Mother Earth Living

Las Curanderas: Traditional Healers in New Mexico

Curanderismo has survived for 400 years.
By Anselmo F. Arellano
March/April 1997
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At sunrise in northeastern New Mexico, clouds stretch like gods watching over the Mora Valley, a fertile expanse of land on the eastern side of the Sangrede Cristo Mountains. In the valley live the descendants of the region’s Hispanic colonists, whose social, cultural, and religious heritage has sustained their progeny for hundreds of years. A part of this legacy includes curanderismo, a healing practice founded upon faith, experience, and a knowledge of plants accumulated over the course of four centuries.

A blending of cultures

During the early Spanish colonial period (1598–1821), tribes of the Comanche Nation camped here, hunting wild game and planning raids on Spanish settlements on the western side of the mountains. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Mora Valley served as a gateway to the Great Plains for Hispanic ciboleros from the Santa Cruz and Taos districts, who went there to hunt buffalo, and comancheros, who conducted trading expeditions with the nomadic Native American tribes.

Despite fertile land that offered excellent farming prospects, however, the Mora Valley remained unsettled until the nineteenth century because of fierce conflicts among the Spanish colonists, with their Pueblo Indian allies, and the Jicarilla Apache, Navajo, Ute, Comanche, and other tribes.

Improved relations with the Comanche Nation, lords of the plains, in 1786, encouraged a group of Hispanics from Truchas, Las Trampas, Santa Cruz, and Taos to cross the Sangre de Cristos near Truchas Peak and Jicarita Mountain and descend into the Mora Valley. By 1816, they had established two communities, San Antonio, today known as Cleveland, and Santa Ger­trudis, today known as Mora. Other communities in and around the valley sprang up: La Cueva (The Cave), Agua Negra (Black Water), Llano del Coyote (Coyote Prairie), Golondrinas (Swallows), and Buena Vista (Pleasant View). (Following Spanish tradition, the settlers named their communities after patron saints, landmarks, or the surrounding landscape.) By the end of the century, all of northeastern New Mexico was settled.

The newcomers introduced farming on irrigated plots of land, raising small herds of livestock, and other traditions, including curanderismo, which is practiced today to some extent in New Mexico and southern Colorado by descendants of the first colonists.

Gabrielita, la curandera

At the lower end of the Mora Valley is Buena Vista, named for its panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and plains. The village, unmarked on any map, is home to Gabrielita Pino, one of New Mexico’s best-known curanderas. At ninety-one, she may be the state’s oldest practitioner of folk healing.

Curanderismo includes four specialties, beginning with the yerbera (herbalist) and continuing with the partera (midwife), sobadora (folk chiropractor), and curandera espiritual (spiritual healer), who uses prayer and ritual and is the least common of the curanderas. Some practitioners have specialized in only one area, but all have made some use of herbal remedios (remedies). Whatever the practice, most people refer to all of these folk healers as curanderas. Some men have also practiced as curanderos, sobadores, or spiritual healers, but traditionally these roles have been reserved for women.

Gabrielita combined the specialties of yerbera, sobadora, and partera in her practice, but, because of her age, she now is primarily an herbalist and folk chiropractor. Like most other curanderas, she believes that herbs and her healing abilities are, above all, gifts from God, yet like other curanderas, she also served as an apprentice to an older family member. In Gabrielita’s case, her mentor was her grandmother, Jacintita Ortega de Mares, well known as a curandera in the Mora Valley, who raised her and her younger brother, Eloy, after their mother died during Eloy’s birth. During her childhood, Gabrielita assisted her grandmother and quickly learned to identify medicinal plants. She picked up curanderismo by helping her grandmother and closely observing the applications she prepared.

Gabrielita married at fifteen, learned the practice of massage from her father-in-law, and became a folk chiropractor. Over the years, she acquired enough knowledge about herbs to practice as an herbalist and, eventually, as a licensed midwife. With her store of knowledge of folk healing, she was regarded as a curandera total.

