It’s an extraordinary way to heal, that’s been mentioned in history books and headlines for generations. Now, after 500 years, the teaching of curanderismo is continuing to expand across the Southwest and at The University of New Mexico.
“You know, we clean our bodies with shampoo and soap and water. We clean our cars, we clean our homes, but we hardly ever clean our energy or our spirit. What does the Earth offer us to heal ourselves?” Professor and former Vice President of Student Affairs Eliseo “Cheo” Torres said.
Torres is a world-renowned name when it comes to the understanding, teaching and practice of curanderismo. Before diving into why this became such an integral part of his life, it’s critical to understanding what curanderismo is.
Curanderismo directly translates to the practice of curanderos, or curanderas. Curanderos, a Spanish word for healer, do exactly what it sounds like: they heal. You can experience curanderismo in a variety of ways. There’s healing through herbal remedies or surroundings, massage and body therapy, or limpia–a spiritual cleansing with the combining of the elements around us.
“That is more the art of traditional medicine. It's a holistic form of traditional medicine, healing the body, mind and spirit. It comes toward curar, which means to heal,” he said.
Mexican traditional healing stems back to when the Spanish began to colonize Latin America. Over time, it combined the preexisting healing practices in place from Indigenous populations to manifest into a strong, growing practice. Spiritual healing in some variety, can also be found around that era as well, in China and India.
“So now it's both– both the medicine that came from Europe and the medicine that came from this country. It's come together,” Torres said. “There is now a movement of merging both medicines and it's still happening. We brought everything together, and now it's merged, so it's wonderful.”
However, as times became more advanced, modern medicine set the bar, making generations of traditional medicine come to a screeching halt. Despite its healing properties beyond a normal pill, many moved away from it.
“It started in this country where there were few physicians, there were no counselors, few priests and ministers,” Torres said. “So the curandero played all these roles. Of course, now we have a lot of access to medicine, modern medicine, oriental medicine.”
Enter Torres in the new age. As someone who grew up with a mother who abided by customs similar to that of a healer, he knew firsthand the role this medicine provided to a family who did not have much.
“We lived on the farm away from any major city. There were eight of us, including my parents. My mother used to tell all our family members: ‘don't you get sick, and if you do, I'll be your doctor.’ She kept us all healthy,” he said.
Determined to keep that legacy alive, and learn more about the art of healing, Torres was thrilled to meet and fall under the guidance of Cresencio Alvarado, known as Chenchito. For 30 years Torres learned all the ways to cure spiritual, mental and physical ailments.
“That relationship lasted more than 30 years. He was my teacher, and I learned a lot from him. It was after I met Chenchito that I got excited about the field,” Torres said.
Eventually, he was prepared enough to become a mentor for dozens, and eventually hundreds more. Following a successful course of curanderismo at Texas A&M-Kingsville and Corpus Christi, UNM saw a grand opportunity to bring such a historical, healing topic to the forefront of and cross-listing the course with a number of academic departments under Chicana & Chicano Studies.
“I came here and I realized it was a very diverse campus, and they wanted me to consider teaching the course again. I did, and more than 20 years later, I've been teaching this course with the support of Mario Del Angel Guevara in the summer as well as online during the fall and spring semesters,” Torres said. “There wasn't a lot written on this field. There were some studies done in the 70’s and then it died. There wasn't much happening, so I started teaching.”
That’s the beauty of it. Not only do the variety of courses he heads look at the benefits of the practice and what it contains, but the emotional significance of losing and regaining a part of Mexican culture.
“The students can learn to reclaim a part of a tradition of New Mexico that has been around for years,” he said. “Their grandmothers knew about traditional medicine. They used a lot of herbs for healing. They use some rituals, but it's been lost, so now we're reclaiming some of the lost traditions. The students will learn about that and they'll learn a better appreciation of Mother Earth.”
That’s something Ph.D. candidate Mario Del Angel Guevara was concerned about when leaving Mexico for the U.S. However, in meeting Torres, he realized he would not have to forget traditional healing.
