I recently attended a summer course at the University of New Mexico entitled “Traditional Healing without Borders: Curanderismo in the Southwest and Mexico.” I’ve been a student of Mexican and Mexican American folk and religious healing for a couple of years now and had wanted to attend this class for a long time. Now that I’ve been (and loved it!), I thought I would share what I’ve been reflecting on since returning to the hot and sticky east coast.
|Ceremony with copal smudging at UNM. Photo by Brett Hendrickson.|
The class is ostensibly about traditional Mexican healing. And, yes, it was. We learned about some traditional maladies such as mal de ojo, empacho, and susto. We learned how to administer a limpia, “cleansing,” with eggs and branches of herbs, and about some of the great folk saints of the borderlands. But, we also learned that curanderismo, even in Mexico today, is incorporating other folk and integrative therapies from around the globe. And we were told many times, explicitly and implicitly, that it is energy that ties all of us and all of these therapies together. As you may know, one of the hallmarks of what Catherine Albanese calls “metaphysical religion” is the sense that we live in a cosmos inundated with energy, energy that we can manipulate for our own weal and woe. This energy is the same the world over. To wit, two different curanderas told me: “Mayan and Chinese medicine are exactly the same.” Maybe they are exactly the same if the person consuming them is using them for exactly the same reasons and in exactly the same way.
As you might imagine, there were a lot of New Age-y people from New Mexico in this class. During a time for discussion, one of them commented regarding the Mexican curanderos: “These people are not considered freaky, New Age, weird in their country.” She continued, “It’s so great and so normalized. In my line of work, people often think I’m so freaky.” In her imagination, at least, Mexico is a place where people who do Reiki as well as limpias are totally normal. This was a new twist on the trope that New Age people seek out the “exotic.” This woman seemed to be romanticizing the exotic so that she could feel more acceptable herself in her own American skin.
So, the questions I’ve been batting around go something like this: What is an “authentic” curandera? Is it ok to mix a whole bunch of local indigenous healing traditions together if it’s indigenous people doing the mixing? What does it mean about the construction of Mexican and Mexican American identity that curanderismo is being more and more framed as an ancient native practice rather than a colonialism-spawned syncretic tradition? Are Mexicans who reclaim Aztec or Maya traditions acting in a way that is inherently Western in its intentions and forms of acquisition and valorization of an imagined utopian past? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these or related questions.