Jessica Calix's Case Study


If a person had never experienced it before it would probably be strange but through stories and personal experiences the setting was familiar and inviting.  Curanderas are almost the equivalent of over-the-counter medicine for Latinos, not really, but close.  If there is a symptom it is easier, faster and more comforting to visit the local curandera than it is to visit a doctor.  Doctors require tests and until they are certain of the illness, their remedy is Tylenol.

Typically, curanderas treat individuals in rooms inside their homes.  The curandera we interviewed, Rosa heals in her home and has a small porch that serves as the waiting room which people are lucky if they find a seat because usually curanderas have many patients that are waiting to be cured.  As the door opens you can feel your eyes adjust to the dim light within the narrow stretch of porch but once focused it is evident that standing is not an option because there are at least twelve other people waiting for “la mano santa” roughly translated means the curanderas heavenly touch. 

Sitting there it is difficult not to listen in on the many conversations that people are engaging in, while waiting.  So many different voices all whispering because in the next room everyone knows that the curandera is healing; using her spiritual tools (prayer) to cure.  Two women sitting to the right of us were having a detailed conversation about their reasons for coming to the curandera.  The younger women with skin the color of “canela” (cinnamon) as is typical among Latinas was sharing her story with an elderly women that seemed to be in her early sixties, she had so many laugh wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that it was easy to diverge into another train of thought about the type of life that the old women might have lead.  The younger girl was telling the older women that she works at the United Postal Service (U.P.S.) unloading boxes from the back of semi-trucks. This is where she was injured, in an attempt to pick a box she hurt her shoulder. The elderly woman asked her a series of questions such as why she worked at a place that seemed so labor intensive and if see complained to her supervisor.  What was interesting was the girl’s response, which was that, if she had told her supervisor, she probably would have had to go to a clinic but the treatment would have been pills, a lot of tests and she did not want to “dar vueltas en valde” (run in circles) hassled with appointments.  So, she came to the curandera were “ojala” (hopefully) it will just take one adjustment. 

In that moment the curandera opened the door of the room where she treats those with aliments and said, “quien sigue” (who’s next) and silence overcame the room.  Everyone watched as an elderly man stood up and walked into the room.  The elderly man was walking with a limp.  After, Rosa closed the door everyone resumed there conversations.  The elderly women mentioned how she preferred to visit Rosa because she spoke Spanish and because in Mexico she never went to doctors either.  She said, “no me gustan la pastilles” (I don’t like pills).  However, this also can be interpreted as an indication for her distrust in doctors.  In the book New Pioneers in the Heartland by Jo Anne Koltyk, the Hmong also share a similar sentiment about doctors.  In the book the Hmong “many western practices are in direct conflict with Hmong tradition beliefs and practices. Some aspects of western medicine are perceived as a strange mixture of technology and surgical procedures with mystifying medical jargon” (Koltyk 64).   

When Rosa asked who was next, we both felt all eye’s on us.  Considering the fact that it was a narrow walk way with barley enough room to walk through without hitting someone in the knee’s we both rushed into the room.  As soon as we walked in there, there were many images of saints, rosaries hung and bottles with liquid and baggies with herbs in them.  Also, in the room was a twin sized bed with a floral print fitted sheet that she covered with another white sheet and two chairs for instances when there are more than one person in the party.  As I turned to look at Jessica, I think for reassurance, the curandera told us her name was Rosa and asked us, “qual necesita el tratamento” (which one needs to be treated).  I responded by telling her that we wanted to conduct an interview, if that would be okay with her?  Her facial expression was telling in itself that we catch her by surprise and she immediately said, “I don’t do radio or television, I like my privacy when it comes to my work.”  Before Rosa said anything else Jessica introduced us, telling her that we were students conducting an interview for class and if she chose to let us interview her that her identity would not be disclosed to anyone.                                    

Curanderas usually found by word of mouth, the healers form a type of health care network for people who are poor and uninsured, have entered the country illegally and fear having their position checked at conventional clinics, or merely want to preserve the previous traditions they brought from their homeland.

