Curanderismo y Querencia

I was unable to include sections on curanderismo and querencia in my book Lenguaje, A Cultural History of the Spanish Language in New Mexico due to space limitations. Hence, I am presenting these two sections here (they would have been included in Chapter 6).

Chapter 6

  • Curanderismo

        Another area in which there has been a great deal of overlap between Nuevo-mexicanos, and indigenous communities is in health care and in particular in the employment of curanderismo or folk medicine. Traditional folk medicine is practiced throughout the world even to the present. Before the advent of the germ theory of disease and other science-based medical practices, folk medicine was almost the only method for addressing human health. Even “recognized” physicians were often nothing more than quacks. Folk medicine utilizes a variety of practices including the use of herbs and other medicinal plants, massage, chiropractic procedures, and the like. I recall going in 1987 to a market in Granada, Spain and seeing a vast array of herbs and roots on sale for purposes of curanderismo. I recognized many of the items as being those in use in New Mexico. There is sometimes a spiritual component to curanderismo and in Spain, this revolves around appeals to Jesus, Mary, and the Catholic saints for aid and intervention. In the Americas, indigenous peoples had health practices of their own and thus curanderismo among Spanish/Mexicans took on Indian medicinal plants, practices, and sometimes beliefs. A male practitioner is called a curandero, although most practitioners have been women (curanderas). There are specialties among curanderas, for example, yerbera (herbalist), sobadora (chiropractor), partera (midwife), and curandera espiritual (spiritual healer).

        In colonial New Mexico, the friars accepted the use of herbs and physical methods such as massages and bone manipulations on the part of both Spanish and indigenous healers to be acceptable because these were common in the Old Country. The spiritual elements of curanderismo posed more of a problem. Spiritual aspects of healing were, of course, present in Spain with prayers for divine intervention often offered for the sick patient. There was even scriptural support such as in James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.” Not that the Catholic curandera or curandero would have access to or read the Bible, but the religious knew of passages like this. When the use of herbs was to achieve a goal like getting someone to fall in love or for getting rich, this was considered superstition. Some afflictions border on having spiritual or supernatural content, such as mal de ojo (evil eye) or susto (fright). In our context, mal de ojo is caused when an adult person stares or even looks admiringly at a child, especially an infant, for too long. Then the child can get a fever, headaches, be caused to cry, or worse. The treatment is to rub an egg over the child, while saying a prayer, and then breaking the egg into a glass of water, thereby absorbing the bad energy. The egg can be put under the child’s bed and the next day it is thrown away. Susto is the result of a startling or frightful scare that causes the soul to leave the body. Symptoms of susto include headaches, nausea, shakiness, depression, listlessness, or loss of appetite. The cure can be achieved by sweeping the body with a broom made of dried herbs bound together, while prayers are said for the soul to return. Additionally, a patient’s body could be massaged with an egg in its shell.

        However, sometimes a person was afflicted by an illness supposedly occasioned by a hex or a curse brought on by the Devil, evil spirits, or a witch (brujo or bruja). The friars believed that Indian curanderas and curanderos were involved in witchcraft in addition to their healing practices. The Indian practitioners would engage in native religious rituals to combat all maladies, including spiritual ones that were caused by witchcraft and magic, in which they did believe. The native practitioners who would use herbs to heal people could also be the same persons who could use herbs and other methods to put hexes on others and cause them harm. This overlap would lead the Franciscan friars to punish Indian healers for practicing witchcraft.

      A true case of the pursuit by a priest in confronting the Devil’s works entailed in witchcraft (as he saw it) occurred in Abiquiu as described by historians Malcolm Ebright and Rick Hendricks in their intriguing book The Witches of Abiquiu. Father Juan José Toledo was the Spanish friar assigned to Abiquiu with the task of Christianizing the genízaros. He developed severe pains from a “ball” that moved around his stomach area, and which caused him to cough and choke. As he was lying down in bed, the friar was visited by a woman “dressed in the Spanish style” and she administered a massage that expelled the ball and gave Toledo relief. Since the woman hid her face, it could be that she was a Pueblo Indian or genízara. At any rate, Toledo was cured. However, the same affliction reoccurred and another curandera from outside Abiquiu cured him again employing massage and having him ingest estafiate, an indigenous herb. The curandera said that he had coagulated phlegm in his stomach. The priest, however, later continued to choke and cough as before and he also developed an eye problem.1 The priest attributed these maladies to hechicería (witchcraft) on the part of the genízaro Vicente Trujillo. It was alleged that Vicente wanted to kill Toledo. Perhaps harmful herbs or other substances were added to the priest’s food by Vicente or his wife María. It is certainly true that Trujillo and many others resented the friar’s attempts to stamp out native religious beliefs in Abiquiu and he may indeed have engaged in rituals to harm the friar. Father Toledo also accused others of being hechiceros (sorcerers) since other cases of hexes had occurred in Abiquiu and other pueblos. Notably, Abiquiu was vulnerable to nomadic Indian attacks and there was, as a result, a pervading fear and insecurity among the inhabitants. This led to forbidden ceremonies by the genízaros to allay their fears, thereby aggravating the problem between Father Toledo and the people. The zealous priest performed exorcisms and conducted a trial that went on from 1756 to 1766, during which time several suspected sorcerers and witches were jailed and flogged. The hysteria was ended by the intervention of Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín when he incarcerated the main accused sorcerers and calmed Father Toledo down by referring the case to the Inquisition

