What to Know About the Origins of Mexican Folk Healing

A spiritual rite in Catemaco
A spiritual rite in Catemaco | © Michał Huniewicz / Flickr
Photo of Stephen Woodman
13 March 2018

Mexican folk healing, or curanderismo, is a practice that blends Mayan, Aztec, and Spanish Catholic traditions. Folk healers, known as curanderos, believe that their healing abilities are a spiritual vocation. They use a variety of treatments and remedies, and their knowledge is often passed down through generations of families. Today, there is a growing revival of interest in curanderismo, both in Mexico and the United States.

A blend of beliefs

Curanderismo evolved from a broad range of different beliefs and practices. Mayan, Aztec, and Catholic beliefs are the most obvious influences, but by no means the only ones. Cuban santería, which has African origins, is also a major influence, as are Islamic medicine and Greek humoral theory. There is also a massive amount of variety within curanderismo itself, as different healers and regions favor different practices.

The first book detailing traditional medicinal practices in Mexico was produced by the Aztec doctor Martin de la Cruz, just 31 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis was written in the Aztec language Nahautl and translated into Latin. It listed 251 medicinal herbs commonly used by the Aztecs.

Incense is an important part of curandero ceremonies | © Larry Lamsa / Flickr

Curing the body

Broadly speaking, it is possible to divide curanderismo into physical and mental varieties, although in practice, folk healers tend to emphasize the connections between the body and the mind or spirit. Contemporary curanderismo still makes extensive use of herbs to cure physical ailments. Plants are used on their own, or mixed together to form herbal remedies. Garlic and onion are used extensively, as is aloe vera. Animal-based medicines are also used, including snake oil, which is obtained from the fat of snake skins, and bufo toad medicine, which contains a powerful psychedelic.

One of the remedies that is widely regarded as particularly powerful and complete is the temazcal ceremony. This ritual is performed in a stone, igloo-shaped structure which is filled with steam as a shaman pours scented water onto heated volcanic rocks. The temazcal represents a return to the womb and serves to cleanse the body of impurities.

A traditional temazcal ceremony in Monterrey | © Steven Zwerink / Flickr

Healing the spirit

Other curandero rituals are designed to heal on spiritual or psychological levels. Certain conditions and curses require specific treatments. The evil eye is a curse cast by a malevolent look and particularly affects babies. Susto, which means fright or loss of spirit, is another condition with symptoms such as nervousness, insomnia, and depression.

Curanderos believe that both conditions can be cured with a spiritual cleansing, a practice with pre-Hispanic roots that often incorporates prayers to Catholic saints. The ceremony typically requires a chicken egg and some rosemary plants. To cleanse a patient, a curandero brushes their head, torso, and limbs with the plants to sweep away negativities. An egg is rubbed across the body before it is broken into a glass of water. The curandero examines the egg in the water and bases predictions or advice on the shapes he sees in the glass. The ritual is closed with prayers and the spraying of perfume over the patient.

A spiritual cleansing | © ProtoplasmaKid / WikiCommons

The future of curanderismo

The modern practice of curanderismo was heavily influenced by famous practitioners such as Teresa Urrea and Niño Fidencio, who built huge followings in their lifetimes.

Urrea became famous in her teenage years when she fell into a coma and was mysteriously “resurrected” at her wake. News of her reputed healing powers spread across the country in 1889 and more than 1,000 people camped outside her desert town seeking attention.

Niño Fidencio also attracted pilgrims from across the country in the 1920s and 1930s. Even Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles visited him for treatment when he was suffering from an illness.

Today, curanderismo classes are offered at several institutions in Mexico, including La Tranca Institute of Healing in Cuernavaca, a teaching center for curanderismo techniques. Interest in the tradition has also grown abroad, with one course even being offered at the University of New Mexico.

Incense chalice | © Steven Zwerink / Flickr