We have entered an age in which we must take responsibility for our health. We have learned that doctors do not belong on pedestals and that they are not oracles or miracle workers who can fix what ails us. In fact, many of us have discovered that a visit to a medical doctor can result in more stress and new symptoms that we did not have before we took that magic pill. If the prescribed medication does not cause enough complications, then the insurance company might cause a cardiac arrest when you receive the medical bill that it did not pay. And there are illnesses that doctors can do little to alleviate because those illnesses resonate deep within the soul.
Fortunately, as we enter this new age, ancient medical knowledge surfaces up to the mainstream of society and this ancient medicine, usually of an indigenous origin, heals the mind, body, and soul. Elena Avila bridges the gap between modern medicine and folk medicine. Born first-generation Chicana in El Paso, Texas, Elena was exposed to the Aztec medical practice curanderismo while she was a child, but like other Mexican Americans, she was taught to reject the old traditions and to assimilate into the American culture. She later obtained a masters degree in nursing and held several prestigious nursing positions, but the calling to be a curandera hovered close by Elena.
Eventually, Elena performed research on the Aztec medical practice. This led her to study with curanderos in Juarez, Mexico while she held nursing positions. Eventually, she followed the path of an apprentice and studied with teachers in Mexico City. Twenty years later, she still considers herself an apprentice. Elena left the nursing profession and its security to practice curanderismo full time because she believes in the benefits of its healing properties. "It's time for it [curanderismo]. It's an earthy, spiritual, creative and intuitive medicine and its a beautiful medicine; why else would a masters-prepared nurse give up so-called securities that are important to many people, such as health insurance and a pension, to practice it?"
Elena has assisted hundreds of patients with their healing. She has helped those who have lost loved ones, those who have divorced or broken up with their partners, and those who are suffering from various illnesses of the body, mind, and soul. Curanderas do not diagnose an illness from a doctor's diagnostic book. "Guess you would say we diagnose in a different way. We use a different model, as opposed to a doctor who goes by a list of symptoms that you can find in diagnostic books. If a patient meets the symptoms, they are diagnosed as having that illness. In curanderismo, we don't treat the illness, we treat the person."
So how do curanderas treat the person? "I treat dis-ease. I do a combination of platicas (heart-to-heart talks) and I bring spirituality into the assessment." She treats every patient as an individual, even if two or more patients have the same physical illness. She honors the needs of each patient and the stage of the patient's illness. For instance, a patient with AIDS might have already accepted the illness, but come to Elena to gain spiritual strength. "What they need is spiritual strength to deal with the issues of dying or spiritual strength to tell their parents that they are gay. It's whatever their soul, spirit and body needs."
Like a lot of indigenous medicines, curanderismo carries its cache of stereotypes. Some people think that it is the medicine of poor and ignorant Mexicans, or they think that curanderas are witches that can bring back former lovers and put hexes on people. While it is true that there are curanderas who cheat people of their money by saying that they can remove hexes for thousands of dollars, an authentic curandera will treat a patient with soul retrieval rituals, platicas, massage, herbs, and other forms of alternative healing. She or he will not charge thousands of dollars, and sometimes they will accept trade for the healing. An authentic curanderas practice is based on love, not fear.
One needs to follow ones intuition when visiting a curandera for the first time, asking pertinent questions. "It's important to ask a curandera how long she has been practicing and who her teachers were. I have had some experiences with people who have attended my workshops. They were calling themselves curanderas. Excuse me, but I'm in my early fifties, and I'm still studying curanderismo. I still have teachers in Mexico, and I have been practicing for twenty years. How can you call yourself a curandera after a weekend workshop?"
Although people from many backgrounds visit Elena's practice, some are skeptical. Most have tried other forms of alternative medicine, and some have been through an array of doctors before hearing about curanderismo. "Sometimes they are anxious or nervous. I pick up on their energy right away, and I do whatever I need to do to make them feel at ease." Other patients are surprised when they meet Elena, because she looks normal and this eases their anxiety somewhat.