Whenever patients seek her help, Gabrielita talks with them, does a physical exam, counsels them, and prepares a remedy from the many herbs, roots, and plants she keeps at home. She seldom charges more than $5, and if a patient has no money, she demands none. Sometimes, patients give her vegetables, chickens, meat, or other tokens of appreciation.

To stock her curandera kit, Gabrielita picks a few herbs growing close to her house; others she buys at drug and health-food stores; some are brought to her. When she was younger, she spent a lot of time in the fields gathering herbs. She began her harvest on August 12 of each year, as did her grandmother and other curanderas, who attended mass on that date and sometimes walked in a procession with the saints, praying that God would bless the herbs before picking. “There is a religious, spiritual connection to this day,” Gabrielita says. ­“August 12 is the day of the Blessed Virgin, or so the old ones said.”

During one of my visits, Gabrielita pulls out her curandera kit, filled with the twenty-three herbs and roots she most commonly uses. As she looks at them one by one, she recites their names from labels or from memory and quickly tells me what they’re good for. “Altamisa (mountain mugwort), this one you pick in the higher mountains; it is good for colds, fever, and the stomach. Coyaye (snake broom) is very good for women during childbirth and the change of life. Malvas (mallow) is good for sore throats and excellent in helping women with the afterbirth. Añil del muerto (goldweed) is very good for open wounds and sores on the skin. It is also good for the intestines, ulcers, and hemorrhoids. Cota (Navajo or Hopi tea) is excellent for the kidneys and urinary tract, and you can find it everywhere. It tastes better than coffee! Oshá (osha) helps alleviate stomach cramps.”

After describing all twenty-three herbs, Gabrielita pauses and then continues: “Cada remedio tiene su virtud.” (“Each remedy has its virtue.”) She then agrees to show how she prepares one of many remedies she has administered for more than fifty years. She pulls out a large, flat stone and mano (grinding stone), then chooses the herbs, roots, spices, and lubricants that go into her cure for mal aire (bad wind or air).

People with this condition experience headaches and sometimes vomit after exposure to cold air. Gabrielita has found that ruda (rue) root and punche mexicano (native tobacco) relieve the problem. Placing rue root and tobacco leaves on the flat stone, she methodically pulverizes them with the mano. She adds ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and a dash of salt and grinds again. After attaching a piece of nylon stocking to a bowl, she screens the ground herbs through it with her hand. The fine dust filters to the bottom of the bowl, and she removes the coarse material from the cloth, rubbing a few particles on her throat and praying silently the way her grandmother did before her. Devoutly religious, Gabrielita prays to her patron saint, Santa Rita, seeking her help in curing the person who is ill. After grinding and screening the powder once more, she rubs petroleum jelly, olive oil, or lard on the patient’s forehead, lifts the brown preparation from the bowl with a cotton ball, and daubs it on the greasy spot. Relief is near.

Gabrielita’s remedy for mal aire costs $1 per teaspoon, enough to “at least cover the purchase of cinnamon and nutmeg,” she says with a smile. “My grandchildren come in all the time asking, ‘Where is the medicina del aire?”’

If they all came at once, she’d have a houseful: her nineteen children produced eighty grandchildren, seventy great-grandchildren, and thirty-five great-great-grandchildren. Additionally Gabrielita has seventeen half brothers and sisters from her father’s second marriage.

The future of curanderismo

Gabrielita’s long life and her profound knowledge of curanderismo have elevated her to a position of a sabia (wise one). I first had her speak to one of my classes in 1980, so college students might have a better understanding of folk healing and its accompanying history, culture, and heritage. Since then, other people, including Virginia Alaniz, have invited her to take part in presentations and workshops for the lay community as well as for professionals.

Virginia, who has been an apprentice to Gabrielita for many years, is a licensed psychotherapist for the State of New Mexico. Gabrielita is very happy that Virginia has been learning and helping her. “Since no one in my family has expressed an interest in becoming a curandera, I am happy that Virginia has expressed the desire. If I was a good médica, she will be even better.”

