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UNM professor shares tradition of curanderismo with community

Eliseo “Cheo” Torres remembers the healing herbs in his mother’s garden in Taft, a small Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico.

He recalls her using those herbs in particular combinations and in specific rituals to heal him, his siblings and cousins.

As a teenager, he worked in a mom-and-pop drug store where owners recommended similar herbs and other remedies and rituals for customers who could not afford Western medical care.

As a university professor, he apprenticed with a well-known Mexican practitioner to learn the healing art of curanderismo or traditional Mexican folk healing.

It is a passion for Torres, vice president of student affairs at the University of New Mexico.

“My mother, Olivia, was not called a curandera, but had all the skills and knowledge to qualify as one,” he writes in dedicating his memoir, “Curandero,” to her. “Her life’s central passion has also become mine.”

For 15 years he has offered “Traditional Medicine Without Borders: Curanderismo in the Southwest and Mexico,” online, in a semester credit class and as a two-week summer credit course that invites healers on both sides of the border to share their knowledge with students and the community.

Opening doors

Curanderismo comes from the Spanish verb, curar, which means to heal. The practice dates back to Moors in Spain, Torres explains. Men (curanderos) and women (curanderas) may have specialities in herbs, midwifery or massage, while others may work on a more spiritual level. In Mexico, a healer may be as likely to prescribe chamomile tea as antibiotics, which don’t require a prescription there.

“In the earlier days, especially in poor, rural areas, the curandero did holistic healing because there were few physicians, few priests and ministers, and no counselors. A healer played all the roles. He recommended medicinal herbs, massage, delivered babies and counseled families,” he says.

Healing was service without thought for compensation. Patients often paid with eggs or produce.

While curanderismo is Torres’ passion, he says, “My role is not to convert people. I see myself as opening doors. My role is to educate people about the culture. Allopathic medicine is wonderful and it saves lives, but sometimes you don’t need that. Curanderos are first about preventive care. They ask about your diet and if you are exercising. Many are vegetarians.”

This summer the course, which has grown from 30 students in 2000 to more than 200, will run from July 13 to 24. Online it reaches 40,000 students around the world.

Traditional healers from Canada to Cuba will collaborate with a growing number of practitioners from New Mexico. Healers from a certified holistic medicine school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, arrive for the second week of the course: “Healers there are upgrading their skills and incorporating their traditions into Western medicine.”

“Not only do we attract local students and community members, but also health-care providers,” he says. Residents from UNM Medical School and physicians from the University of Minnesota have come to the course to learn “the traditions of medicine that are brought to their clinics by the growing number of immigrants in the United States.”

Curandero Hesedt Rangel sounds a conch shell to signal the opening of UNM’s Curanderismo summer session. (Courtesy of Dorene DiNaro)

Curandero Hesedt Rangel sounds a conch shell to signal the opening of UNM’s Curanderismo summer session. (Courtesy of Dorene DiNaro)

Health fairs

The teachers and healers will also offer their treatments to the community in traditional health fairs. “Last year we had more than 1,000 people come to the National Hispanic Cultural Center. We don’t charge, but people can donate. If people don’t have anything, they don’t give anything,” he says. “In the past when a curandero would come to a village there would be a Fiesta de Salud, a celebration of health. There would music and games for the kids. We try to re-create that.”

It was at one of the UNM healing fiestas that Tonita Gonzales of the North Valley found her calling to be a healer. A curandera relieved the Bell’s palsy that had paralyzed her face for 10 years, she says. Although Gonzales attended a prestigious college and was working on a doctorate in mathematics, “I didn’t understand my health.”

She says her road to health began when curandera Rita Navarrete Perez from the UNM summer program chose her from a packed audience at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. “She told me if I couldn’t smile, it was not because of my face, but the pain in my heart.” Gonzales received fire cupping treatments that stimulated blood flow to the paralyzed parts of her face.

Gonzales left her home in Albuquerque and went to apprentice in Mexico. “My own healing switched my career path.” Now Gonzales practices the healing art and is one of the teachers in the curanderismo course.

She says Torres has brought healing to many people. “I am in awe of Cheo. He is a curandero whether he is lecturing at the Smithsonian or talking to the homeless. If not for him, my life would be completely different. He has built a bridge between our country and Mexico so we can do our healing without thinking about the borders that separate us.”