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Food, Spices Double as Folk Cures
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Robbie Fields
About 78% of all Texans had no health insurance in 1990. Then where do families in our border area seek affordable medical care? And if they cannot afford medical treatment, what do they do?
In the frontier tradition unique to the United States, people of our borderland region rely upon herbal remedies and folk medicine that are an integral part of their culture. Although illness is a major concern for everyone, disease among Mexican-Americans is a very personal experience. Traditional border healing practices take into consideration the beliefs and customs of the patient.
Spanish-Catholic influence is a principal component of healing rituals. Treatments include praying extensively, calling on Catholic saints for help, using bones and whole eggs and utilizing herbs and foods to restore health. A basic definition of this type of healing is known in our area as curanderismo .
Curanderismo is a religious as well as a superstitious belief. Healers, as well as their patients, believe that their powers come from God. They also believe that whatever the outcome, it is a God's will. Contrary to this view, believers feel that certain practices and rituals can affect the course of nature and the outside forces can be changed.
A good example of this contradiction is the Mexican-American believes in the four basic folk illnesses. In Curanderismo these four are empacho, a stomach disorder; mollera caida, the sinking of the soft spot on a baby's head; mal de ojo, evil eye; and susto, an illness caused by fright. While many people strongly believe in these ideas, there is no evidence to support them. The maladies are treated by different rituals, prayers and herbs.
Empacho can be caused by excess emotion, constipation or eating too much of a certain food and is characterized by vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea. A curandero rubs an egg over the entire stomach until the egg breaks. This process locates the problem, and the indicated part of the stomach is massaged until the problem is alleviated.
In the of mollera caida, herbs and raw egg poultices may be used to draw the fontanel back into its proper place.
Mal de ojo most often occurs in children and is caused by an "admiring" stare from an adult. Most times the person who causes evil eye does not intend harm, but if the condition is left untreated, the child can die. Children may suffer severe headaches, incessant crying, nervousness, fever, rash and sleeplessness.
In the early phase of evil eye, the person who caused it will be asked to pass a hand over the forehead of the victim. If the person cannot be found, the victim maybe be rubbed with a freshly laid egg while the curandero recites the Apostle's Creed. This is said to cleanse the condition. After the rubbing, the egg is broken and placed in a glass of water. The shape of an eye in the egg confirms the existence of the condition.
Susto may be caused by unexpected bad news, other surprises or the experience of terror or danger. The condition is said to drive the soul from the body. The person may experience panic, weakness, and withdrawal from normal activities and sleepiness. Again the curandero cleanses the victim by rubbing an unbroken raw egg over the body, and again the egg is broken into a glass of water. The shape the egg makes in the water tells the healer what is causing the illness. The curandero begs the soul to return and may sweep the victim with branches of a sweet-pepper tree and recite the Apostle's Creed.
While these folk illness and their treatments are in the forefront of traditional healing, there are other cures using common ingredients. Many of these were introduced to the New World since its discovery: cinnamon (canela), mint (yerbabuena), chamomile (manzanilla), parsley (perejil), oregano, rosemary (romero), onions, garlic and lemons.
Cinnamon is brewed as a tea and taken to help indigestion and stimulate the appetite. Served with milk, the tea helps induce sleep.
Yerbabuena, a fragrant tea brewed from spearmint or peppermint, provides relief from nausea and stomachache and can be used as a aid to digestion. It is also to be a mild stimulant and is taken as a tonic to restore energy.
Chamomile is made into a tea to calm the nerves and aid in digestion. If fever is present, a stronger tea can be brewed to reduce temperature. The tea can also double as an eyewash, and steam from boiling manzanilla is used to clear sinus congestion.
Another herb which as a variety of applications is parsley. One of the less widely known uses of this herb is to make a tea of crushed leaves to dry up a lactating mother. Also, the mashed leaves of perejil can be applied to wounds or insect stings. A tea made from fresh leaves is used to ease indigestion or menstrual cramps. Eliseo Torres in his book Green Medicine: Traditional Mexican-American Herbal Remedies makes the startling and controversial claim that fresh parsley eaten every day will prevent cancer.
A tea made from rosemary leaves is used to aid digestion and improve memory. As a cold tea, romero can be used as a skin wash to prevent wrinkles and blemishes and erase freckles.
In addition to these herbs, there are a number of common household foods used as remedies by the curanderos. Some of these include garlic (ajo), onion (cebolla), the pinto bean (frijol), lemon (limón) and potato (papa).
Garlic is one of the most revered of healing foods. It must be used fresh because it loses its potency when processed. Ajo is said to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. This herb can be mashed and mixed with honey to apply to open wounds to promote healing. As a tea it is believed to treat stomach ulcers and liver and kidney disorders. A peeled clove inserted into the ear is claimed to cure earaches.
Onion, when eaten raw, treats anemia, exhaustion and gas. Chopped and cooked in oil, it is said to prevent scarlet fever and diphtheria in children. Cebolla can be used externally too. It can be sliced and applied as a poultice over burns, bites and wounds. A roasted onion, split and still hot, can be applied to boils to draw out pus.
An odd food used for healing is the pinto bean. Its most common usage is to cure headaches. It must be raw and split in half. The flat side is then moistened with saliva and one half applied to each temple. An eye treatment using the frijol involves putting the whole bean into the eye and letting it roll around. Once it pops out on its own, it will have cleared the eye of any foreign matter.
Lemons can be applied to painful areas on the body to ease the pain. They also are used as a skin softener. The most common use of lemons, however, is in the form of hot lemonade as a remedy for the common cold.
To reduce fever, the raw potato is thinly sliced and dipped in alcohol and vinegar. Then a ring of slices are put around the head and tied with a bandana. Most often the papa is grated and applied to puffy eyelids cracked skin, sunburn or insect bites for relief.
WithWith the availability of these folk healing ingredients, the low cost of treatment enables the poor to receive some form of health care. A grown number of middle class people who can't afford insurance also believe they can benefit from the traditions of curanderismo.