The Cultural Practice of Healing

If you had heart pain, how would you cure it? If it was mild, you might take a prilosec purchased from your local drugstore. If it was more serious, you see a doctor. But what if there was no doctor or generic medication to turn to? Would you, instead, think to drink water with sugar with your right hand lifted while drinking? Possibly not, but this remedy was part of a list provided by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca which features herbal remedies which had been used to cure a varied amount of illnesses — from heartburn to hangovers and beyond.

The use of herbal and home remedies are at a crossroad in modern medicine. Following the rising trend of the Slow Food Movement, there appears to be a growing emphasis on the use of herbal remedies as an alternate to general medication: St. John’s Wort instead of anti-depression pills or mint instead of Tums. A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics in 2008 stated that at least 38% of adults currently used herbal remedies as either an alternative or supplement to general medication. Another study in 2013 estimated that American adults spend an estimated $5 billion a year on herbal supplements.

This increasing interest is not without its push-back, however. In response to the growing availability of herbal remedies and alternative medicine, doctors and other professionals have questioned their validity and assert the superiority of professional medicine as perfected forms of herbal cures. Further, because herbal medicine does not always fall under the same level of professional scrutiny as other medication, some medication and the cures they promise can be misleading or, as discussed in a recent New York Times article, downright incorrect. Not only are the benefits of many herbal supplements unproven, the current lack of safeguards on herbal medication allow for certain companies to include herbs not mentioned in the ingredients or replace the main herb that is supposed to be present with a substitute such as powdered rice and weeds.

So should these forms of alternative medicine be trusted at all or should they be labeled as archaic forms of medication that are best forgotten? What role can herbal medicine still hold in today’s world of hospitals, sterile rooms, and professionally trained practitioners? Is there anything that consumers miss in going to the doctor for an annual checkup or picking up cold medicine while out buying groceries? Fabiola Cabeza de Baca provides the answer when reflecting on an Extension Club meeting wherein the women enrolled discussed health issues in their families and each had a different remedio (remedy) for every malady. Talking about medicine and home remedies revolve around a culture of health, which is further enhanced by medical practitioners (in this case, curanderos) who treat healing and illness not just as a biological issue to be cured, but a cultural and social phenomenon to be treated.

This social, almost religious, aspect of healing is apparent in curandisimo, which has been greatly explored as a feature of Hispanic culture necessitated by the lack of professional medical care by such scholars as Eliseo Torres. These non-professional medicinal venues are still practiced today, in New Mexico as a traditional practice that endures through cultural ties and university courses, and throughout the United States. This emphasis on replacing lost emotional and spiritual ties in healthcare is evident in the growing utilization of Doulas in maternity culture and, again, in an expressed appreciation for herbal and home remedies. After all, as Torres states in Curandero, “our minds play a large role in why we grow ill sometimes, and in tandem with the germs around us they control many of our bodily processes.” (35)

How are cultural uses of herbal remedies disseminated, and why have such forms of knowledge persevered? Some are sustained by general word of mouth spread throughout a localized area. Traditional healers can often be the source of medical knowledge and, in the case of curanderos, according to Eliseo Torres in The Folk Healer, these practitioners usually get their information after a long apprenticeship with experienced healers. Further, societal understanding of illness, medicine, and healing remain a cultural construct.

With this in mind, what kind of herbal medicine would you expect to find in an arid region such as New Mexico and how would you prepare what you find? The Fabiola Cabeza de Baca papers reveal a long list of different herbal remedies that can be relied upon and how to best use them. Chamiza, a local plant, can be boiled and put in bath water to cure malaria and rheumatism. Anise seed made into a tea helps a cough. To treat a hangover, osha root should be grated in a glass of whiskey and drunk, making the user “pronto sober.” Do these remedies work and are they always reliable? In her documents, Fabiola expresses her own doubts, but she also encourages trying them first. In scrawled handwriting added at the end of her medicinal herbal list, she states: “Try them. If they do not cure they do not kill. But faith in them is essential.”

While this list is readily available to look at through the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico, some features of traditional health practices and herbal remedies are not always so accessible. Further, just because someone knows the name of a plant and what it can do does not always mean they will be able to identify it. If that is the case, how can such information be preserved and conveyed to a larger audience as an educational tool? In my next blog post, I will explore this question by making a video game which expresses this information in an entertaining (hopefully) and engaging format. This educational game, as with many serious and otherwise informative games, will seek to teach players about food and medicine, while attempting to avoid the pitfall of chocolate-covered broccoli.


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Gianna May Sanchez

Currently a Master's student at the University of New Mexico studying History and earning my certification in Museum Studies. Interested in Southwest history, women's history, traditional medicine and its interaction with professional medicine, video games, and games as a way to facilitate learning.

3 thoughts on “The Cultural Practice of Healing”

  1. Thanks for this, Gianna. The South Central Farm in Los Angeles was a place for residents to grow healing herbs and foods since they had little to no access to the US health care system, and the extent of this is captured in several documentaries on the destruction of the Farm (the largest urban farm in the country at the time). I highly recommend watching this or the other documentaries made about the struggle.


    1. Thanks! I’ve been meaning to check this out. I’ll watch it this weekend! It’ll definitely help in framing future questions and research.


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