Traditional Midwifery: Partera Practices
In northeastern New Mexico is the small city of Las Vegas, once a thriving mercantile center on the Santa Fe Trail. The city was founded in 1835; the surrounding region was settled by Hispanic colonists between 1598 and 1821. Today, the ranching community in this corner of New Mexico extends east from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the vast plains along the Texas border.
An important member of this community is Jesucita Aragón, a partera, or midwife, who has delivered thousands of the region’s babies during a practice that began seventy-six years ago.
Young apprentice, young midwife
Aragón was born in Las Vegas in 1908. In 1918, after her mother died of influenza, Aragón moved with her father and seven sisters to her grandparents’ ranch thirty-six miles east of Las Vegas, near Trujillo. There, the young girl learned to do a man’s work. She fixed fences, lassoed and branded cows, sheared sheep, herded flocks of sheep and goats, and hoed the family’s bean fields. Her younger sisters stayed in the house and tended to domestic work with their grandmother, Lola Gallegos.
Gallegos was a popular partera and curandera, or folk medicine practitioner, among the community’s ranching families. Although Gallegos relied on Aragón’s siblings to help run the house, she selected Aragón to be her apprentice in midwifery.
“She was a very good partera, and I learned from her when I was quite young,” says Aragón, adding that she never knew why her grandmother selected her to carry on the tradition, rather than one of her sisters. Gallegos only told her young protégé to stand and watch everything she did during a baby’s delivery. “You won’t have me forever, and I want someone to remain in my place,” Gallegos told her granddaughter.
The training and special attention paid off. One night, Gallegos was summoned to a ranch house far from Trujillo to deliver a baby. During her grandmother’s absence, one of Aragón’s aunts entered labor, and the adults on hand all panicked. Without hesitation, Aragón took charge and delivered her new cousin. She remembers feeling no anxiety or pressure; rather, everything seemed to come quite naturally. Later that night when her grandmother returned, she praised her granddaughter. “Very good, Jesucita, you can now become a partera! A thousand thanks to the Lord, because you will not have me forever!”
And so, at age thirteen, Aragón launched her career as a midwife.
Aragón and her family believe that a partera’s skills are God-given gifts upon which many people depend. The practice is tied to the folk-healing traditions, or curanderismo, that have endured in New Mexico for four centuries. Hispanic settlers brought curanderismo to the region during the late 1500s, and it hasn’t changed much over the course of time. It include several specialties: yerbera (herbalist); sobadora (folk chiropractor); curandera espiritual (spiritual healer); and partera. While people of both genders practice as herbalists, chiropractors, and/or spiritual healers, the role of partera historically has been reserved for women.
Some curanderas incorporate elements of all four specialties into their practices, but all curanderas apply those of the yerbera, or healing through herbal applications. Aragón is both a partera and an herbalist. She uses some of her herbal remedies, especially teas, in her midwifery practice to become what is known as a curandera total, a title bestowed upon those with an extensive knowledge of folk healing and experience in both herbalism and midwifery. Her favorite herbs to brew into teas include poleo(Mentha canadensis, or field mint), manzanilla (Matricaria recutita, or chamomile), and yerba buena (Mentha spicata, or spearmint). She brews herbs to make soothing and relaxing teas, which she sweetens and gives to expectant mothers as she readies them for delivery. She grows mints in her home flower garden, picks other herbs in the wild, and buys some at pharmacies and health-food stores. While many parteras brew the leaves of malvas (Malva neglecta, or mallow) with raisins to help ease the pain and discomfort of delivery, Aragón says she has always preferred to administer her own tea blends.
Whenever an expectant mother is about to deliver, Aragón asks her to come in the day before the due date to receive a thorough examination. She also uses this time to talk with the mother in assuring tones, telling her that all is well and that the delivery will be free of complications. A devoutly religious person, Aragón is like other parteras in that she prays silently to the saints both as she prepares the expectant mother and as she helps deliver the baby. She reveres San Antonio, protector of children; San Martín Caballero, bringer of good fortune; San Lázaro, the healer; and Santo Niño de Atocha, who helps those in need and to whom she prays during the birth. Her favorites, she says, are San Ramón Donato and San Luis Gonzaga, patron saints of midwives.
If Aragón feels that a birth may be difficult, she asks a licensed obstetrician to assist. The fact that they have responded eagerly to her requests is something she feels is a sign of respect for the partera tradition. However, parteras are more difficult to find these days in New Mexico, she says. A few dedicated women continue the practice, especially in rural areas, but traditional parteras, she says, are being replaced by equally dedicated women who are becoming both registered nurses and licensed midwives. This is perhaps a result of strict oversight by the New Mexican medical community, something Aragón has experienced directly. When she turned eighty, the New Mexico health department revoked her midwife certificate. Officials there said that she was too old to practice, Aragón says. But she remains undeterred and isn’t secretive about her beliefs. “Dios me dio esta herencia y ayudaré cuando me necesitan. Cuando ya no pueda, entonces pararé,” she says: “God gave me this gift, and if I am needed, I will still help. When I am no longer able, then I will stop.”
Thousands of births, many visitors
Today, people often come to Aragón’s home in Las Vegas to talk with her about her experiences. Many adult visitors were once the babies she delivered.
“I have many children from my job as a partera,” she says, smiling with pride. “A doctor, many nurses, teachers, attorneys, and many more.”
By Aragón’s count, she has delivered more than 30,000 babies during the past seventy-six years. The results include twenty-seven sets of twins and two sets of triplets. Most recently, she delivered a baby on June 27, 1996. Her cousin–the first baby she delivered without her grandmother by her side–died three years ago at age seventy-two. The largest baby she ever delivered topped the scales at thirteen pounds; the smallest barely tipped them at one and one-half pounds. For that tiny baby, Aragón prepared a makeshift incubator near the oven of a woodstove and fed him with an eyedropper until his mother could nurse him properly. The baby is now a healthy man who is nearly fifty years old.
When Aragón turned eighty-nine last March, her friends and family awakened her with a guitar serenade and a song, “Las mañanitas” (“The Birthday Morning Song”). They then asked her to share some stories from her three-quarters of a century of midwifery practice. She thought for a while, then recalled one birth that occurred nearly fifty years ago. She was summoned to a ranch at Cañón del Holguín near Trujillo. Aragón suspected that the mother would have a long labor and decided to spend the night with her. The baby’s arrival broke their sleep and, in the dark, Aragón couldn’t find matches to relight the coal-oil lantern. But the baby didn’t mind, and the partera delivered a healthy boy in total darkness.
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. In addition to his work as a historian, researcher, and writer, he has spent many years assisting migrant farmworkers in California and New Mexico. He wrote “New Mexico’s Healing Tradition”, which appeared in the March/April 1997 issue of Herbs for Health.
Bliss, Fran Leeper. La Partera: Story of a Midwife. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1980.
Moore, Michael. Los Remedios–Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books, 1990.
Perrone, Bobette, et al., eds. Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
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