CURANDERA ELENA AVILA
We have become dissatisfied with Western medicineóit is too technical, too secular, it's lost its "sacred" character. Oh we like aspects of itóif it'll save our lives¼ maybe. But, we are becoming much more interested in the quality of life. We are refusing treatment, signing living willsówe are questioning the edict to save life, at any cost. The god-like image of Western medicine is tarnished. It's big business, it's high tech, it can be miraculousóbut it is often inhuman. Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease. We have begun looking for alternative methods. Looking for healing¼ for comfort¼ for caring. Looking back at the ways things were done in the past. Looking to other culturesóChinese, Indian, Native American. Listening to our own bodies.
Elena Avila is one woman who is blending the old ways with the new. She is a Curandera, and she has a masters in Nursing in Mental Health (major: Psychiatric Nurse Specialist) from the University of Texas at El Paso.
"I have a masters in psychiatric nursing. At UCLA I was head of a clinic at the Neuropsychiatric Institute. I've been the Director of Maternal Child Nursing¼ and I learned that the focus of psychiatric nursing was shock treatment, medicines¼ an emphasis on biology¼ and it wasn't working," Avila said. "Compared to Western medicine, Curanderismo is healing done in sacred, spiritual, ways."
Curanderismo. Medicine of the people. Incorporating body, mind, and emotions, but also soul and spirit. "Soul is different from spirit," Avila said. "Soul pertains more to the individual person¼ who we are born to be¼ our temperament, personality, energy.
"My people are Chicanos, and there are diseases in my culture that pertain to soul lossósexual abuse, abusive parents, dysfunctional families. Our individuality is taken away. Our creativity, our energy. These parts of ourselves are no longer available to us."
Curanderismo comes out of the Mexican rural, agrarian tradition, where communities were close-knit and often isolated in both time and distance from more formal medical care. It started when there were no doctors. Many of the healing rituals came out of familiarity with the cultures surrounding a person and of knowing that person, their personality, the family dynamic.
Avila is half Indian¼ Mestiza, mostly Mayan. Both parents are from Mexico, her mother from Yucatan, her father a Mestizo from northern Mexico, Durango. They brought their medicine with them, passed down through time. "I am a first generation Chicana born and raised in the barrios of El Paso, Texas," Avila has said. "My first language was Spanish and my family's health care included Curanderismo as well as Western medicine."
Her mother had a "gift"óshe knew remedies, but was not called a curandera. There were always healers and the tradition of healers in the neighborhoods. "People might call them that [curanderas]," said Avila, "but it was presumptuous to call yourself that."
While Avila grew up with Curanderismo, she rejected it and went to nursing school. With her recognition that Western medicine wasn't delivering satisfactorily, she returned and became interested in it again.
"I'm always learning," Avila said. "Curanderismo is always evolving." She has studied Curanderismo in El Paso and Juarez, and as she gained knowledge and experience, she pursued apprenticeships with healers in the interior of Mexico and Peru.
"A lot of traditional Curanderismo has died out with our need to assimilate," said Avila. "Other medicine has higher value. [This knowledge] is not being passed on¼ For exampleó Assume a woman has a gift for massage¼ can massage the stomach, work with blockages¼ when handed down it can be very sophisticated¼ if passed down through seven generations¼ it's subtle¼ there's a lot of richness in the healing."
But, things are changing. "There is new energy with Curanderismoóit is coming back. The Western medical system is not deliveringóI have a medical degree and am continuing the old ways, too," Avila said. "I encourage health professionals to do the same. It's like the Chineseóthey go to medical school, but they also go to herbal school. It's truly a balance."
Avila herself is in the process of passing on her experience and her knowledgeóshe smiled when asked if she has an apprentice. "Yes," she said emphatically. "My niece¼ It's important to pass this on."
Curanderas have specialtiesóA woman on 4th street has a drugstore¼ knows herbs and herb lore. And there are othersóin Los Lunas and Bernalillo. Avila's specialty is more on the spiritual level, with diseases that pertain to soul and spirit. As she said, "Aspects of self, the higher dimensions within all of us. The one that meets the divine. The connection to higher aspect to yourself and your god, the longing to rise above ourselves.