Elena also likes to put the patients at ease by letting them control the healing session. She asks them to ask her questions about herself and her practice. She also surprises the patients with her sense of humor and her compassionate heart. "Corazon cura corazon, heart heals heart. I bring my heart and my soul to work with me, and I think that people can sense that."
Elena sees many patients on any given day, and she treats everything from soul loss to envy to a variety of physical and emotional problems. She has assisted those with mental illnesses, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and a host of other common and uncommon illnesses. She has treated people from a variety of cultures, and she follows her intuition when dealing with all her patients so that she can accommodate their various needs. For instance, someone coming from a Hispanic background would be familiar with the folk illnesses from that culture such as soul loss or illnesses caused by envy, while a person from a different background might not feel comfortable with those concepts.
Elena has seen people from her culture be swallowed up by the medical establishment when the establishment does not take the time to learn about the beliefs of her culture. For instance, some Hispanics believe that a child can become ill when adults pay too much attention to the child, because the child cannot process the energy that comes from an adult. Elena witnessed an anxious mother sit by and watch medical personnel admire her four-year-old daughter while the child came to the hospital with a broken leg. "I gently and lovingly said to the mother, Aren't you afraid of your little girl getting mal ojo (an illness from being stared at)? She looked at me and said, Yes, that's what I was thinking. "
Elena educates the medical establishment as much as possible about the Hispanic culture and about folk medicine such as curanderismo. "Health officials have to learn cultural diversity. It would be better if they could speak to people in their native language. It would be better if they knew the cultural belief systems and folk illnesses within that culture. Curanderas can do this."
Elena often refers her patients to doctors, but she finds that the doctors don't reciprocate. Her patients pass on information that their doctors gave them; Elena works with this information, but some of her patients don't tell their doctors that they are seeing a curandera. Yet, her patients can tell her personal information that they could never tell a doctor or anyone else. "People can tell a curandera many things that they can't tell a priest, rabbi, or holy people. Curanderas have always stood in a middle place. One of the most important functions that a curandera has is the ability to listen to all kinds of things that people couldn't talk about; people who have gone through illnesses and crises have asked me, Am I hexed? "
Perhaps doctors don't refer their patients to curanderas because they don't have the scientific proof to back up the claims that people make about curanderas assisting them with their healing, or perhaps they believe that ancient medicine cannot heal us in these modern times. Elena explains that the word Aztec means "technology," and that curanderismo has not stood frozen in time. Curanderos/as embrace technology. Elena and her peers exchange information over fax machines, and they call each other on cell phones. "You might say that curanderas have blended modern technology with ancient medicine. I gifted my teacher with a laptop. He took to it like a duck takes to water. He loves it ... He comes to the United States to lecture wearing his traditional Aztec clothes and carrying his laptop."
What is the future of curanderismo? Elena has passed on the traditional practice to 19 apprentices, all of whom have incorporated the medicine into their practice. One apprentice accentuates her Rolfing practice with the ancient medicine, and nurses have added it to their repertoire. Elena hopes to train doctors in curanderismo because it would compliment modern medicine. "We have to teach the medical profession about it because it's such an old, old medicine that is still relevant to us today. We have been diagnosing our misfortunes and illnesses for a long time. It also has the ingredient that it's a people's medicine. Right now we're diagnosing road rage and frequent flyers depression. We know that certain things cause illness and disharmony."
Of course the best medicine is for us to take responsibility for our health and our misfortunes. We can't rely on doctors or any healer to heal us. Healers can assist us in our healing process, but ultimately it is up to us to eat the right foods, exercise, and take care of our emotional needs. Curanderas will listen to you when you need to be heard, and they will walk with you on your path to healing. An authentic curandera will also treat you as a person and not an illness while you work together on the real problem.
Elena Avila, R.N., M.S.N., and curandera, will be hosting a workshop at the Women of Wisdom Conference on February 18, 1999. Please call (206) 622-8475 extension 135 for more information or to register. Elenas book Women Who Glow in the Dark will be published in March 1999.
Patty-Lynne Herlevi is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Times. She also owns and operates Crow Mix Media Service, a writing and marketing service for green companies and alternative healers. She can be reached at (206) 525-1964 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.