Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
May 7, 2003
Have you heard of Aguapa, alfilerillo, almaciga de sabina, altamisa de la sierra, anil de muerto, barbasco, berro, or cadillos? We love to stop at every store proclaims botanica on the outside giving us yet another series of places of interest to visit when we are out moseying around. Deborah served an apprenticeship to the medical herbalist Chatoiya de la Tour, and I share her interest in learning the medicinal uses of the native plants of the southwest. Deborah and I have been collecting the uses and Spanish names of west Texas plants from people we meet and from a number of books.
In many of the supermarkets and drugstores of the southwest, many medicinal plants are sold I am sure you have seen the plastic bags with Spanish-name labels. Some are indigenous plants, while others are of other origins, brought to the New World by the settlers of the colonial period. In San Antonio, Laredo, and many other towns in Texas, a person can visit a botanica, which specializes in herbal medicines as well as religious figurines, incense, milagros, and other necessities of Hispanic curanderismo tradition. In Roswell, New Mexico, earlier this year, we were impressed by a Mexican import store that also served as a botanica. It had at least 300 herbal remedies, including plants from China, the South Sea Islands, Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
The information we have gathered has come in handy during presentations to various civic groups about plants. We recently were giving plant talks at the Mitre Peak Girl Scout Ranch for their leader-daughter weekend. During one session, an older woman, a rancher in the Davis Mountains, began talking about the uses of popotillo. Deborah remembered that it was the Spanish name for Mormon tea or ephedra. The woman, who looked Irish, and had a northern European name, had grown up on her Mexican grandmothers ranchito, and was familiar with the traditional Hispanic uses of some plants. She gave us a detailed recipe for making asadero cheese using the plant trompillo (silver-leaf nightshade), a recipe unlike any that we had previously heard.
Michael Moore, now of Bisbee, Arizona, and formerly of Sante Fe, New Mexico, is the foremost Anglo herbalist of the American southwest. He has collected information from Hispanic and Indian healers for forty years. We own four of his books, plus five more books that focus on herbal medicine in the southwest. In a half-dozen of our field guides to plants of the region, the authors mention various cultural uses, including a Petersons Field Guide to Western American Medicinal Plants that includes a half-dozen pictures that my mother or I photographed.
To survive the stressful xeric environment, the endemic plants of the region are chemical factories, producing compounds that allow them to thrive compounds that incidentally also can be of benefit to humans. Many of the compounds present in our modern medicines were originally discovered in plants, and pharmaceutical companies now have researchers spread out all over the world interviewing indigenous people for knowledge of their knowledge of plant medicines. Plants have been medicine for people for millennia, and are still, for much of the non-industrial world.
Most people usually have a good idea of what is wrong with them when they are sick, and how sick they will become before they get better, or when to worry. Historically, as the New World was settled, no doctors were available, or they were two or three days away by horseback or wagon. People used herbs because they had no option but to resort to their devices to treat their illnesses. Herbs work very well for moderate problems, but only treat the symptoms of such diseases as rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, or gonorrhea.
Herbal medicine was the norm for doctors in the United States until the processes of vaccination and synthesizing of medicines were developed. For example, tuberculosis victims moved to the southwest in the late 1800s for the dry air that allowed increased ease in breathing. The doctors of the time treated them with herbal medicines, such as snakeweed (broomweed), which contains a chemical that acts somewhat like that which is in an asthma inhaler. By the way, did you know that Carlsbad, Texas, once had the foremost tuberculosis sanatorium in the world?
The cultural diversity of herbal cures readily available, even in the superstores of modern America, and the implied societal knowledge of their uses, gives credence to the concept of Atzlan. Philosophers associated with the Chicano movement of the 1970s celebrated the mestizo (mixed races) culture of Latin America, saying that mestizo culture of the New World has roots in all of the cultures of the world, and is the working model of what the human race shall become. Wherever members of the mestizo culture live and influence the fabric of society, the mythical society of Atzlan exists. Author John Philip Santos says, "The strength of our democracy will rest on our collective understanding of the innate worth of each other's oldest stories. This is our true manifest destiny." His Places Left Unfinished At The Time of Creation is a wonderful introduction to the concept of Atzlan.
Our family is an example of Atzlan we are multicultural. Our daughter-in-law is of Chinese heritage. Our son-in-law is a caballero from Michoacan, so the set of grandkids growing up in Sacramento, California are an interesting mix of rural Hispanic and urban Anglo-American cultures hip-hop charros, you could say. Deborah, Irish to the core, spent a good part of her childhood in El Paso, where the Spanish language was part of the elementary school curriculum. For over a decade, her family vacationed in Mexico. I have a lifelong interest in American Indian traditions that began in the first grade when I met my Seminole cousins on my fathers side of the family.
Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors, by Perrone, Stockel, and Krueger is an excellent introduction to the various medical traditions present in the southwestern United States. The following paragraphs paraphrase their perception of curanderismo.
Curanderismo, the centuries old New World Hispanic form of medical care, begins within the family. In an extended family, there is usually at least one woman that is the living repository of herbal knowledge (and often grows her favorite medicinal plants herself.) If her remedies fail, then a patient seeks the help of a curandera (or curandero, a man.) The curandera has more extensive knowledge of the remedies that have helped generations of ancestors. If her cures fail, modern medical science is now consulted. In the United States, however, the curanderismo tradition is slowly fading, for few young people see the profession as a viable economic alternative for themselves. As a result, the knowledge is being lost.
Curanderas believe that if they are successful, and their patient recovers, it is the result of Gods will. The curandera believes that God put the remedios on earth as cures for ailments. Their patients believe that God has chosen the curandera, and with every success are proved worthy. As part of the cure, curanderas invoke the saints as intercessors that present petitions to God for healing. Curanderismo addresses not only the medical needs of the patient, but also their psychological, spiritual, and social needs. The new trend of holistic medical practitioners presents another version of such medical care.
As we mosey along the roads and through the towns of west Texas and eastern New Mexico, Deborah and I are enjoying the surprising twists and turns of our exploration of the subject.