The Ancient Practice Of Curanderismo Is Getting A Modern Makeover

But the magic remains.

by Gabriela Ulloa
Originally Published: 
Joseph Sorrentino/Shutterstock
A woman in a white dress holding flowers, practicing curandesimo

“I knew I had found my way home,” explains Robyn Moreno, curandera and storyteller, of her path toward curanderismo. After going through a particularly challenging time in her life where not only she but those she loved were suffering, Moreno turned to the familiar practice in hopes of finding peace. After attending a workshop hosted by her cousin, a fellow curandera, Moreno threw herself into studying the medicina of her ancestors. “I think my mind sent out a spiritual S.O.S. and curanderismo answered,” she says. In fully embracing this ancient practice, which dates back centuries, she now takes clients of her own, using her skills to lead others on their own personal healing journeys. And she’s not the only one.

Wellness influencers and thought leaders alike are crafting their own versions of curanderismo, which at its core is derived from the name from the Spanish verb curar, meaning “to cure.” The practice is defined as a more holistic approach to wellness, employing herbs, body treatments (like fire cupping, abdominal massages, and alignment techniques known as manteadas), and spiritual rituals (like sweat lodges known as temazcales and energetic body cleanses known as limpias) to treat physical, mental, and emotional ailments.

Dr. Jennifer Seman, author of Borderlands Curanderos, describes curanderismo as a “hybrid system of healing practiced throughout Mexico and Latin America and in places where ethnic Mexicans and Latinx people have a strong presence, such as the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.” Encompassing a vast range of techniques, it is “an earth-based, spiritual healing practice, comprised of a set of folk medical beliefs, Indigenous and Catholic rituals, and practices that address the psychological, spiritual, social, and health needs of people,” Seman tells TZR.

Originally known as the art of Mexican folk healing, modern curanderismo is composed heavily of a synthesis of cultures, particularly that of Mayans and Aztecs, as a result of colonization. “In the Americas,” Seman notes, “Curanderismo emerged from the contact between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds, that is, between Europe and the Indigenous empires of the Americas.” Additionally, she notes, the forced adaptation and assimilation during the 16th century on the American continents led to a “syncretic healing practice,” now known as curanderismo.

The wellness modality has historically been used to treat a wide range of issues, from muscle tension and intestinal problems to immune-system support. Curandero/as will use anything from herbs in the form of teas and salves to juice blends to address concerns. Tobacco, for example, is a commonly used plant for spiritual cleansing. And then there’s the forever trusted aloe vera plant (which has undoubtedly nestled its way into the bottles of some of the most Westernized products), often incorporated into medicinal juices.

When it comes to the types of herbs and plants used during typical curanderismo practices, it really depends on where the practitioner is located. “We often work with a Cuban healer who also practices Santeria,” says Dr. Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, vice president of student affairs at the University of New Mexico and author of Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing. “He uses plants like hierba fina [Scutch grass], something that isn’t common in curanderismo but it’s available in Cuba. The elements may change but the concept is the same.”

While curandismo rituals cover a lot of territory in the healing space, most of its practitioners encourage a balance of traditional and modern medicine. “Of course if you have a physical ailment go see a doctor,” Moreno states. “We believe healing is the collective.” Moreover, curandero/as are quick to recognize when it’s time to see a modern doctor, an important note Torres says is often overlooked. “Curanderos refer clients to doctors all of the time,” he says. “Go see a doctor, go get your blood pressure taken... it’s a common sense approach to healing. Curanderos don’t have the answer to everything.”

They can be useful for quite a few concerns though, even the mental health variety like anxiety and stress (known as susto). In many of these cases, the aforementioned purification rituals, limpias, are called upon. Healers will use various tools — crystals, plants, smudging, or even eggs — and pass them over the body to rid it of negative energy. This particular ritual emphasizes the notion that while minds are often able to forget — or most likely block out — past trauma, bodies grip the memories and act as a vehicle for an array of manifested symptoms. Limpias allow individuals to release this built up emotional, mental, and physical trauma that is inhibiting their life and in turn their health. “We might do one to move and release what is no longer needed,” Moreno explains.

Listening to the world around them and pulling from what the earth provides is not rare for curandero/as, nor is symbolism. Objects or symbolic gestures are often used as a method of therapy. From writing goodbye or forgiveness letters to speaking audibly to oneself, these specific practices can help facilitate a sense of closure and peace. While a variety of healing methods are available to curanderos, it is ultimately up to the energy of the client. “It’s a sacred gathering and the only requisite is that we are both present and open so we can work together to heal and support,” Moreno adds of her healing sessions.

In a time where one’s physical and mental health are being attacked daily, it’s easy to understand why people would want to lean on concepts that lie outside of their normal scope of possibilities. Moreover, it’s no surprise that both Latinx and non-Latinx folks alike are hoping to find solace in the ancient practice of curanderismo. In present day, the ancient modality is manifesting in a plethora of ways and through a variety of channels.

Social media, in particular, has served as an ideal platform for modern curanderos to spread their messages of holistic and mystical healing. There are actual curanderos like Moreno and Lynsey Ayala, founder of BreadxButta, a New York City-based hub for Caribbean remedies and alternative medicine. And then there are influencers inspired by the practice, like certified bruja (witch) extraordinaire Bri Luna, better known by her 470K Instagram followers as The Hood Witch, who pulls from her Mexican curandera lineage for her “Witch Tips” and self-care solutions. While all these women serve the wellness market in their own way, the undeniable respect for their Latinidad and the traditions passed down by their ancestors is tangible.

But with that comes a grand sense of responsibility that is not taken lightly. “Curanderismo isn’t a new toy or trend to be picked up, shown off on social media, then discarded when something shinier comes along,” says Moreno. “It’s a 500-year-old, earth-based wisdom tradition that helps to heal from trauma and bring us back to wholeness, something we brown and Black folks have been doing since the gran susto [great scare] of colonization.”

Finding a space to thoughtfully honor and understand traditions should never be glossed over, particularly when those same traditions are at constant subjugation to whitewashing. It’s easy to spot a well-marketed wellness product or cheaply sold tincture, but few and far between are the businesses that acknowledge and pay tribute to the sacred traditions that inspired them. “Give yourself the gift of time to honor [curanderismo] and the love passed in carrying [it] down,” Moreno says. “That’s the magic.”

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