Traditional Cures for the Partially Lost Soul

27 Sep

In an English class of mostly Mexican moms in Kentucky, for potluck I once took a beautiful dish of locally-grown heirloom tomatoes, with chunks of mozzarella cheese, and fragrant, fresh basil. Nobody even tried it. “Maybe because the tomatoes don’t look like normal tomatoes?” suggested the other teacher; indeed, the tomatoes were orange and reddish. I was discouraged because I’d been so hyped up to share my flavorful and pretty dish (aesthetics are not my strong suit in the kitchen), and nobody told me why they weren’t eating it.

Now that I live in Mexico, it’s obvious why nobody ate my exotic appetizer. The same reason almost nobody is interested in making pesto, even though you can get a huge bunch of basil for just 5 pesos. The culprit is the basil! Here, basil is like medicine, not food. (Why can’t it be both? I’m still not sure about that one.) People put a big bunch of basil in a vase as if it were flowers for their business to attract more clientele. More importantly, basil is used to curarte de espanto– it’s part of the treatment to cure you when you’ve lost part of your soul.

Sounds dramatic, huh? Erase that part from your mind for a second. Picture a kid in the US who is not gaining weight like they should. What happens? They get a bunch of tests and some pediatric protein shakes, their parents get nutrition counseling and vague threats of involvement by Child Protective Services. Something like that, right?

Down here, in many households the first line of defense would be to take the child to the curandero or curandera (the healer- usually a woman but not always) to get curado de espanto (cured of fright). One of the tias (aunts) was just telling Conan that Lucia is too whiney- and therefore she needs curing. When I first started having troubles with Lucia’s sleeping, when she was a baby, many folks suggested that we take her to get cured. I was convinced she just needed a better sleep routine, but Conan’s womenfolk (his mom and all the aunts) were very concerned that she needed curing. You might need curing if you have a loss of appetite, if your hands and feet are cold, if you have insomnia, if you are tired all the time, if you’re pale, if you have slight fevers, if you have headaches or chest pains, if you just feel run-down, out-of-sorts, not yourself. All of those symptoms could signify that you have espanto (fear/fright) and that you need to go get cured.

Conan used to go get cured from recurring migraines, which were supposedly caused by mal de ojo (the evil eye, yes, siree!). Funnily enough, he didn’t get migraines the whole 10 years that he was in the US. Shortly after we moved to Juquila, though, he started getting one right after walking past his mean neighbor. His aunt- who is not a curandera per se, but who knows tons about herbs and massage and other healing- came over and gave him a quick limpia– a cleanse, let’s call it. And his migraine was gone.

A cleanse is like a quicker, simpler version of getting cured- just something to clean the bad energy off of you. It involves rubbing an egg over you (no, you cannot eat the egg later- it makes the egg bad), brushing you with a big bunch of basil, and using rubbing alcohol or alcohol like mezcal, among other things.

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See? That egg is no good afterwards. Apparently.

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One of the Tías shows Khalil how it’s done.

People here have all kinds of rituals and protections woven into their daily lives, and who am I to say whether it works or not? For example, there are special charm bracelets for babies to protect them from the evil eye. Everyone in the US would surely be freaking out about them as a choking hazard, but here it’s par for the course. People also hold or touch a baby when they see one that they think is cute, because somehow touching the baby prevents you from accidentally giving the kid your bad energy.

Evil eye is not the only thing that causes these ills that require curing. The other main cause is “espanto”- a fright, let’s call it. Any moment of serious fear can cause those symptoms we talked about above, and therefore require this ritual of getting cured. It could be falling off a horse, seeing a snake, a wave knocking you down in the ocean- all kinds of stuff.* I remember that a friend of mine from Mexico was in a car accident once in Kentucky, and he called his cousin to hurry and bring him some bread to eat, so the fright of being in a car accident wouldn’t get into him (and make him lose part of his soul, I suppose- they didn’t tell me that part because they probably saw that I was already thoroughly confused. I bet it’s harder to find a decent curandero in Kentucky than here, too.) A student of mine from Mexico told me once, too, about how a fright like that is what really causes diabetes. It was one of those moments of seriously testing my abilities to show respect for a person’s culture and beliefs while also hoping to provide alternate/conflicting information that could be really important for that person’s whole family. (I’m still not sure how well I scored on that one. It’s a learning process.)

There is where the problem lies for me- and why I didn’t send Lucia to get cured when everyone told me too. I am never going to believe that one episode of shock causes someone to have diabetes. I think that many cases of “unexplained” symptoms might have a clear explanation, like anemia or poor circulation. My concern would always be about using a curandero exclusively and perhaps missing out on something important that needs a different type of cure.

