A Long and Noble Tradition
In the United States of North America historians trace conventional surgical medicine to the Civil War. However, for over four centuries in what we call New Mexico, curanderismo was and still is the native way for curing mental and physical diseases among the traditional mixed-race Spanish and native Indian cultures. Curanderismo is a term from the 19th century that describes ancient methods of traditional healing among the first group of primarily mestizo-indio colonists who entered New Mexico in 1598. In northern New Mexico, it has been a tradition passed on from generation to generation, mostly among traditional mestiza women, who originally brought it from Mexico and added indigenous knowledge and methods learned from the tribes of New Mexico.
Origins of Curanderismo
Scant written documentation exists regarding the early history of curanderismo, as it was passed on orally through hands-on apprenticeships from women and some men who were indigenous of México, Central America, South America and northern New Mexico. The arrival of the first Spanish soldiers in México and their subsequent conquest of the Azteca confederation of tribes created major changes in central México. The Spanish marveled at the medicinal knowledge of the Azteca and it eventually blended into conventional Spanish medicine.
Among the common people, it evolved into curanderismo. From this base in central México, tribal and Spanish medicinal folkways spread north, arriving in New Mexico in 1598. For the next four centuries it evolved and blended further with tribal medicine from New Mexico’s Pueblos, yet it remained apart for use among the Spanish common castas (ethnic groups).
In Spain, curanderos and curanderas in the small villages served the medicinal needs of communities. In México, educated Spanish priests, soldiers and wealthy families relied mainly on their own physicians who were trained in Spain or at la Universidad de México, founded in 1552. However, few, if any, came with the soldiers and soldier-colonists to New Mexico.
In 1552, Martín de la Cruz, an indigenous Nahuatl speaking medicine man wrote an illustrated work in his native language on medicinal plants and herbal medicine of the Azteca empire titled Amate-Cehuatl-Xihuitl-Pitli. His research included a lifetime of gathering information and interpreting the Mexican códices of the Azteca confederation of tribes that dominated Mexico for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish.
It was translated into Latin by an indigenous professor at the Colegio y Convento de las Santa Cruz (est. 1533), Juan Badiano. Francisco de Mendoza, son of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, translated it from Latin from Spanish as Libro Sobre Las Hierbas Medicinales de Los Pueblos Indigenas. The book advanced conventional medicine of that period in México, which spread to Spain, Latin America, and made its way to the Pope in Rome. This impressive work, referred to as the Bodiano Codices, should be named for its true author, Martín de la Cruz. The Spanish incorporated Azteca medicine into the training of doctors because it was in many ways more advanced than their own. Despite these advancements, there still was a shortage of trained Spanish and Mexican doctors in México, but the common castas (people of mixed ethnic groups) preferred local curanderas.
Spanish Colonial Period in New Mexico
Throughout the Spanish colonial period in northern New Mexico, most families relied on curanderas to heal their ailments. They were multi-disciplinary parteras (midwives), herberas (herbalists), sobadoras (massage therapists) and curanderas religiosas y espirituales (religious and spiritual healers). Few males carried on this tradition as their role at this time was to sustain the family agriculturally or economically.
Any community member seeking help was accompanied by their family and asked a long series of questions about their ailment and family history, followed by a thorough examination of their physical and mental condition. After confirming the patient’s faith in her curative powers, she would diagnose physical as well as psychological ailments. Finally, she would administer specific remedies or therapies. Curaderas offered pre-natal care. During delivery the curandera would act as partera, herbera and sobadora simultaneously.
For those who believed in their curative powers, they would perform spiritual rituals in addition to providing hierbas medicinales and massage. The colonial era curanderas were women of strong faith and positive cultural values. As healers, they met most of the needs of the families in their towns and villages because they had intuitive and experiential knowledge of the environment and human nature. They were folk psychologists and used comprehensive social and psychological methods to cure mental illness while simultaneously working on physical ailments. As sobadoras, they massaged and adjusted patients who were in need of physical therapy.
Mexican Period and Arrival of the United States of North America
After México won independence from Spain, curanderas continued to serve the communities of northern New Mexico. As the communities began to realize what little they could expect from new government in Mexico City, there was little impact on the curanderas. The tradition of three centuries continued. The increased Chihuahua trade brought new goods, services and colonists from México, along with a few trained doctors, but little changed until the arrival of the army of the United States of North America in 1846, bringing a new system of government and commerce.
