A curandera’s mission: healing the body and soul

Photo: Tina Larkin

Originally published in The Taos News

Patricia Padilla is an eighth-generation curandera fromEl Paso,Texas. She now lives inTaos, where she also works in her art. Her latest project is a Mayan calendar Tarot deck.

Curanderismo is an ancient form of healing. The word comes from the verb curar, that in Spanish means “to heal.” It combines traditional Native American remedies and European practices.

Some curanderos specialize in a particular field. A hierbero (herbalist) works with medicinal plants, a sobador gives massages or sobas, and a huesero (bonesetter) deals with broken bones. There are also parteras or midwives. But Padilla is a curandera total, which means she knows about herbs as well as how to give massages and heal broken bones.

Curanderismo is a vocation, not a profession,” Padilla said. “We don’t choose it, it chooses us.”

            She was born into curanderismo. Her grandmother, who raised her, was a practicing curandera. Padilla remembers traveling with her inEl Paso and accompanying her to visit sick people.

“She would have me put my hands on people as she worked,” Padilla said. “She would have me hold her hand as she prayed over them and fed them. Treating people with her was a quiet and respectful experience, there was no clapping of hands or pats on the back. It was done with love and compassion, like serving a meal.”

Padilla has studied and taught herbology, massage therapy, trauma work and nutrition. She has helped various organizations that deal with death and dying issues. “My ordination is actually to help the dying, but we are all on that path from birth,” she said.

As for her teachers, they have ranged from Native American healers to East Indian practitioners and Oriental medical people with M.D. degrees. Padilla herself has a degree in Oriental medicine and studied massage therapy and aromatherapy.

She opened her own clinic in Lyons, Colorado, in the early 80’s, and she kept it for fifteen years. There she practiced Oriental Medicine and when it was required, curanderismo.

How is curanderismo practiced?

There are ceremonial tools, plants and objects that most curanderas use in their rituals. Food, feathers, sage, salt, eggs, water and fire are among them. Many have sahumadores (incense burners) where they burn the sacred copal.

“We all practice differently but these are some of the sacred things I use, besides dirt and spider webs,” Padilla said.

A service that she often performs is a limpia, a spiritual cleansing. “A limpia is basically a prayer,” Padilla said. “When I do one, I ask for help from the unseen realms. I use candles, sage, copal, citrus seeds, bee pollen or cornmeal. I always ‘feed the spirit’ with a candle and sage, or make an offering of seeds or diced apples to the bird people.”

She is also asked to heal people from two conditions known as susto and espanto. “Susto is a less threatening state than espanto,” she said. “It can be a mild shock from a minor car accident or after witnessing a violent scene. Telltale signs are scattered thoughts, difficulty to focus and disturbed eating and sleeping patterns.”

Espanto, on the other hand, is severe shock, a dislocation of the spirit from the body. “This is a more serious condition because when your spirit leaves, other energies enter and take over,” Padilla said. “When people are in this state, it is hard for them to recognize the situation. Sometimes they get feedback from their friends and family, saying that they are ‘spacey,’ out of touch or too irritable.”

A plática (a conversation between the curandera and her client) is another well-known curanderismo practice.

“A plática can be just a story,” Padilla said. “For instance, if you talk to someone who has had a trauma, it may be too difficult to address his or her trauma directly. Hearing about someone else’s experience might help them to reassess their own situation and see it in a less hopeless or debilitating light. Curanderismo is about reframing or renegotiating the ‘story’ and reconstituting the client’s response it, or to its memory.”

Padilla uses several forms of divination, like a pendulum and Tarot cards, and her own powers of observation and intuition. “I like the cards because people are in control of shuffling them and laying them out,” she said. “The archetypal images are a language unto themselves and say things to the person visually, stuff that they cannot hear linguistically.”

Tips from Patricia Padilla’s natural first-aid kit

For bad moods: Remove yourself from everyone and everything for a moment, or even for one day, and deal with your attitude. Take a mega B vitamin and sip a cup of black tea.

For cramps, depending on what is causing them: Use a castor oil pack on the liver and apply heat, or drink a cup of crampbark tea. For menstruating women with chronic cramps, it helps to take some angelica tea before they start bleeding.

For memory loss: Use ginkgo biloba extract, phosphatidylcholine and serine, all of which help neural transmission.

To lose weigh: Drink clean water, reduce stress and eat clean food. That means no packaged food of any kind!

She also recommends creating a personal altar at home. “An altar is a sacred space where we connect to the Divine Spirit,” she said. “It feeds our soul, the same way that food feeds our bodies. It can be a corner of a room, a desk, or just a shelf. You can use candles, incense, crystals and religious images or pictures of your ancestors, but the most important thing is your intentions, what your heart brings to it.”

Padilla plans to begin classes on curanderismo next fall. “It will be a year-long commitment and there will be service involved,” she said.

To contact Patricia Padilla, call (575) 776 1106 or visit her blog http://curanderapadilla.wordpress.com/