Being open to this type of healing, however, without excluding other possibilities or treatment options, is absolutely fine by me. While Conan and I both revere science and reason, while we feel a bit dubious some of this evil eye business, we also respect and appreciate the power of energy, and the ways that it can be used positively or negatively. It’s not incredible to think that someone’s negative energy can make you feel bad. Conversely, if just suggestion can make someone feel better- just a placebo, for example- it’s not the slightest bit outlandish to think that a person’s benevolent touch and attention wouldn’t make us feel better, too. Both of us can accept that it might not be the egg or the basil exactly, so much as the ritual of it that focuses the person’s attention and energy, the healing touch, and a little bit of the placebo effect.

So after Conan got his big head injury a few weeks ago, he was happy to take off for Juquila, for a full-scale curing. He’d spent the week attempting to recover and rest amidst the chaos that is our household- kid problems, car problems, money problems, etc.- the usual workweek. He was still tired and dizzy with bouts of confusion. He had bags under his eyes from not enough sleep. Added to that was the fact that he’d lost weight lately. (His weight loss was absolutely due to a positive lifestyle change, but all of his aunts were walking around acting like I was forcibly starving him- although that’s another story.) “You look terrible;” his womenfolk told him. “Go and get yourself cured!” Even his mechanic buddy (the very honest but not very knowledgeable one) had told him that he really needed a cleansing, at least, to improve things with our car, too. We decided that a whole weekend without responsibility and caretaking might be enough cure in itself. So off he went to see the curandera in Juquila.

Getting curado de espanto is a much more elaborate ritual than the simple egg/basil/alcohol business that I’ve seen. A cleanse can be done by anybody who knows the ritual, but getting cured has to be done by an official healer. In Conan’s case, it involved crosses made of palm, many candles, and “some awful green drink,” among the other routine cleansing tools. The curandera analyzed the candle wax to determine what caused his fright, and whether or not he’d been cured after the first session.

The curandero also calls your spirit to return to you- which is part of the difference in this curing versus just getting rid of the bad energy of the evil eye. This ritual is to cleanse you and also bring this lost part of your soul back to you. This soul-seeking part totally makes me think of Peter Pan and his lost shadow. I picture Conan there trying to sew it back on himself and a little old lady laughing and shaking her head. The idea of a lost shadow- this lost part of the soul- sparked my thinking about the shadow parts of ourselves. Now I can see more clearly the beautiful and wise symbolism in this kind of ritual.

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Peter Pan trying to capture his shadow, all by his lonesome. Somebody go find that boy a curandera!

It took two curing sessions for the lost part of Conan’s soul to return. He also got a massage and a bath of rose petals. (I admit I was a bit jealous about that part.) The best part, though, according to Conan, was getting all that special attention- from the curandera, from his aunt, with whom he had good, long talks. I mean, imagine! A whole two days devoted to receiving TLC and being taken care of. Granted, you have to do what they tell you and stay under the covers in bed for like a whole day (not sure if I’m capable of that), but I can see how it could be worth it.

Conan conjectures that getting cured probably works so often in part because of the care and attention involved. Imagine being in the turmoil of adolescence and having some “fright” symptoms (aka normal teenage madness). Imagine your mama saying, “Come on- I’m worried about you; let’s go cure you. Stay home from school today, maybe tomorrow, too.” She cooks your favorite foods, she doesn’t ask you to do anything. Your whole family is extra nice to you, or at the minimum doesn’t bother you. You rest and relax for a couple of days, getting massages and special baths. You get the full dose of a placebo effect, too. That surely would cure me from an ailment or two.

I don’t think it’s going to cure diabetes, no. But what if it helped a person in a way that addressed the shadow parts of their spirit that were causing them to overeat and thus contributing to diabetes? I can see how it could be beneficial, even while I can doubt that it would be beneficial enough to be a complete treatment for diabetes. And I have no doubt that it can work for many types of problems. I don’t by any stretch think that all these curanderos are quacks, either. Some of them are herbalists, and I suspect that some probably have lots of other wisdom and healing knowledge to boot.

So did the curandera cure Conan? Her healing did not help our car continue to run. But Conan is certainly much better than he was, even if he’s still too skinny for his aunties’ liking. Can we chalk it up to the curandera’s powers? Who am I to say- it certainly didn’t hurt him, anyway.

Maybe I will get Lucia cured after all. If there’s a possibility my four year old will sleep better and whine less, what have I got to lose?

*I got examples of causes and some other good info from this really insightful page, which is for medical doctors and discusses respecting curanderos. It’s in Spanish.

 

 

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