Juan Estévan Arellano

When we talk about traditional healing arts we usually think of the “sobador,” masseuse; “curandera,” traditional healer; “partera,” midwife or the different types of medicinal herbs that people consume, from osha to “hierbabuena,” peppermint; or any of the many plants used for medicine by traditional cultures.

But rarely do we think about the philosophy of the people and how it relates to health, because most don’t think of uneducated people as having philosophy. But in the Indo-Hispano culture, when talking to traditional people about health or life, they always talk about “una vida buena y sana,” a sound and healthy life, to which someone will usually add, “…y alegre,” and cheerful.

And this type of philosophy is usually tied to the environment. All one has to do is look carefully at the “ordenanzas,” or ordinances that settlers had to abide by when looking for a piece of land to settle. Below are examples from Book Four of the Laws of the Indies that give us an idea of how the Spanish Crown was very concerned as to where the people were to settle, so that they could have “una vida buena y sana.”

This idea was developed by Dr. Tomás Atencio and his wife, Consuelo Pacheco, based on their work in mental health and public health, and from the oral histories gathered by asociados of La Academia de la Nueva Raza during the ‘70s and ‘80s. When looking at the health of the people, the land and water are very important, for without water nothing can be done—food can’t be grown, houses and churches built, etc. El agua es vida, water is life.

Before a particular area was selected as a settlement, certain criteria had to be met. For that we go to Book Four, Title 7, Law 1. The new settlements shall be established under the conditions of this law. [Ordinances 39 and 40]. . . In… inland settlements, the settlers shall choose the site from among those that are unoccupied, or may be occupied by Our order, without being prejudicial to the Indians or natives, unless it is with their free consent.

When they make the plan of the place, they shall divide it into its squares, streets and house-lots, marked out with straight lines, starting from the main square and proceeding from it with the streets to the entrance and principal roads.

They shall leave enough open area that, even if the settlement greatly increases, it will always be possible to follow the plan and expand in the same way.

They shall try to have water close by so that it can be conducted to the town and properties, distributing it if possible, in order to make the best use of it.

They shall try to have the materials that are needed for buildings, farmlands, cultivation, and pastures, so as to do away with the considerable labor and expenses that result when the materials are far away.

They shall not choose sites for settlement in places of very high elevation, because of troubles with the winds and the difficulty of service and transportation. Nor shall they choose sites in places of very low elevation because persons are apt to become ill.

Settlements shall be made in moderate elevations which benefit from exposure to the winds from the north and the south; and if there are mountains or hills, the settlements shall be on the east and west sides.

If high places cannot be avoided, they shall make the settlements in places where they are not subject to clouds, observing whatever is most conducive to health, and considering unforeseen circumstances that can occur. They were also to be aware of poisonous animals and water where it remained stagnant.

Elders, among them Dr. Devon G. Peña’s grandmother, Margarita K. Peña, was very philosophical when talking about seeds,“La semilla es la memoria de la planta, de como vivir bien en este lugar,” the seed is the memory of the plant, of how to live in this place.

This philosophy of wholeness, wholistic health, of “una vida buena y sana y alegre,” comes not only from where settlements should be made, but also the importance of seeds, of “la memoria de la planta,” of how to not only survive, but thrive, in a specific environment. One might call this philosophy one of “querencia,” or sense of place.



Farmer, researcher and community leader, Juan Estévan Arellano has devoted most of his life to documenting the traditional knowledge of the Indo-Hispano in northern New Mexico, especially as it relates to land and water. He has served as mayordomo of the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga in the village of Embudo, and he is the translator-editor of the bookAncient Agriculture.


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