Why you should care

Because ancient cures that have survived centuries are now offering solutions to new-age health problems.  

Fresh eucalyptus releases its bittersweet aroma as steam, made from water poured over hot rocks, fills the domelike clay structure of the temazcal. Crouched inside this pre-Hispanic steam room, Ramiro Rivera — an apprentice at Mexico City’s traditional healing clinic, Temazcal Tonatiuh — explains that “with the help of the eucalyptus, your skin acts as a third kidney,” removing bodily wastes. The temazcal is only one of many healing methods the clinic uses. And the clinic is only one of many groups that are riding a new wave of interest in Mexican curandería, an umbrella term for the country’s traditional healing practices.

Curandería, which literally means “the practice of healing,” employs everything from herbal medicine to ancient, Native Mexican spiritual practices and talk therapy. It incorporates knowledge that’s been around “since the birth of humankind,” says Rita Navarrete Perez, who runs Temazcal Tonatiuh with her sister, Cristina. And in rural Mexico, curandería never died out, says Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, the author of the first English-language textbook on the topic, Curanderismo: The Art of Traditional Medicine Without Borders, which was published in July 2017.

Pharmaceutical companies are just businesses, and it’s in their best interest to keep people sick.

Emanuel Jenofontes, founder of Medicinas de la Madre Tierra

But newer audiences, including urban populations in different parts of the world, are now beginning to take notice of the practice for the first time. Medicinas de la Madre Tierra, a network of traditional practitioners, or curanderos, that launched in 2011, distributes medicines around the globe — to countries like the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile. The publication of Torres’ book, and a surge of enrollment in his curandería courses at the University of New Mexico to 300 students each year for the past five years, also point to the growing popularity of the practice beyond Mexico. And the founding of countless new groups and workshops focusing on the practice in Mexico City highlights the revival of interest in the homeland of these traditional cures.

A growing disenchantment with Western medicine is a likely reason behind the trend, suggests Emanuel Jenofontes, founder of Medicinas de la Madre Tierra. People, he says, are realizing that “pharmaceutical companies are just businesses, and it’s in their best interest to keep people sick.” On both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, says Navarrete Perez, a sense that “doctors no longer approach their patients in a loving way” has gripped conventional medical relationships.

Curandería, on the other hand, focuses on relationships and emphasizes patients’ own responsibility toward their health. Over a meal of chiles rellenosstuffed and fried Mexican peppers — Cristina Navarrete and Rivera discuss a recent patient who was blaming her parents and a coworker for her unhappiness and chronic pain. But in health, says Navarrete, “your worst enemy is yourself.” Panic only complicates physical ailments, suggests her sister. A caring relationship with a health practitioner is absolutely necessary for people to take responsibility for their own health, Navarrete says, repeatedly using the verb apapachar — which means to comfort through physical contact. Indeed, its holistic approach is a hallmark of curandería, agrees Jenofontes.

But other factors are likely also pulling greater audiences to these traditional practices. Curandería methods are generally cost-effective and tend to have more immediate results than Western medicine, says Rivera.

Cures safe to try at home, as recommended by experts:

Recommended by the Navarrete sisters:

  • Keep an aloe plant at home. It can act as a moisturizer, an anti-balding shampoo and a sexual lubricant.
  • Put dandelion leaves in a food processor with water, then drink the concoction to strengthen your liver.
  • Eucalyptus helps with respiratory issues. You can boil and drink it as a tea, or just breathe in the steam from the brew.

Recommended by Torres:

  • When Torres was a child and got scared, his mother helped chase his fear away by rubbing dry sage all over him and saying “the spirit of Cheo, return to the body.” It worked, he claims.

Though its roots are in Native Mexican practices, curandería has absorbed other influences too. When the Spanish arrived, for example, they brought medicinal traditions from Moorish North Africans, says Torres. Those traditions are alive in the curandería practiced in Mexico today. And curandería, says Navarrete Perez, continues to learn from other traditions; it’s very common for contemporary curanderos to incorporate, for example, chiropractic.

Herbs may be the backbone of curandería, but most practitioners also offer services that claim to help the body’s energy balance. Patients can skip the spiritual elements of the healing process though, suggests Torres. Navarrete Perez points out how curandería practitioners themselves come from multiple belief systems — most notably Native Mexican religions and the former colonialists’ Catholicism. This broad range of influences is why her ideal term is “traditional intercultural medicine” rather than curandería. Indeed, many curanderos prefer different terms for their practice.

But while curandería “empowers people to take care of their own bodies and their own emotions,” Torres says, patients need to know when to see a trained practitioner. Experimenting with new plants without the oversight of a trusted professional is inadvisable, he says — and those selling medicinal plants in Mexican markets can at times offer inaccurate advice, warns Rivera.

Still, those interested can pick up basic skills. In the U.S., Torres offers courses at the University of New Mexico. In Mexico, Navarrete Perez offers weeklong live-in workshops in English and Spanish to students from all over the world. Rivera makes appointments for these workshops via the Temazcal Tonatiuh Facebook page.

And for minor ailments, there are cures [see the box above] that are safe to try at home. The methods may be ancient, but — like the eucalyptus in Rivera’s temazcal — their aroma is now spreading with a freshness like never before.

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