The barter system had served New Mexico well up to that time. But with the arrival of capitalism, many poor New Mexicans were at a loss regarding how to deal with a cash economy. In most villages and towns, families exchanged services or goods with one another to fulfill their basic needs. This system had sustained indigenous tribes for centuries and the Spanish for over 250 years. Poor families continued to trade with the curanderas for their services and were reluctant to enter or rely on the new cash economy.
Throughout the mid- to late-1800s, curanderas in the smaller communities continued serving their families and villagers, and passed their knowledge on to family members and others. The tradition continued and little changed because it had worked for hundreds of years.
The new arrivals were ignorant of the traditions of the native Spanish-Mexicanos and the Pueblo Indians. Many were suspicious of curanderas and thought they were witches or charlatans. The curanderas at this time kept a low profile outside their extended families and villages for fear they would be subject to gossip from those who did not understand their tradition, and as a result, scant detail about individual curanderas exists from this period—with some exceptions—from the tradition of oral history.
Curanderas of Northern New Mexico in the 20th and 21st Centuries
In the 20th century, curanderas were needed and thriving. They learned from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and other curanderas as the tradition continued in their villages. They never advertised, as word of mouth and the belief that they could help was proven. Curanderas followed in the footsteps of their mentors under who they were apprenticed, which meant that the cycle of service remained unbroken. What was successful in the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods was still relevant and successful into the new century.
The following biographies are a representation of some of the incredible women who served and others who continue to serve their communities for most of their lives.
Gregorita Rodríguez was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1901 in her father’s house on Montoya Hill. She was selected to be a healer’s apprentice by her tía Valentina, who apprenticed with Gregorita’s grandmother, la curandera Juliana Montoya.
At a young age, she gathered hierbas medicinales with her tía on her father’s ranch in Quelites, near Pacheco Canyon, northeast of Santa Fe. Gregorita attended Loretto Academy, a Catholic school for girls in Santa Fe. When her father died, the family could not afford to keep her in school. The nuns liked Gregorita and had her scrub floors and clean for the convent in exchange for tuition. As a young woman she was interested in becoming a nun but instead married Manuel Rodríguez on Aug. 7, 1922. She had 16 pregnancies; however, only eight of her babies survived.
Once her children were grown, she became active in politics and was a delegate to the state Democratic Convention in the early 1970s. Her political prowess and skills as a community organizer made politicians seek her out. Like all curanderas, she believed her ability to heal came as a gift from God. As a sobadora, she not only provided massage therapy, but also was able to cure ailments in the abdominal area by seeking out each organ and clearing blockages with her hands. As a partera, she delivered many newborns. She was quoted in many newspaper articles and periodicals, stating: “Curanderas cure with their minds, their experience and their herbs.” In April 1994, at the age of 83, she was honored by the Santa Fe Living Treasures organization. Gregorita Rodriguez passed on to the hands of her Lord on Oct. 19, 1989 at the age of 88.
Gabrielita Mares de Pino was born in el Cañoncito, near Mora, New Mexico, on May 25, 1905, according to Anselmo Arellano, who interviewed her for La Herencia Magazine in the spring of 1994. Her parents were José León Mares and Emilia Vargas. Emilia, her mother, died when she was only 2 years old. As a result, her grandparents raised her in La Cueva, a village six miles east of Mora. Gabrielita learned to be a healer from her grandmother, Jacinta Ortega de Mares, a well-known curandera in the Mora Valley during the 1800s and 1900s. In her early years she assisted her grandmother with gathering, preparing and storing medicinal herbs.
When she was 15 years old, she married Antonio Pino and gave birth to 19 children. She apprenticed with her father-in-law, Angel Pino, who was a sobador. Like many traditional curanderas, Gabrielita became a partera as well and served as long as she was physically able. All of her 19 children were born at home with the help of a partera.
During her time as a curandera, she seldom charged more than $5 a visit, and if they could not afford it, she would take whatever they could give her. She also gave herbs to her patients because, she said: “They are a gift from God for the healing and comfort of those who have faith in them.” She gathered herbs each year on Aug. 15 on el día de María Santísima (Assumption of Mary) so they would be blessed, and she would pray to her patron saint “Santa Rita” to help her heal the sick and watch over her family. She was saddened that no one in her family wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a curandera.
She left a legacy of 19 children, 80 grandchildren, 70 great-grand-children and over 20 great-great grand-children when she died at the age of 95 on September.