           In addition, for many people, the curanderas serve as a supplement to mainstream medical care. For many immigrants, curanderas fill psychological and physiological needs that, because of language and cultural barriers, often go unmet in conventional clinics and hospitals.

          Most curanderas, those who are the most respected healers, believe that they have received a gift from God and, as a result, they do not charge set fees, but rather accept donations. This has helped factor a market for curanderas for those who cannot afford the high cost of health care.  

          Others use a combination of mainstream health care and curanderas seeing doctors for their physical ailments and curanderas for ailments you might not find in a medical dictionary.  This is also the case for most of the Hmong, “Healers provide a bridge between traditional practices and modern biological treatments” (Koltyk 65). Most curanderas, view illness as something affecting a person's mind, body and spirit.

Curanderas, who typically believe God grants their powers, usually are aware of their limitations and the limitations of their       patients. If the healer does not get results, he or she will often refer the patients to doctors, saying either that their own faith, or the patient, may not be strong enough to bring about a cure. 

When someone imagines of what a curandera or a healer might look like many picture a person who is very eccentric they imagine a crazed-looking woman who carries in her bag odd items such as herbs, and skulls of animals.

          Although this generalization may be true for some curanderas, it is not the case for all. Many curanderas can be men or women and many have a normal appearance.  The curandera we interviewed who does not want her name revealed we will refer to as Rosa. Rosa could not be more normal besides her occupation as a curandera she also a registered nurse in Mexico.  Although, she now lives in The United States Rosa still incorporates her traditional curanderismo practices from Mexico. Despite the fact that curanderismo is viewed as an unorthodox method of medicine which can have negative outcomes. In the book Disposable Domestics by Grace Chang there are many references to assimilating migrants to American customs that would eliminate such things such as curanderismo because of its unconventional technique.

          Rosa has been healing people since the age of eleven her grandfather also practiced curanderismo. Rosa is a well-known curandera. Her clientele include many famous people from local television stations such as Univision. Individuals that visit the curandera are predominately Latinos but, not limited to Latinos.            The book Voyages by Cathy A. Small illustrates how the Tongans created their own villages within metropolises this is also the case with Rosa the curandera.  She has established her practice within a Latino establishment that has facilitated medical assistance at their fingertips.     

There are three types of curanderas: masseur or sobandera, herbalist or yerbera, and mid-wife or partera.  A Sobador specializes in muscle and bone manipulation, acupressure, and massage therapy, healing with hands and supplementing the treatment with herbal medications when appropriate.  The Curandera prays while massaging or adjusting, of course, not the enter time.  She also engages in conversation asking questions perhaps this creates a more comfortable atmosphere for the patient and herself.              

          A yerbera works with herbs alone and treats patients with natural remedies. A Partera helps massage the mother trying to have the baby in the proper place and position. A partera will utilize herbs during the course of prenatal care and during delivery.  At the time of childbirth, the same Partera will come over to one's house to assist her in having the baby

            A curandera will work under three levels: the material, the spiritual, and the mental. The material emphasizes objects such as candles, oils, and herbs. The spiritual embraces a medium through which the healing takes place. The mental focuses on psychic healing. All three levels require rituals that are formulated in different ways to treat various illnesses. 

          By visiting the curandera we were voyeurs into a cultural dimension that is hidden from mainstream America. Curanderismo is not well-known because it diverges from popular American perceptions of western medicine. Like Rosa curanderas bring with them their traditions, customs, and culture to incorporate into the salad bowl of America.

          Through Rosa we were able to further examine the implications surrounding transnationalism.  Like many other migrants Rosa left Michuacan, Mexico because over-industrialization of American corporations further displacing the local self employed,

“U.S. efforts to open its own and other countries economies to the flow of capitial, goods, services, and information created conditions that mobilized people for migration, and formed linkages between the United States and other countries which subsequently served as a bridges for migration” (Sassen 14).

 These along with other events have lead to the migration of individuals cross nationally in search of opportunities that was not available to them in their homeland.  With migration, migrants brought their lifestyles and incorporated them into American life.

Check out another web page about this paper by co-author Alex Gomez !

Return to Jessica Calix's Home Page

Return to Migration Home Page