Southwestern and Mexican Traditional Medicine, Literature, and Culture

Curanderismo takes its nomenclature from the Spanish word curar, which translates into “to heal.” Indeed, this form of traditional folk healing is based on the cultures that grew out of the Spanish colonization of Mexico and flourishes today from the American Southwest on down to the Yucatán peninsula. This form of healing includes techniques such as prayer, herbal medicine, healing rituals, spiritualism, massage, and psychic healing. It is a direct representation of the cultural identities and historical forces that shaped and continue to shape Southwestern and Mexican communities.

The material on this page reflects Paula’s long-time love for and familiarity with Southwestern culture, history, and literature and it is intended to provide a cultural competency resource for physicians and medical students in the American Southwest, especially, who might want to learn more about their Latino patients.

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Amador, Adela. Southwest Flavor: Adela Amador’s Tales From the Kitchen. Recipes and Stories From New Mexico Magazine. Korea: New Mexico Magazine, 2000. Print.

This collection of treasured New Mexican recipes includes and is enriched by Amador’s stories. She opens her heart to her reader. Not only may one learn about New Mexican culture, history, and practices surrounding food. Amador offers her own life philosophies on subjects such as travel alone without her husband and living within one’s means and the way Christmas lights warm the soul of a child. New Mexican food is so laden with its history. Amador’s stories and her recipes make the food come alive for a reader.

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Ardren, Traci, and Scott R. Hudson, eds. The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica. Boulder: U P of Colorado, 2006. Print.

This book consists of essays written by anthropologists, archeologists, art historians, and museum curators. By sifting through archeological remains, by filtering critical analysis of artifacts through the lens of anthropology, and by assessing art and other cultural expressions, the authors of this important study carefully reconstruct the lives, roles, and engagements of children in ancient Mesoamerican society. A fascinating book in its own right, it is that much more interesting when read in conjunction with contemporary Chicano literature and cultural texts that retain a close sense of identification with their Aztec and Mayan histories.

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 Ávila, Elena. Woman who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. Print.

This memoir is an autobiographical account of how Ávila, a native Texan, developed her healing practice, first as a psychiatric nurse specialist and ultimately as a folk medicine healer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A mixture of a spiritual coming-of-age narrative and the recounting of her version of the history, value, and current iteration of curanderismo, Ávila’s book is lively, timely, and useful for anyone who is interested in learning about this form of healing. That said, Ávila is neither an anthropologist nor an historian. She privileges and even romanticizes the Mexica/Aztec contribution and glosses over Catholicism’s role, for example. This an enjoyable and valuable contribution to both the genre of memoir and the study of curanderismo nonetheless.

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Bruno, Paula M. “’Ni miedo de la pinta, ni miedo de la muerte’: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Prison Poetry.” Prisoners Writing: Discourse From Behind Bars. Special Issue of Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. Fall/Winter 2002. 575-598.

Prison poetry written by Chicano inmates has a long and anthropologically substantive history. Borderlands theory, for its part, is a fundamental scholarly realm within US Latin@ Studies. In this article, the author argues that the prison is a borderlands space and provides a nuanced reading of New Mexican poet Jimmy Santiago Baca’s 1979 classic, Immigrants in Our Own Land. The article includes a brief biography of Baca and a detailed discussion of the construction of the prison system and its relation to Chicano inmates in California and the American Southwest.

Note: This paper was my final work in my last class of graduate school (US Latino Studies, taught by my adored professor, Luis Dávila). By unanimous vote, the faculty committee deemed it the best student paper that year and it was awarded the J.M. Hill Outstanding Graduate Student Paper Award. I would never have thought to send it out for consideration for publication but for my students at the University of New Mexico, where I taught while writing my dissertation. There were several who felt alienated—especially some of the young men—but they loved Jimmy Baca and his movie “Blood In, Blood Out.” As soon as I mentioned this paper, students wanted to read it and it gave some of the ones who needed it the most a little inspiration. It was such a tremendous honor when Genre accepted it! I think the value of this paper is that I really did do an exhaustively thorough investigation on the prison system and its connection to Chicano subjects and my research findings are sound even now. In addition, Jimmy Santiago Baca’s current material tends to overshadow the much-older book, and I personally think that the poetry in Immigrants really is his best material. The article is accessible here: http://www.deepdyve.com/lp/duke-university-press/ni-miedo-de-la-pinta-ni-miedo-de-la-muerte-jimmy-santiago-baca-s-910edWRrOB

—. “Nuestra Comunidad: Service-Learning and Communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” Juntos: Community Partnerships in Spanish and Portuguese. Ed. Josef Hellebrandt, Jonathan Arries, Lucía Varona. AATSP Professional Development Ser. 5. Boston: Heinle, 2003. 100-112.