Virginia, who is also studying in Santa Fe to become a licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine and to practice acupuncture and herbal medicine, worries that traditional healing practices are declining because of sanctions and requirements of the scientific medical profession. What that profession would lose, she says, speaking affectionately about the curandera she loves and respects, is a tradition that combines faith, understanding, experience, and a sense of connection to the past.

“Gabrielita begins the healing process through discussion, not just basic conversation,” Virginia says. “She gets to the cause before she addresses the cure—this is the important role she has played as a traditional curandera.”

Discussing, preparing, treating

Curanderas take time to have in-depth discussions with their ­patients before proposing a remedy. Above left, Gabrielita ­describes a treatment for mal aire (illness after exposure to cold air), which she applies to the forehead. She prepares many herbal treatments using her grinding stone, or mano, pictured here, and stocks her curandera kit with herbs that she gathers, purchases, or receives from ­others. She knows and ­respects the history of each herbal remedy she uses.

Gabrielita’s curandera kit

As a curandera, Gabrielita Pino has drawn upon the experience and knowledge passed down for 400 years. Some of her medicinal herbs came to New Mexico with her ancestors, who arrived with the first Spanish colonists in 1598. Others were introduced from Mexico. But all were incorporated with the herbal healing practices used by Native Americans living in what today is New Mexico.

Some of Gabrielita’s favorite herbs and how she uses them are given below. The list is not intended to promote self-treatment, however; consult your health-care provider for more information.

Alhucema

(Lavender—Lavandula spp.)
Found in most Hispanic households, lavender tea is taken to ease the pain of childbirth and infant colic. It is also pleasant to drink as a beverage. This Mediterranean herb was probably brought to New Mexico by the first Spanish colonists.

Altamisa

(Mountain Mugwort—Artemisia franserioides)
The bitter tea of this silvery herb is used to alleviate colds and flu, settle the stomach, and reduce fever. Its medicinal use was probably adopted from the Pueblo Indians.

Añil del muerto

(Goldweed—Verbesina encelioides)
After washing the affected area with soap made from pine resin, Gabrielita places finely ground leaves mixed with olive oil on open wounds or sores. Mixed with punche mexicano (native tobacco), it is good for hemorrhoids. A tea of goldweed leaves can be used to treat ulcers, stomach, and intestinal disorders.

Cota

(Navajo or Hopi Tea— Thelesperma megapotamicum)
This native plant is good for treating maladies of the stomach, kidneys, and urinary tract, and is a delicious hot or cold beverage, especially when served with mint.

Coyaye/Escoba de la víbora ­

(Rattlesnake Broom—Gutierrezia sarothrae)
A bath with a rattlesnake-broom decoction added is good for the skin and eases arthritis pain, as will small quantities of the herb in a tea. The tea is also used to treat infant colic and stomachaches, and as a douche for menstrual problems after childbirth and during menopause.

Inmortal

(Antelope Horns—Asclepias asperula)
This herb is prescribed as a tea to ease labor pains and to treat respiratory and heart conditions. Because inhaling the powdered root induces sneezing and opens nasal passages, it is used to treat sinus infections.

Malvas

(Mallow—Malva neglecta)
Gabrielita uses a tea made by boiling the leaves of this herb, known since ancient times for its soothing qualities, to dab on skin irritations and to wash new mothers after the afterbirth has been removed. She also applies powdered dry leaves inside the throat to treat swollen glands.

Maravilla

(Wild four-o’clock—Mirabilis multiflora)
Small pieces of root are chewed to reduce appetite and promote weight loss. The powdered root is mixed with petroleum jelly, olive oil, or lard and applied to inflamed joints.

Ruda

(Rue—Ruta graveolens)
Leaves are soaked in olive oil, then squeezed. A few drops of the oil are placed inside the ear to alleviate earache. A rue tea made from leaves can be taken to treat ringing in the ears. The dried root is a main ingredient in Gabrielita’s preparation for mal aire. 


Anselmo F. Arellano holds a doctorate in ­history, languages, and literature from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he is program director of the Center for Regional Studies. Joe Coca is a photographer whose home and studio are in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Additional reading

Los Remedios–Traditional Herbal Remedies by Michael Moore. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Red Crane Books, 1990.


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