"While others might specialize in herbs, or delivering babies, or massageówhatever your gift is¼ is the 'don'óand all Curanderas have this 'don'. If you have the gift to be a healer, take the gift¼ don't make it your whole life, you have to heal yourself, too¼ Know who you are. It's very important."
The key question for Avila becomes: What is the right medicine for the people you serve? She uses whatever works. One session might be psychotherapy, one might be a ceremony, a spiritual cleansing. Some might need educationóabout what, exactly, sexual abuse is. And when appropriate, will refer people back to Western medicine. "This work is intuitive. It's hard sometimes to keep straight what is you and what is the other," Avila said. "I'm very glad I got a masters in psychiatric nursing. I value it very much.
"I love to go back to the ancient onesócalling on Coyolxauhqui, the Cosmic Mother or Coatlique, Earth Mother. Curanderas and Curanderos all have different beliefs. I very much practice my Indian heritage. It is similar to shamanism, Medicine man/woman. I do shamanic work. Shamanism works at more levels, has more dimensions of healing¼ I work at esoteric levels, involving the soul, the spirit. I've done healing with Native Americans. Studied with Mexican Indiansóthe Aztecs and the Mayans had very sophisticated medicine.. [Curanderismo] is an evolving medicine, and there's always more and more to learn."
How religious is this?
"There's a lot of misunderstanding about that," Avila said. She emphasized it was spiritual, but it was not a religion. She might use Our Lady of Guadeloupe, the baby Jesus, a fertility goddess in her rituals¼ and she had them all on the altar along with religious candles. "There is always an altar. The work is done from that source¼ I was Catholic. For me, personally, it's not so much a religion... I don't bind myself to a religion, but I very much believe in God."
So. Who does she work with? Avila works with a wide variety of people from virtually all cultures. She has worked with people from the pueblosóoften when there is no medicine man. She does not restrict her practice to Hispanics. She once worked with a man from West Africa, who wanted a spiritual cleansing (limpia)óand he was surprised at the similarities with his own culture. She told me I could, indeed, take advantage of Curanderismoóas long as I was open to it, and its possibilities. She lectures to health professionals all over the nation. And her clientele is not just localópeople travel great distances for special healings, sometimes for a week or two. Her practice is eclectic. And within Curanderismo, there is no contradiction with paradoxes.
Elena Avila lives in Rio Rancho. Why Rio Rancho?
"I fell in love with New Mexico thirteen years ago. My roots are in El Paso, but my soul is here. If I'd stayed in El Paso, I'd be working in the neighborhood."
She is in Rio Rancho because it's cheaper than Albuquerque and she wanted to have a space in her house. "I finally had the courage to start my own practice [8 years ago]. It's traditional to have a space in the house. Here, the earth is close, the mountain right here, and the desert is at the end of the road." The Sandias are magnificent from the door in her room. It was quiet and still.
She had said if she'd stayed in El Paso she would be working the neighborhood. We talked of what that meant. Her neighborhood today is the larger worldówith her lectures and conferences and her training in both traditional and Western medicine, she is in a unique place to de-mystify the old ways. "There are misunderstandings. It is not witchcraftóCuranderismo is not really mystical or magicalóit is natural, practical medicine."
In addition to her healing work, Avila is a published poet, an actress, a playwright and a grandmother. She is writing a book on her experiences as a Curandera and a nurse. She is going to China for a conference for health providers about women's health issues.
What does the future hold for Curanderismo? And Elena Avila?
She believes Curanderismo will continue to evolve and sees the revival of interest in the old ways as a good thing. She would not like to see regulation of the old ways, even though there may be some quacks¼ "That's part of what's killed it off up to now."
Avila wants to write more. About Curanderismo. She can reach more people than she can now one-on-one or even in workshops. "I want to help others¼ and while some tradition is oral ó I wouldn't print any rituals or medicines that do not need to be in printófor example, certain prayers need to be passed on orallyóbut there are lots of things that can be written about."
What is interesting in all the discussions about medicine and health care and traditional ways is the shifting of focus to a polytheismónot one god, Western Medicine, nor just a substitute for one godóbut the development of a smorgasbord. The use of particular aspects of a method, whether it 's Western, Chinese, or from the tradition of Curanderismoóthe mixing up, the blending, of methods and traditions is a search for what works. It's a search for something better¼ something more human. Or as Avila says, "Something more soulful."