        An encounter of my own with herbal healing was occasioned by a severe case of diarrhea my son Ricardo had at age two. The doctor prescribed the liquid medicine Kaopectate, which my wife and I gave him for a couple of days, but diarrhea persisted. His eyes were getting sunken, and he got little sleep. We were getting desperate. Then a Nuevomexicano pharmacist suggested that we give him yerba buena (peppermint) tea, a favorite with curanderas. Upon drinking the hot tea, Ricardo immediately vomited twice, and each time a long stream of Kaopectate was ejected from his little body. He fell asleep almost immediately after that and was soon able to ingest liquids and then food. Ricardito was cured. But our next encounter with curanderismo was not so positive. My great-aunt Teresa Martín de Gurulé, Grandma Adelaida’s sister, was a well-respected curandera and people would come from miles around to be treated by her. My wife Genara had suffered from severe asthma for several years and we went to see Tía Teresa to see what Tía could do for her. Tía prescribed that Genara should smoke some oshá, a root from a kind of wild parsley plant, which is used in curanderismo for respiratory ailments. It provoked a violent spasm of coughing in her. This remedio (cure) did not work for my wife’s asthma. Oshá (porter’s lovage) is an herb that Pueblo Indians introduced to Spanish settlers. Inmortal (antelope horns – of the milkweed family) is another herb adopted from Indians and it is used to ease the final stages of labor in a woman giving birth; it is also used as an expectorant in bronchitis and pleurisy.

  • Querencia

        The early Spanish colonialists came to La Nueva México hoping to find another city like Tenochtitlan, the original Ciudad de México, full of treasures and with plenty of Indians that could be exploited. They instead found a land of hardship and poverty with an indigenous population consisting of but a small fraction of that found in Mesoamerica. The resettlement of New Mexico following Diego de Vargas was by settlers with limited expectations, but who nevertheless dreamt of owning land of their own and becoming hidalgos. Vargas declared that the grants of land (mercedes) that had been given out by Spanish governors before the Pueblo Revolt were null and void. He considered that the slate had been wiped clean by the Revolt and a new conquest had been accomplished by him. This made sense since almost all Spanish documents were destroyed by the Pueblo Indians during and after the Revolt. As such, the boundaries and extent of previously given land grants could not be determined. Mercedes were issued by governors thereafter were of three types: 1) Pueblo Grants: these were lands granted to the Pueblo Indian communities to protect communal lands that the Pueblos had used and held for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. These allotments were but a fraction of the original lands that Pueblo Indians considered their traditional lands. 2) Individual or Private Grants: lands were given to favored and elite individuals or small groups of individuals as a reward for their service; the lands were for the private use of the grantees and their families, and the lands could be sold. 3) Community Grants: these were grants of land made to communities of people. In these grants, the defense of the town required that there be a central plaza, where the town church was also usually located.  The largest portion of the land, the ejido, was held communally by the people. The ejido was used in common by grantees for grazing, cutting timber, gathering firewood, hunting, fishing, and watering. The ejido could not be sold nor divided. Aside from this, plots within the community land grant were also under individual ownership: a plot for a dwelling (solar de casa), a plot for a garden (suerte) and plots for growing crops like wheat or corn (caballerías).  These smaller plots of land became individual property after a specified amount of time (4 years typically) during which the individual lived on the land and cultivated it.

