Curanderismo: The Folk Magic of Mexico

Many people in Spanish-speaking countries turn to curanderas for healing. Image by Dan Herrick/Lonely Planet/Getty Images

In many Hispanic communities in the United States, as well as in Mexico and parts of Central and South America, people often turn to the services of a curandero or curandera. The curandera (this is the feminine form, the masculine ends with the –ero) is someone who practices curanderismo — spiritual healing based upon the use of traditional herbs and remedies, and is often considered a leader in the local community.

The curandera in your neighborhood is the person you turn to for undiagnosed illness, particularly when that illness may have metaphysical or supernatural origins.

Much like folk healing in other parts of the world, there are a number of cultural and societal influences that color the way the curandera is seen by other members of the community. Typically, it is believed that a curandera is someone who has been given the gift of healing by God himself — remember, most Spanish-speaking countries are heavily Catholic.

More importantly, the curandera is the only person who has the skills and ability to fight off mal puesto — diseases caused by curses, hexes, or mal de ojo (the evil eye). Often, it is believed that these negative influences are brought about by the work of brujas or brujos, who practice sorcery or low magic, and are sometimes thought to be in league with the devil. In some cases, a curandera may perform a barrida ritual, in which an object is charmed and used to eliminate negative energy.

In some cases, an egg is used as a decoy target, and it will absorb negative magic; the egg —and the magic — is then disposed of somewhere far away from the victim.

Types of Curandera/os

Generally, those who practice curanderismo fall into three categories, based on specialization. The yerbero is someone who practices primarily herbalism.

A yerbero might prescribe herbal remedies for healing, including teas and poultices, or plant blends for smudging and burning.

For magic related to pregnancy and childbirth, one might visit a partera, who is the local midwife. In addition to delivering babies, the partera helps women who are hoping to conceive — or trying not to — and aids in postpartum care. In general, she offers services for a number of women’s reproductive issues.

There are also curanderas who specialize as sobradores, or massage therapists. They use touch and massage techniques to facilitate healing.

Regardless of specialization, most curanderas work to diagnose the ailments of the patient on an all-encompassing physical, spiritual, and emotional level.

Spiritual and Historical Influences of Curanderismo

Much of the basis of curanderismo is a blend of indigenous healing practice and Judeo-Christian principles. Robert Trotter and Juan Antonio Chavira say in their book Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing, “The Bible and the teachings of the Church have been combined with folk wisdom to produce a foundation for the theories of both illness and healing that make up much of the structure of curanderismo. The Bible has greatly influenced curanderismo through references made to the specific healing properties of animal parts, plants, oil and wine.”

Trotter, a Professor of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University, says in his paper Curanderismo: A Picture of Mexican-American Folk Healing, that there are other historical influences in place as well. He cites beliefs "originating in Greek humoral medicine... interwoven with practices from early Judeo-Christian healing traditions. Other roots derive from Europe in the Middle Ages, utilizing Old World medicinal plants and magical healing practices from Medieval witchcraft. Moorish influences from the conquest of Southern Europe are clearly visible in curanderismo... There are significant Native American traditions included in curanderismo... and the extensive pharmacopeia of the New World."

In addition to Biblical influence, curanderismo derives from the shamanistic practices of local indigenous cultures, as well as European notions of witchcraft as brought to the new world by Spanish settlers.

Curanderismo Today

Curanderismo is practiced in many parts of the Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas, and many people advocate for the use of this holistic, spiritual practice as a complement to scientific, medical treatments. In Considering Curanderismo:
The Place of Traditional Hispanic Folk Healing in Modern Medicine
author Stacy Brown suggests that conventional medical practitioners would do well to educate themselves about the ideas and practice of curanderismo, especially when treating patients in the Hispanic communities.

Brown says, “Historically curanderos served as the primary healthcare providers in many communities, but with the rise of an exclusive system of modern healthcare the spiritual and herbal healing of the curandero is often dismissed by the strictly scientific and pharmaceutical medicine of the modern physician.  As the role of the curandero inevitably diminishes, it is imperative that the healthcare community understand and utilize the positive and widespread influence of these traditional healers within the Hispanic community.  At the core of conventional and traditional medicine is the necessity of communication between the “healer” and the patient. The cultural healthcare alternative of curanderismo is the choice for millions of United States residents.”

Dr. Martin Harris looked at the cultural challenges present in the cases of mental health patients in Hispanic communities, in particular when it comes to DSM-IV diagnoses. Harris points out that the integration of curanderos in their own community is one of the key points that makes them successful when treating their neighbors.

“The setting for the curanderos practice is invariably their homes. There is a waiting area as well as a room for private consultation... The curers all practice in the community they serve. In this respect they are completely integrated with their clients… [there is a] culturally relevant and appropriate nature of the curanderos’ relationships with their patients. In addition to sharing their clients’geographic location, the curers share patients’social/economic, class, background, language, and religion, as well as a system of disease classification.”

Additional Reading

For additional reading on curanderismo, you may wish to check out some of these resources:

Brown, Stacy: Considering Curanderismo: The Place of Traditional Hispanic Folk Healing in Modern Medicine

Edgerton, R. B., M. Karno, and I. Fernandez. "Curanderismo in the Metropolis. the Diminished Role of Folk Psychiatry among Los Angeles Mexican-Americans." American Journal of Psychotherapy 24, no. 1 (1970): 124-134.

Harris, Martin L. “Curanderismo and the DSM-IV: Diagnostic and Treatment Implications for the Mexican American Client”. Julian Somora Research Institute. September 1998.

Trotter, Robert T., and Chavira, Juan Antonio. Curanderismo, Mexican American Folk Healing. 2nd , University of Georgia Press pbk. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

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Wigington, Patti. "Curanderismo: The Folk Magic of Mexico." ThoughtCo, Dec. 3, 2017, Wigington, Patti. (2017, December 3). Curanderismo: The Folk Magic of Mexico. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Curanderismo: The Folk Magic of Mexico." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).