In this article, the author describes a class that she designed and taught at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Service learning, or curriculum that entails an element of service to the larger community, has been a growing trend in American higher education for well over a decade. Bruno, here, argues for service learning that relies on community accomplishment (art, literature, and other cultural production) to provide the foundations for learning not just how to “serve” a local Hispanic community but also to value and respect the target culture’s own self-expression.

Note: When Lucía Varona, one of the editors of the journal where this article appeared, contacted me to tell me that my contribution had been accepted, I wrote back to her and told her that it was my thank-you letter of love and gratitude to my students at UNM. She wrote about this in her introduction to the section where my article appears, and to this day I get a little emotional when I look at what she wrote. This was a wonderful class and the students were phenomenal. The value of this article (aside from its obvious joy and appreciation for my students, which I think is endearing to anyone who loves to teach) is that it does give a good overview of Chicano literary and artistic production from California and the American Southwest. The journal, which is a worthy resource for anyone who is interested in the topic of service learning and Latino communities, is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Juntos-Partnerships-Professional-Development-Association/dp/0838460712

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Cobos, Rubén. A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish. 2nd ed. Santa Fé: Museum of New Mexico P, 2003. Print.

This is an invaluable resource for any practitioner who is in the American Southwest. With this vibrant and engaging dictionary, Cobos offers what is akin to a living, breathing history of the region’s rich linguistic and cultural development. It is well written, clearly arranged, and, quite simply, a treasure. For anyone who would wish to be able to truly communicate with and understand his or her New Mexican patients, especially, a familiarity with this dictionary and its vocabulary is a must.

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García, Hernán, Antonio Sierra, and Gilberto Balám. Wind in the Blood: Mayan Healing and Chinese Medicine. Trans. Jeff Conant. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999. Print.

Offering a detailed comparison between traditional Mayan and Chinese medicines, this text was originally intended for use both as a medical manual and as a bridge between the strictures of Western medicine and the needs of patients in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. This is a useful book for anyone who is interested in traditional native cultures, whether as a healthcare provider, an anthropologist, or an intrigued tourist and explorer.

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Gilb, Dagoberto, ed. Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1999. Print.

This collection of literary texts is wide-ranging, with entries that begin with excerpts of writing by Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and meander through the classic authors (Rolando Hinojosa, Tomás Rivera, and others) to arrive, finally, at contemporary writers such as Gilb himself. This is a wonderful book for anyone who would wish to learn about the literary and identity-constructing history of the Mexican peoples in Texas. It is certainly a classic in its genre.

Note: I wrote about Dagoberto Gilb’s story “Romero’s Shirt” (from his first collection, The Magic of Blood) in my dissertation and have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gilb, who is a gracious and warm person, on two different occasions. He told me that he didn’t know why, but that people really loved “Romero’s Shirt” and counted it as their favorite of his works. It’s a plain story but one that strikes a nerve and touches the heart, I think.

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Torres, Eliseo (“Cheo”) and Timothy L. Sawyer, Jr. Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2005. Print.

Cheo Torres, born in Corpus Christi, Texas and now a New Mexican by default, is an administrator and educator at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He is probably most well known outside of the university for his tireless work on behalf of native folk healing practices, or curanderismo. This small book is part a memoir and partially an anthropological investigation of New Mexican and Mexican folk healing practices.

—. Healing With Herbs and Rituals: A Mexican Tradition. Ed. Timothy L. Sawyer, Jr. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2006. Print.

This slender book provides a historical consideration of significant healers and their herbal treatments and outlines the long-term influences behind current practices, including the Moorish, the Spanish Judeo-Christian, and the Aztec. In-depth descriptions of the herbs and their usage bring the role of the yerbera, or herbalist, alive. This is a lovely book for both practitioner and interested layperson.

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Zavaleta, Antonio, and Alberto Salinas, Jr. Curandero Conversations: El Niño Fidencio, Shamanism and Healing Traditions of the Borderlands. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2009. Print.

Co-written by an anthropologist from the University of Texas at Brownsville and a practicing curandero from the area, this book includes three valuable avenues of information. It provides an in-depth historical outline of the major figures of curanderismo and their roles within the construction of the identities of both curandero and community served. The majority of the text consists of a faithful recreation of petitioners’ requests to Salinas; each is followed by commentary by the curandero and the anthropologist (Zavaleta). Finally, the appendices provide sources for the acquisition of cultural competency that may be valuable to a practitioner who would like to expand his or her awareness. This book is a rich resource for anyone interested in the cultural and historical underpinnings of traditional borderlands curanderismo.

 

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