What I know about time is that it is fluid. And everything I need to know comes from people who were long gone by the time I came into this world. My grandmother Tonita, old when I was born, was my most beloved relative until she died at almost 100, when I was 26. Everything about Tonita was infused with the memory of generations of farming and ranching along the Río Nambé. In my formative years, daily reminders of ancestors, who not only helped form me but who still observed my life from somewhere not here, kept me on track. With that, it was understood that there was a heaven, not far off, where interested forebears could influence my actions and affect the outcome of my day-to-day intentions.
Growing up in north-central New Mexico in the 1950s and ’60s, many will remember grandparents who prescribed age-old methods of health maintenance. Upon entering my great-grandmother Camila’s kitchen, sometime in the 1970s, I encountered my great-aunt, Chonita, sitting at the table, cleaning green beans. On Chonita’s temples were placed the twin halves of a dry pinto bean. I didn’t say anything. Another day soon after, I again visited “Mama-grande’s” home and encountered Chonita, this time with two blue tax stamps from cigarette packages, again stuck to her temples. “Dolor de cabeza,” she informed me, and I understood. She was treating a headache with acupressure!
Wellness, I learned, extended beyond the family to the home and its surroundings, as well. If one lived near tall cottonwoods, it was not unusual to find various silver medallas, or medallions, attached to the old trees. The saintly images on pendants prevented lightning strikes. The hornos, or bread ovens, were also extended a consideration of protection and wellness, to ensure successful baking. Upon completion of an adobe horno, table salt had to be poured to form a small cross on the top of the freshly plastered oven. This would protect the oven from any jinx created by the “evil eye.” If your horno became inefficient, then a door made of lumber would be fitted and placed on the horno to protect it from becoming flojo, or lazy, during the times it was not in use. Brooms were to be used by the homemaker to sweep out not only dust and dirt but evil vibes as well. My grandmother’s small brooms were unusual and had no handle. They were made from the sleekest and most durable grass, not found in the Española or Pojoaque valleys. After her death, I learned that the grass had been harvested near Taos Pueblo’s Blue Lake.
It wasn’t so long ago that one could visit Mr. Luján’s herb store on Galisteo Street in downtown Santa Fe. Necessary herbs, like chaparral, which treats body pain, alta misa, used to reduce fever, or osha, good for everything from sore throat to grief, could be purchased there. Although the shop closed after Mr. Luján’s death, interest in local herbs remains strong in Santa Fe.
One of the first books ever written in the New World was the Mendoza Codex. Antonio Mendoza was assigned by King Charles V to displace Hernán Cortés and lead the Mexican colonies away from the bloody conquest that defines Cortés’s illegal reign. Shortly after arriving in Tenochtitlán, in 1535, Mendoza commissioned Cromberger Press to relocate a branch of its renowned printing press from Sevilla, Spain, to México. Mendoza worked with Bishop Zumarraga, who had witnessed the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, to create a gift book for King Charles that illustrated the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous Mexicans, including the medicinal use of native plants. This rare and wonderful book was stolen by French pirates while en route to King Charles and changed hands many times. The Codex Mendoza was eventually acquired by the Bodleian Library, the main research library of Oxford University, in England, where it resides today. Around the same time, Cromberger Press released another book. Dated 1535 and illustrated with numerous woodcuts, over half of the book is devoted to trees and plants, many of them medicinal. The rare-book dealer, William Reese Company, located in New Haven, Connecticut, offers a rare copy of La Historia General de las Indias, by Oviedo, for $225,000.
One of my fondest memories is of my grandparents figuring out how to treat my grandfather Procopio’s hearing loss. Together, they ground dry ruda de la sierra and rolled it into a cigarette. Tonita stood at Procopio’s side as he sat, and she blew the smoke of the herb into his ear. We know now that it is the Mediterranean rue that breaks up congestion in the head, not the native ruda de la sierra. Yet, some ancestral memory prompted my grandparents to use the native herb, lovingly, as their ancestors in Spain had.
Health is wealth. Herbs are mystical plants. The longer I work with herbs, the more I realize that I work for the herbs.
Camilla Trujillo has been herb-crafting for 35 years and sells her herbal body products at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. She lives in Española.