and to have licensed chemists examine herbal mixtures to verify that the ingredients are listed accurately on packages. Although many will claim that these herbs can do no harm to the body since they are natural and grown from the land, use this bit of advice with great caution. These herbal remedies are indeed very powerful in some cases. Just look at the Chinese herb, ma huang, which has amphetamine-like qualities, for evidence). But it is the power of these concoctions which can lead to health. R.S.