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Folk healing takes root

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By Jennifer Garcia

Manzanilla tea (chamomile) for stomach problems, slippery elm tea for a sore throat and Osha for colds, lung infections or just a bit of good luck.

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These are all remedies (or remedios) that just about any native Northern New Mexican has heard of or perhaps even used a time or two.

The art of folk healing and using herbs to cure illnesses instead of conventional medicine can be traced back to curanderos — folk healers — and yerberos — herbalists in Mexican towns along the U.S.-Mexico border and in Mexico, itself.

Eliseo “Cheo” Torres is somewhat of an expert on the art of folk healing and using herbs to treat illnesses.

The vice president of student affairs at The University of New Mexico teaches a class on curanderismo and recently gave a talk on the art — and his book, “Healing with herbs and rituals, a Mexican tradition” during the Authors Speak series at Mesa Public Library.

Torres grew up on the Texas-Mexico border and said his parents were well-versed in herbal healing. He grew up in a family of six, with no health insurance, so going to the doctor for a quick fix wasn’t an option.

“My mother used to say, ‘we’re not insured, so I’ll be your doctor,’” Torres explained. “She would tell us to ‘just believe in this,’” but she didn’t know why she did it (used herbs).”

The art of curanderismo so intrigued Torres that he applied for a grant through the college that employed him at the time, that allowed him to travel with an anthropologist and colleague. “I traveled for 20 years in Mexico,” Torres said. “I’d talk to curanderos and I’d learn about rituals and herbs.”

He studied under a curandero named Cresencio Alvarado, also known as Chenchito, who had a home in Mexico.

“He had 30 people living with him in one room,” Torres said.

Torres moved to New Mexico in 1995 and wasn’t sure if the Land of Enchantment was strong in the culture of curanderismo. However he soon found out that it is.

Just like Mexican folk healers, Northern New Mexican grandmothers had cures for ailments such as empacho, or food that’s stuck in the stomach. Rubbing the stomach clockwise is supposed to dislodge the food.

In addition, manzanilla is used to relieve intestinal stomach cramps; valerian root is used to induce sleep and rosemary is used for susto or fright.

“La Chaya is very hot right now,” Torres said. “It’s tree spinach and it controls

diabetes. You cook five leaves and drink the water.”

Torres also talked about the similarities between rituals used in Mexico and those in Egypt and in the Muslim religion.

“Some traditions are so similar,” he said. “The Hand of Fatima is used in the Muslim religion. Each finger represents the five virtues of Islam. In Israel they have the hand of Miriam, the sister of Moses. The fingers represent the five books of the Torah.

“In Mexican culture, we have the Mano Poderosa, or the Powerful Hand. The fingers represent the Virgin Mary, Joseph, San Joaquin, St. Ann and the baby Jesus. But they are all used for protection,” he said.

In addition to Torres’ talk, he was also preparing for the Feria de Salud, a health fair that he has helped organize for the past 10 years.

The fair is held annually at UNM and is part of a two-week course that Torres teaches. Twenty curanderos from Mexico visit UNM and observe their techniques at work, answer students’ questions and share their experiences.