“If you grow up in Mexico, a lot of these things are just common knowledge that a lot of people share. When I came to the United States, I thought that I would have to forget and leave behind my culture, my language, and a lot of my own traditions as well,” Del Angel Guevara said. “I was surprised to learn when I came here that there are other people who continue spreading the knowledge and the wisdom from our ancestors, like Cheo."
The more Del Angel Guevara learned, as well, the more he was ready to teach traditional medicine.
“We can always benefit from the integration of different ways of thinking, ways of living, ways of believing. There's always a benefit to merging and integrating different ways and approaches. If there's anybody that might not be such a great believer in other alternative methods of healing, I would remind them that as human beings, more than their physical body, there's also a spiritual body.” – Mario Del Angel Guevara
“If anybody comes across a challenge in life, an issue emotionally, spiritually, there's other types of medicine that do look at that and focus on healing that aspect of a human being,” he said.
Torres can’t talk enough about the students he has led, now embracing and practicing curanderismo. Del Angel Guevara and Sonai Perez are two UNM students who have not only healed and taught in New Mexico, but joined sacred, international celebrations and ceremonies few get to experience.
“It's for the community when you practice medicine because there's a lot of need for it,” Perez said. “It's a way for us to tap into our ancestral memory and help people also reconnect. In a land full of migrants, it's one of the only ways for us to reconnect to our roots. I think that it's crucial to keep this going, to keep training future healers and to keep the integrity of the medicine as much as we can.”
Both Del Angel Guevara and Perez dedicated a decade each so far to becoming healers. Perez will be attending Danza de la Luna and Del Angel Guevara will headed to Fidencista Curandero Festival, opportunities Torres was ready to pass the torch onto.
“This is important because it's a reconnection to the elements that sustain us, and it's a reconnection to Mother Earth. Nowadays, our relationship with the Earth is more important because of how we treat it. In connecting to these ways, it's truly a connection to everything that surrounds you and, and there's more to life than just existing, right?” – Sonai Perez
“I've met some young people that are researchers now, so we're regrowing,” Torres said. “We're going to a different level of traditional medicine, and doing some more research that is needed in this field.”
It’s the right time, too, with curanderismo picking up steam. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a full-fledged solution to fight symptoms, both in the mind and the body. It also is a powerful solution to fight the drastically expensive costs of medicine. That’s not to mean Torres does not believe people should avoid a physician.
“During COVID times, a lot of this energy was disrupted. It was damaged. A lot of people were having a lot of stress, and anxiety,” he said. “Still people can reclaim some of this medicine because if you're not insured, you can't afford a lot of the modern medicine that is offered now. It's a good judgment, when to see a physician and when to take traditional medicine.”
Students may not leave a traditional Medicine class ready to try to pick up a conch shell and herb, but Torres is confident they will walk away with something.
“We do have a lot of people who come to the class seeking that balance in their life. They have given modern medicine an opportunity, but after some years, they found that there are certain areas of the human being that it just doesn’t deal with, or not as important when it comes to treating patients. We're not creating healers. We're informing people about a lost art,” he said.
There’s a whole swell of opportunities to learn, both online and in-person from Torres, Del Angel Guevara and Perez, as well as curanderos from all over the world in Curanderismo: Traditional Medicine. Del Angel Guevara also offers a curanderismo class taught fully in Spanish. Find out about the jam-packed summer session from June 12 to 23. Mark your calendars as well for an online option this July through Continuing Education, as well as the fall.
“UNM Continuing Education is delighted to again partner with the popular curanderismo program to offer this unique and valuable course to professionals and other interested students from the non-credit community,” Continuing Education Program Manager Maralie Waterman said.
If these opportunities are still outside of your schedule, Torres and Del Angel Guevara created five courses in English and Spanish on Coursera.
“It's a good feeling when you know that you've touched somebody's life. It's an informative class, but it does impact a lot of people's lives. A lot of people continue practicing what they have forgotten, knowing they can be their own healer. They can heal themselves and their family and identify major illnesses. There is a lot of good information that we share with students," Torres said.