- Restoring the People: Reclaiming Indigenous Spirituality in Contemporary Curanderismo
Kalpulli Teocalli Ollin is a community of healers that promotes Mexican traditional medicine in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In their own words, they “are a group of men, women and families who are affirming, reconnecting and remembering the traditional ancestral methods in which people empower their own healing.” They add, “Through remembering that we are conduits of higher sources of cosmic energy, we have faith in the ancestral methods of our abuelitas and abuelitos [grandparents] in relearning how to heal ourselves, each other, and our communities, by sharing this medicine with our present and future generations.” Replete with indigenous art from Aztec codices, images and rhetoric on the Kalpulli’s website serve as an example of a move that some Mexican American folk healers, or curanderos/as, are making.1 Namely, some practitioners of this religious healing tradition are reconnecting to their pre-colonial indigenous past even as they embrace a metaphysical and universal message of wellness for all people. In so doing, they rhetorically distance themselves from the long-standing Catholic traditions of curanderismo.
Not surprisingly, this change has impacted the spirituality and, in some cases, the ritual practices of Mexican American religious folk healing. In this essay, I briefly profile curanderismo and its hybrid origins born out of the violence of the Spanish Conquest. I then give several examples of some contemporary curanderos/as’ reclamation of pre-conquest indigeneity. My aim is not to debunk or deny these recent efforts to re-connect with indigenous sources of the healing tradition. However, I conclude the essay with a critical assessment of this project in spiritual and historical reclamation. I suggest that this new move toward an ostensible indigenousness in curanderismo nevertheless serves to underscore the complexity of curanderismo’s long-standing Christian identity, an identity that is tied to colonialism and racial prejudice.
So, what is curanderismo? Generally speaking, it is a religious and folk healing tradition that is relatively common throughout Latin America, though in this essay, I limit myself to discussions of its Mexican and Mexican-American forms. Capable of treating a wide variety of physical, emotional, and social maladies, the curandera2 has a holistic understanding of a person’s health, which generally includes a sense of balance and wholeness. Therefore, in this [End Page 76] conception of heath, imbalances in the body’s energy or humors, fractures in one’s soul caused by fright or trauma, and sometimes the effects of cursing or witchcraft (brujería) are what leads to sickness. Throughout the centuries since the Spanish conquest, curanderos/as have developed various treatments and modalities to restore their patients to health. Key among these treatments are the administration of herbal and materia medica-based remedies, the praying of novenas and other sorts of intercessions to Catholic figures (saints, Mary, Jesus, etc.), personal and family counseling, the physical manipulation of the body in massage, bone-setting, midwifery, and energy-based therapies of cleansing, often referred to as limpias.3
The origins of curanderismo, most scholars agree, is in the combination of pre-Tridentine Iberian Catholicism,4 European folk medicine, astrology, and occultism, and the medical knowledge and understandings of the body and soul of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. However, due to the totalizing and often violent nature of Spanish colonialism and Catholic evangelism, it has long been unclear to what extent indigenous knowledge has persisted in the healing practices of curanderismo.5 My own position is that curanderismo developed from combinations that made sense and were efficacious for a wide variety of people including Spanish colonizers, indigenous people, and the new and growing mestizo population. Some traditions in these combinations can perhaps be traced to their specific origins, but it is more helpful to think that both Iberian Catholic and indigenous “ingredients” have been part of a process of creative engagement and refashioning for hundreds of years and continue to evolve into the present.
Nevertheless, as mentioned above, a recent development in a growing segment of Mexican and Mexican American curanderismo is to emphasize the Mesoamerican indigenous origins of the healing tradition, often over and above the Spanish Catholic influences. Examples of...