On the Texas border, healers bring modern touches to their ancient practice


Known as curanderas, they continue a tradition long revered in local Hispanic culture.


We're exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In the Rio Grande Valley, which straddles the Mexican border in Texas, cities like Edinburg, Pharr and McAllen are steeped in ancient Mexican-American traditions.

Edgar Sandoval grew up in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley, where Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas lives and where they both covered this story.

One recent day, Chriselda Hernández heard a knock on her door in the border city of Edinburg, Texas. She was a college student who said that she was suffering from a streak of bad luck. A drunk driver had crashed into her car. Then someone broke into the new car she was driving and stole her laptop. “I need a clean,”, he pleaded: a spiritual cleansing.

Ms. Hernandez moved to an altar in her living room that had an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Slowly, she mixed a mixture of sage and palo santo, a wood native to South America, and lit it with a match. She then turned to the young girl and waved the healing smoke over her body.

“You're holding on to something,” Mrs. Hernandez whispered. “Let it go. There is no shame.”

For generations, Hispanic communities along the southern border have turned to curanderas, or folk healers, like Hernández, often seen in the popular imagination as old women with candles and religious icons operating in the shadows of society from rusty shacks.

But the ancient healing art has entered the age of Instagram. More and more young people adopt rituals they learned from their grandmothers and use them against the problems of the 21st century. They clean public beaches, sell recipes online to block the “energies of envy” and sell handmade candles with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in stores. His clients tend to have a college education, like Clarissa Ochoa, the young woman who came to Hernández for help.

“I think it is an honor to be a healer; It is something very beautiful, but also very limiting,” said Hernández, 42 years old. “I feel like we are breaking those limits, that the healers are just herbs and old ladies. My vocation is simply to heal whoever I can.”

A popular healing culture preceded the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to Latin America and Mexico. Over time, curanderos, the term used for healers of both sexes, began to mix indigenous rituals with elements of Catholicism and influences from Asian and African folk traditions along the way.

The practice has taken root in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, located just a stone's throw from the Mexican border, largely out of necessity. Hidalgo County, home to McAllen and a majority Hispanic population, has one of the highest rates of uninsured people in the country, and many people depend on curanderas for lack of other affordable options, said Servando Z. Hinojosa, anthropology professor. who teaches a class on Mexican-American folk medicine at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Hinojosa said many Hispanic residents also tend to distrust the medical establishment. This is especially true when it comes to mental health. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that while the number of Black, Asian and white people seeking mental health treatment has increased in recent years, there has been very little movement among Latinos .

“There is an element of mistrust, but there is also structural alienation,” Hinojosa said. “They are a population that will look for affordable resources and go to where the products are and where advice can be found.”

In the past, the medical establishment has warned people not to rely on home remedies for physical ailments, some of which can be harmful. Many Latino children have become ill and even died after consuming remedies known as albayalde, Azarcón and Rueda, powders that are often used for stomach-related illnesses and contain lead.

Curanderismo has become so accepted in the Rio Grande Valley that it is not unusual to see street signs and television advertisements advertising folk healing services.

Hernandez said her great-grandmothers had been midwives or midwives. When she was a child, she said, she discovered that she possessed her own set of gifts; As she grew older, she said, she began interacting with an entity she believes to be the Angel of Death, Azrael. She works in a cell phone call center and lives with a girlfriend in a modern house in the suburbs of Edinburg, a city near the border.

“You make it yours. There is no right or wrong. You do what is right for you,” Ms. Hernandez said.

Another modern folk healer, Danielle López, 39, a former Hinojosa student who said she also learned she had a gift as a child, has adopted the nickname millennial healer. She has combined the old traditions she learned from the grandmother who raised her, Consuelo López, and an aunt, Esperanza Rodríguez, with new skills learned in higher education institutions.

His academic record includes a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies with specializations in Mexican-American literature, medical anthropology, and Latino art history from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is completing a doctorate in English with a concentration in border literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she is also a professor.

“For me it is a continuity,” he said of his spiritual work. “I feel like we need it more now.”

It is not unusual for people to ask her for little jobs, including blessings, cleansing, and home remedies, when she is not buried in books. Not long ago, Ms. Lopez received a request to bless a new business for a friend. When López cleaned the establishment with a bouquet of roses, six petals fell from her, prompting her to warn her friend that six people “did not have good intentions.”

“They may say they are happy with their new business, but they are not.”

Sometimes he also offers more science-based advice. When people tell him they feel anxious or can't sleep, he recommends they cut back on sugar or caffeine. Because the advice comes from a healer, she said, people tend to trust that she has their best interests at heart.

The curandera concept is so widespread in Latino enclaves that in September the Texas Diabetes Institute, a state-of-the-art center operated by University Health on the west side of San Antonio, a historic Mexican-American neighborhood, once again added to its lobby a sprawling, wall-sized painting, “La Curandera,” by Chicano painter Jesús Treviño, who died earlier this year. The painting had been removed for restoration.

Still, when it comes to luck and matters of the heart, many people avoid professional help and turn to healers, because there is no substitute, said Sasha Garcia, 39, a healer known for her fiery red hair.

In northern Mexico, where indigenous culture is not as widespread and the control of the Catholic Church is stronger, García said, his ancestors often operated in the shadows to avoid the stigma associated with folk healers. By contrast, on the U.S. side of the border, he not only feels freer to practice openly, but some Catholic priests stop by for advice, he said.

Ms. García welcomes customers at La Casa de la Santísima Yerberia in the town of Pharr, near McAllen, next to two towering statues of La Santísima Muerte, skeletons each in red and black robes. Ms. Garcia reminds people that while the image of La Santísima, a Latin version of the Grim Reaper, may evoke terrifying emotions, death must be revered.

“If you pray to her properly, she can heal and bring love, freedom and wealth,” he said. “I only ask for positive things.” (She regrets that criminal elements along the border and in Mexico have appropriated the image.)

On a recent afternoon, Jocelyn Acevedo, 27, a frequent client of hers who runs a credit repair service, arrived for her monthly cleaning. She had heard about Ms. Garcia four years ago and after the first cleanup, she said, she saw her business begin to prosper. The session convinced her so much that she has since regularly driven 60 miles from nearby Starr County, near the Rio Grande, for her sessions. She now has a tattoo of La Santísima.

García ordered Acevedo to rub three coconuts all over his body. Ms. Garcia then smashed them on the floor to release what she claimed was the negative energy her client had been carrying.

“Did it work? Of course,” Acevedo said.

Ms. Garcia has embraced touches of modernity along with old ways, including consultations now offered via FaceTime. Her clients have responded with their own pop culture offerings, including a sign they brought that now hangs on the front door: “Parking for witches only.”

“No one listens,” Garcia said with a smile. “The word may be modernizing, but we healers are still here. “Just don’t park in my spot.”

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