The air is filled with soothing incense and rhythmic drums beat while the deep bellow of conch shells rises above the main campus of The University of New Mexico – the rich sensations draw in a circle of spectators, as the annual Curanderismo Class performs its opening ceremony.

Stunningly-clad curanderos are amongst the crowd, easily spotted in their traditional garb– white, for purity, with red accents, for protection, a few are even elaborately garnished in colorful jewelry. They each play a part in the ritual. Some hold goblets spewing smoke from burning incense, gently waving the cups and blowing the healing scent across the crowd. Others hold shamanic drums, pounding out the heartbeat of the healing prayers and chants, blowing on conch shells and shaking rattles at the calling of the ritual-leader. 

“It’s a holistic approach to healing body, mind and spirit,” explains Eliseo "Cheo" Torres, vice president of UNM Student Affairs, and establisher of Curanderismo studiesat UNM.

Torres’ Curanderismo, or Mexican Folk Healing, class has been held for the last 18 years and attracts students from all over the world to The University of New Mexico. But the ancient techniques come from a time long before the University was founded. 

In 1519, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they were amazed to find out the Aztecs held a vast knowledge of traditional medicine. The Spaniards brought their own medicine and traditions, which they learned from the Moors in Northern Africa, including healing herbs from Africa and Spain. The Spaniards combined their medicinal herbs with the Aztec knowledge of healing, and the result was a mix of European and Native curative traditions. 

Those who perform the healing rituals are called curanderos. When the term first came about, there were no physicians, psychiatrists or psychologists. The curandero played all these rolls, and continue to bring the ancient healing wisdoms to communities today. 

“In my point of view, this class gives people from all different traditions a view of holistic health,” said Antonio “AJ” Garcia, a Curanderismo student who travelled from Denver to take the class. “What does it look like to have healthiness of the mind, body, and spirit? We seek the answer in the indigenous knowledge that our great-great-great-grandparents passed down to us.”

The class focuses on history and lore of curanderismo, and is intended to help students become knowledgeable about alternative and traditional medicine. 

“What we’re trying to teach is tradition, culture and medicine,” says Torres.

That tradition and culture was on full display during the Health Fair put on for the Curanderismo students by curanderos from all over the country, and several from Mexico. The cultural roots and symbolism could be seen in each of the flagged off sections of the grassy Zimmerman Library lawn: the sound of conch shells, drumming and rattles rising from a haze of incense under the Limpias (spiritual cleansing) tents, the gentle “pop!” of glass suction being broken in the Sobadas (body work) corner and the murmurs of chants from Reiki (energy) practitioners.

Although the chants and rituals have similarities to many world religions, Torres notes his Curanderismo class does not teach religion, but the balance of the “three beings” that make up each human – their body, mind and spirit. 

“It’s working with the natural elements, with the four cardinal directions, with Father Sun and Mother Earth – it’s working with nature,” Torres said. “If a person wants to pray, they can. But what the curanderos do is more working with nature, and it is open to all peoples.”

According to Torres, the belief is that human beings are composed of energy and that energy can get injured – particularly by traumatic events. The curanderos are trained in treatments that address damaged energy. 

“What a lot of people don’t know about being a traditional indigenous medicinal healer is that it takes a lot of internal work,” Garcia notes. “You really have to work with yourself before you can put anybody in that chair or on that table to heal them.”

That’s why, Garcia says, it takes years before students don the title curandero.

“I guess I would call myself a healer,” he said. “But curandero is still years to come.”