On the Bookshelf
Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk
University of New Mexico Press, 2005
By Eliseo “Cheo” Torres and Timothy L. Sawyer
In the recently published “Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing,” coauthors Eliseo “Cheo” Torres and Timothy L. Sawyer share the history of herbal remedies as described by Torres’ father, Don Lico.
“My father would get upset when he told us about the destruction and herbal repositories of the Aztecs in the Spaniard’s blind zeal to Christianize the natives,” Torres writes. “But he would always emphasize that this knowledge of medicinal plants was a perfect example of why we do what we do – use plants and rituals even nowadays – because in a way it was an ongoing mark of resistance against dominant cultures that sought to wipe out existing cultures they encountered in a given locale, just as the early Spanish explorers and rulers did.”
Torres, who is vice president of Student Affairs at UNM, has studied folk healing and herbal medicine for more than twenty years. He says his book presents an important part of Hispanic culture in the United States. Torres and Sawyer, a UNM public information representative, wrote it in 2002-2003. In various draft formats, the book had been used as resource material for the increasingly popular curandero courses taught each summer at UNM.
In a relaxed, narrative style, the book describes herbs and rituals that have been used by Mexican and Mexican American families for centuries. The authors spin tales about the lives of famous curanderos who Torres has met. One legendary figure is Terresita Urrea, the “Saint of Cabora,” who inspired Mexican revolutionaries to charge into battle wearing her picture pinned to their shirts.
Torres learned much of the knowledge presented while growing up in Texas near the Mexican border. He tells of meeting famous healers and the important role of folk healing to his family and community in the Corpus Christy area. He describes to readers his personal pilgrimage into curanderismo in the 1980s, through a dry, dusty trek to the remote village of Espinoza, Mexico, to meet a legendary curandero.
“What happened to me was no less than my transformation from an academic with some personal interest in folk healing to a man who embraced curanderismo as a part of a great tradition and as part of my own identity,” he said. Torres says that curanderismo is valuable in the spiritual formation of personal and social identities.
Torres also uses the book to dispel misgivings associated with the curanderismo tradition. Torres contends folk healing and Western medicine can be used harmoniously and believes that folk healing has much to teach medical physicians. Torres says politics is to blame for the elitist positioning of biomedicine over folk healing practices.