A curandero, or curandera, who is a female curandero, is a shaman or traditional folk healer who provides alternative treatments for physical, mental, and spiritual ailments in many cultures throughout Hispanic America. The word curandero literally means healer in Spanish and denotes a broad category of different specialties, including yerberos, or herbalists, parteras, or midwives, and sobadores, or masseurs. A curandero’s practices typically combines local native knowledge and religious beliefs as well as borrowings from Catholicism. Patients from cultures with a strong belief in curanderismo will often seek treatment from this type of shaman in addition to a practitioner of conventional medicine.
Curanderos can be found throughout Hispanic America, and as a result their practices, prominence, and traditions vary from country to country. A typical curandero is descended from a lineage of practitioners, learned the practice from a close relative, or was taken in as an apprentice by an experienced healer. In addition to addressing a patient’s symptoms, a curandero will consider how the patient’s native culture perceives illness as well as his or her societal and familial values when determining appropriate treatment.
In general, a shaman will focus on healing and harmonizing a patient’s body, mind, and spirit through the use of traditional medicines, prayer, and talk, or platica. Medications are often made from local plants and herbs, and these folk healers have been trained to prepare them properly. In Mexico, for example, agave leaf is scraped and boiled when used to treat venereal diseases. A Mexican curandero will also rely on chopped nopal or prickly pear stem simmered and drunk daily to treat cardiovascular problems.
In additional to physical ailments, a shaman may also be asked to treat mental or spiritual problems, such as the evil eye, or mal de ojo. Another common ailment is the susto, or loss of spirit. Curanderos are often the primary source of aid when someone believes that he is the victim of a curse or spell. Remedies include rituals, herbs, and potions, depending on the problem, but many healers believe that the cure ultimately comes from the patient’s faith in God.
Curanderismo predates the arrival of Europeans to the Americas and incorporates elements of Catholicism, such as prayer and the use of holy water, as well as practices brought by African slaves. Curanderos are considered to be skilled healers and are not generally viewed disparagingly, as witch doctors sometimes are. The Spanish terms hechicero or brujo are typically used to distinguish the latter from the former.
Often highly respected community members and spiritual leaders, curanderos can have a strong religious faith. Their powers to heal may be viewed as supernatural in origin or as a divine gift. For example, in some countries, including Peru, some people believe that the most powerful curanderos are first struck by lightning. These healers may be the only option for ailing people lacking financial resources or who are isolated in rural areas.
Many works of fiction and film include characters who are curanderos or curanderas. Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima features a curandera who battles the witchcraft of three daughters in New Mexico. A woman trains to become a healer in Ana Castillo’s 1993 novel So Far from God. Finally, Eduardo the Healer is a 1979 documentary following a Peruvian curandero who practices near Trujillo.