Jesusita Aragón was born on March 26, 1908 in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was baptized in Sapello. Her parents were Tomás Aragón and Antonia Otero. Her grandparents were Trinidad Gallegos and Dolores “Lola” Gallegos. When she was 4 years old her grandfather Trinidad moved the family to Las Ventanas (also known as Trujillo), a ranching community almost 40 miles east of Las Vegas. Her grandmother started her apprenticeship when she was 13 years old, and that same year she delivered her first baby because her grandmother Lola had to attend her own sister who was in labor.
Jesusita wanted to be a partera but also learned to be a herbera in order to serve pregnant women with the prenatal process. She apprenticed with her grandmother until she was 40 years old—27 years! She built her own house in Trujillo. She astounded many doctors with her intuitive knowledge of medicine. She prayed to Santo Nino de Atocha when she attended a birth. She did so in silence, with reverence, trusting in the power of faith to help her bring newborns into the world. She worked 73 years as a partera, delivering almost 46,000 babies, including 27 sets of twins and two sets of triplets, according to Anselmo Arellano, who interviewed Jesusita in 1994 for La Herencia Magazine. In 1941, Jesusita moved from Trujillo to Las Vegas so her son could attend high school and she could build another house. She continued as a partera in Las Vegas and also took in work washing and ironing clothes for Highlands University students. She died at the age of 97 on April 26, 2005.
Sabinita Hererra was born in Truchas, New Mexico, in July 1933. She learned about yerbas medicinales as a little girl. Her father, Mr. Trujillo, at 75 years old, would take his 10-year-old daughter out on day-trips digging for herbal roots and plants at the base of the Truchas Peaks. Her mother would protest when her husband took her out on school days. These treks into the wilderness included selecting, gathering, cleaning, washing, cutting and drying hierbas medicinales and learning what they would cure.
Sabinita married and had 10 children. When her youngest was born, she went back into the mountains searching for hierbas. She believed that God gave us these hierbas to use and help everyone. In the late 1960s, the Truchas Clinic opened and the director, David Trujillo, convinced Sabinita to work with the clinic. She passed the entrance exam and became the clinic’s herbera. Truchas villagers talk about the special ointment she makes that heals skin ailments. Sabinita knew that she would be called upon by God to heal. Now in her 80s, she has curtailed her service to her community. She is well known and well respected as a curandera in northern New Mexico.
Dr. Virginia Alaniz, D.O.M. has been serving the medical needs of her patients in Las Vegas, New Mexico for the past 40 years. She apprenticed with traditional healers in northern New Mexico for over 30 years. These curanderas were Jesusita Aragón and Gabrielita Mares Pino, among others, who specialized in healing herbs, midwifery, massage and spiritual healing. To my knowledge, Virginia has never advertised herself as a curandera, yet she has the knowledge and experience of one. Her teachers, friends and companions lived 95 to 100 years.
For over 30 years, Dr. Alaniz and her teachers provided curanderismo workshops for a wide range of audiences and age groups. She continues to present workshops at higher education institutions throughout New Mexico. At Luna Community College in Las Vegas, there is a mural commissioned by the New Mexico Art in Public Places program, depicting Dr. Alaniz and one of her teachers, Gabrielita Mares Pino, titled “Curandera.” It was painted in 2005 to honor their work in the communities of San Miguel and Mora counties. Both were also featured in the book Natures Medicine: Plants that Heal, published by National Geographic Magazine.
Dr. Alaniz has over 40 years of education and experience in the fields of mental health and substance abuse, both as a licensed clinician and a program developer for state mental health agencies and non-profits. She retired as a mental health clinician and has since taught graduate courses at New Mexico Highlands University in the Bilingual Social Work Department on Healing Traditions and Beliefs within the Latino Community. Virginia has also consulted with other universities in the Southwest and was a consultant for the film Bless Me Última. She currently has an office, providing acupuncture, herbal remedies, mental health therapy and traditional medicine services.
To my knowledge, curanderas in northern New Mexico who continue this tradition are unique and few. Other than Dr. Alaniz, their have been few attempts at a resurgence within the curanderas of Northern New Mexico. The University of New Mexico and Northern New Mexico College in 2005-2006 presented workshops featuring curanderas from México, which UNM has continued; however, few northern New Mexico women have come forward to apprentice with Sabinita Herrera and Dr. Alaniz to continue this tradition.
Hilario E. Romero, a New Mexican mestizo (Spanish/Basque/Jicarilla Apache/Ute), is a former New Mexico state historian. He spent the past 42 years in higher education, as an administrator and professor of History, Spanish and Education at the Community College of Denver, Northern New Mexico College and adjunct professor at Metro State University, University of Colorado-Denver, New Mexico Highlands University and UNM.