        Pueblo Indians and all the other area indigenous nations have a holistic conception of nature as a spirit world with all things being connected. Thus, mountains, lakes, forests, animals, and plants – indeed, everything – are invested with spirits. Thus, for example, when you are about to shoot a deer, you say a prayer and ask the deer to forgive you for taking its life. Some places are especially sacred. The Navajo (Diné) believe that the four mountains that enclose Dinétah, the land inhabited by the Diné, are imbued with sacredness. The mountains are in the four cardinal directions and are north – Dibé Nitsaa (Mount Hesperus), east – Tsisnaasjini’ (Mount Blanca), south – Tsoodzil (Mount Taylor), west – Doko’oosliid (San Francisco Peaks). Blue Lake (Ba Whyea), near Taos is similarly sacred to the people of Taos Pueblo. By tradition, the Taos people were created out of the sacred waters of Blue Lake. The federal government took control of Blue Lake in 1906, turned it over to the Forest Service, which leased the surrounding forest to logging.  The Forest Service also opened Blue Lake and the surrounding watershed to recreational users, thereby compromising access and privacy on the part of the people of Taos Pueblo. In testimony before Congress in 1969, Paul Bernal explained, “In all of its programs the Forest Service proclaims the supremacy of man over nature; we find this viewpoint contradictory to the realities of the natural world and the nature of conservation. Our tradition and our religion require people to adapt their lives and activities to our natural surroundings so that men and nature mutually support the life common to both. The idea that man must subdue nature and bend its processes to his purposes is repugnant to our people.”1 Finally, after 64 years of protests, appeals, and political pressure, Blue Lake was returned to Taos Pueblo, together with trust title for the surrounding 48,000 acres of watershed and tribal members have exclusive use of 1,640 acres around the lake. The personal support of President Richard Nixon was important in the passage of the bill authorizing the transfer of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, as was that of the liberal Democratic Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma and his wife LaDonna Harris, an important Native American activist and political figure herself. Politics indeed makes for some strange bedfellows.

        Pueblo people could not conceive of land as being in the private ownership of an individual. The land was the common property of the pueblo and could not be divided nor sold. Nuevomexicanos, especially those from community land grants, came to consider land much in the Pueblo conception. The ejido belonged to everyone in the merced as communal property. The community land grants were given to those of social rank lower than those who received private grants and the need to maintain a sense of togetherness was paramount for survival. The communal feeling toward the land gave rise to the mystical notion of querencia or love of place, where one feels at home and secure, that Nuevomexicanos came to hold dear. This metaphysical concept is known in the larger Spanish-speaking world. Ernest Hemingway writes in Death in the Afternoon, “A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality. … It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place, he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.” However, querencia for the community-land-grant Nuevomexicano was more of a communal feeling that one had for the land because it was the place of nuestra gente (our people), not just your place, but our place.

        El Santuario de Chimayó is a sacred site for Nuevomexicanos, a part of our querencia. It has been described as the “Lourdes of America” because the small chapel is reported to be the site of many healings attributed to the sacred dirt in a pocito (little well or hole) in its floor, which is collected and then rubbed onto the bodies of believers. The chapel was built in 1816 and named El Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in honor of a similar shrine in Guatemala, where there was also miraculous soil for healing, and which contains a crucifix of a dark-complexioned Jesus Christ. The veneration of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas migrated north into Mexico and New Mexico. According to legend, in 1810 some Hermanos Penitentes were performing rites on a hill above Chimayó, and they saw a light emanating from the valley below. When they went to investigate, they found a half-buried wooden crucifix at the place where the light had been seen. The crucifix was taken to a church in Santa Cruz eight miles away, whereupon the icon disappeared the next day. It was found where it had been first been discovered. After two more repetitions of taking the crucifix to Santa Cruz and then having it return to the original site in Chimayó by itself, it was decided that the crucifix needed to be at the place it was found. A small shrine was built for the crucifix followed by the chapel now known as El Santuario de Chimayó. It is significant that the location of the Santuario was said by the neighboring Tewa people to have been sacred to them and other Indians for generations. A spring had been located there and when it dried up, the remaining soil was found to have healing powers. Today, thousands of pilgrims come to El Santuario to worship and to seek healing for their infirmities. People take with them the dirt from the pocito (little well), where the crucifix had originally been found, and it has to be replenished regularly with soil from elsewhere. Crutches and canes left behind by the healed line the walls of the sanctuary. The resident priest is quick to emphasize that it is not the soil of El Santuario that heals people, but their faith in God.

El Pocito at El Santuario
El Pocito at El Santuario


1. Malcolm Ebright and Rick Hendricks, The Witches of Abiquiu: The Governor, the Priest, The Genízaro Indians and the Devil, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006, p. 154.

2. Roz Dzelzitis, Taos Blue Lake, Sacred Lands Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 29 Sept. 2010.

Published by richardjgriego

Retired professor of mathematics. Author of mathematics articles and also articles and a book on the culture of New Mexico.

One thought on “Curanderismo y Querencia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: