Curanderismo is the name that the Spanish gave to the traditional healing
practices of the Indians of Mexico.
Curanderismo is to modern medicine what philosophy is to science. It is its
origin and still its constant companion. In the other hand, the dichotomy
between modern medicine and ancestral medicine is beginning to disappear
even among mainstream populations of industrialized nations.
Growing numbers of patients are becoming more interested in traditional
healing practices. This interest is not a fortuitous one. For all of the
undeniable contributions of modern medicine, we are becoming aware of the
negative effects the pharmacological revolution is causing in our patients.
We are finding diseases caused by medications. In more than one way we have
come full circle: The cure is becoming the disease.
Curanderismo has been here long before us, and it continues to be here.
While its survival has been partially conditioned by people’s lack of
access to modern health care, there are stronger reasons for this practice
to continue in our communities. The first one is tradition. The other
reason – and perhaps the strongest one – is based on pragmatism:
Curanderismo is still around because it works.
This brings us to Curanderismo as it has been practiced on the American
Because this knowledge was not European-based, it was considered
unscientific by the dominant culture. Nevertheless, traditional healing
continued to be one of the healing practices not only of the indigenous
groups but also of the new mixed-blood populations.
Western systems of healing had little or no classifications for healing
properties of the herbs of the American continent, but the indigenous
populations did. And part of this knowledge was preserved by popular
traditions that went unnoticed by mainstream medicine. As time went by
plants were given new names, but remained in use for the same healing
purposes. Herbology is a system of healing integrated into the conceptual
frame of Curanderismo, but not the only one. Let’s keep in perspective that
for the ancient healers, the human soul covered the domains of the body,
the heart and the mind, each one of these areas being approachable with a
wide variety of healing practices, the essential one being the healer’s
ability to search and assess the patient’s soul.
The Cartesian dichotomy between body-mind, did not apply to the ancient
healers, who viewed health as a continuum of energy in the human body.
According to some of these models the body was conditioned by the liver,
which would either give us “good” or “bad blood.” the concept of blood had
to do with our basic attitude as we faced the challenges of life, which
would either keep our blood clean (if we were to radiate good medicine), or
would turn our blood heavy with toxic emotions, in which case our energy
would become bad medicine.
Accordingly, if we had good blood, we would produce good air around us.
People would feel comfortable, and uplifted with us around. On the other
hand, if we had bad blood, those around us would feel uncomfortable, and
defensive when we were around.
There were specific procedures to “clean the air” of a given person, place
or situation. Sounds, touch, positions, movements, light, warmth, unguents,
heat and aromas could dissipate the bad air.
There are some types of diseases that have to do with people losing their
purpose in life. Life begins to abandon them while they are still in the
body. They are like a tree that is still alive, but whose roots have been
removed from the earth. Their personal heart is no longer in unity with the
heart of life. In isolation, the Quetzal, the sacred bird that lives in the
human heart, stops moving its wings, stops singing, begins to die.
It is this bird that speaks through the voice of the poet and the healer.
It is this active living bird that encourages the bird of his fellow humans
to rise and sing.
The ancestral healers stated that the pains of the heart could be stronger
than the ones of the body.
Broken hearts of today continue to validate this ancestral paradigm. Now we
have heart specialists talking to us not only of our diets and cholesterol
levels, but also of the quality of our relations as the main determinant of
our heart’s condition, for they too have learned through scientific
observations what Curanderos have known all along: That relations can heal
or kill us.
We owe to the ancestral healers the awareness that the emotional life and
the physical life don’t necessarily experience time and space in the same
way. While it is in the nature of the physical body to be only in the
present, that is, in one place and moment at a time, the emotional body,
can be in several places and moments at once. That is why it was
represented as a sacred bird whose wings would allow him to go beyond the
boundaries of time and space. This defiance of physical limitations can
also be done by our awareness-body, for we can go from our individual
consciousness, to the collective and universal consciousness, these last
ones being experienced as “visions” and “prophecies” and other forms of
If it was the one of the body, then ordinary remedies would be used in the
healing process. These healing practices relied heavily in local herbs,
places (such as natural sanctuaries), animal products, the use of cold and
hot water, massages and sweat lodges.
However, if the affliction of the soul was at the level of the heart, or of
the awareness-body, then extraordinary psycho-spiritual procedures were set
The purpose of Curanderismo is to heal the wound at all its levels, to
facilitate the process of integration of the patient’s soul to its
essential unity within itself and with the universal-soul which the Aztec
healers called “ometeotl,” literally “the one who is close and near.”
Wholeness within the individual, and wholeness with nature and relations,
is the essential paradigm of Curanderismo.
The wound of the soul has to do with the “shadow” or double, the part of
our mind that is affected by our ordinary experiences, such as physical or
emotional experiences. Often times, it is this shadow that is trapped in
the world of the mind, creating confusions and distortions (wounds) in our
soul. The challenge of the Curandero is then two-fold. First, the task is
to find the shadow of the afflicted individual. The second is to integrate
this shadow to the soul who needs it as long as the soul is going to be
encapsulated in the body.
The soul from the perspective of Curanderismo has physical, emotional,
mental and spiritual dimensions. As such, it can reach lower and higher
states of consciousness. The first ones are identified as the underworlds,
and there are nine of them, each one of them with their own particular
forces and characteristics. There are also specific emotional energies that
fluctuate in each one of these domains. The Curandero, with his heart (who
has been to every domain), can determine the location of the soul in anyone
of these worlds. And there are also 13 over-worlds, that can become harmful
to the soul if the person does not learn how to descend from them and
re-engage the ordinary world, an illness known as “quedarse arriba”, “to
get lost in the world of above.”
At another level, the Curandero has realized that he is one with his
natural environment, and protects sacred places from the wounds of the
unnatural ways of existence. The Curanderos are the caretakers of the Earth
for the life of future generations. They go, today, to those sacred places.
They fast, maintain silence and absorb the healing energy of those places.
Then they bring such feeling and share it with their brothers who have
plans to “develop” those places. The Curanderos protect the Earth from the
wounds of civilization.
Curanderismo, addresses behavior and consciousness as part of a larger
paradigm, the one of the soul and the one of the community. As such, its
domain is not limited to the areas of biology, health and illness, or even
life, for Curanderos work within a paradigm of eternity and spirit. It is,
by design, a system of wholeness. It works with the paradoxical predicament
of human life (its mortality and eternity) and its energetic exchange with
Curanderismo remains the oldest and most widely used health system of the
Americas as well as the least understood by the academic world.
Curanderos practice a therapist-centered healing, one where the healer
takes responsibility for the energy, skills and processes that he or she
brings to the healing encounter.
A multicultural world is giving us now the opportunity to see how
experiences are greatly determined by the way they are viewed and treated;
that a psychological crisis may be enhanced or managed by the way we
approach it, and that experiences that have been void of meaning in one
cultural context, can become significant and meaningful in another one.
Cross-cultural experiences can provide us with a wide variety of tools to
illuminate the inner life and come to its aid in times of need. And we can
learn them by living and learning from each other, with respect. Our
different ways can be an asset for us all. Perhaps it is now time to pause
and to learn from each other. After all, while our past has been different,
we all share the same future.
Roberto Dansie is a clinical psychologist. In 1997 he received the golden
medallion from the National Indian Health Board for his contributions to
health in Indian country. He lives in northern California.