Traditional healers also known as curanderismo are important part of Latin American culture, society and a way of life. Traditional healers have been a part of Latin American culture for thousands of years and even today are considered as important as the traditional health care professionals (Avila, 1999). The services of these healers are used extensively and they are well respected and admired members of the community. Not anyone can be a healer and in order to become one a special talent and extensive training is needed (Avila, 1999).
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the role of traditional healers in Latin American culture and to discuss what economic, social and religious reasons traditional healers are still so popular in this day and age in Latin America. Who Can Be a Traditional Healer? One of the most interesting aspects of the traditional healers in Latin America is that no everyone can be one. This is a striking contrast with traditional medical professionals where calling has become something secondary and where more people than not go into the medical field not because of genuine desire to help but because it pays well.
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The story is completely different for the traditional healers as the next generation is carefully hand-picked based on what is called “el don” or a gift (Avila, 1999). This gift cannot be acquired or trained, a person either has it or not. Having gift is not enough though as a new apprentice has to train for a very long time under the practicing traditional healer in order to learn the mastery and the craft of healing (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Another interesting distinction between what Latin American traditional healers and regular health care professionals is the core philosophy that underlines their work.
Traditional medicine focuses on symptoms and causes, while for the traditional healer the most important core of any problem is spiritual one, as the illness is the essentially an imbalance that has to be corrected (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Healers are also very in tune with nature and as it will be discussed below they rely a lot of natural remedies and so on (Avila, 1999). Spirituality and religion go hand in hand because as it was mentioned above healing powers are considered the unique gift one has received from some higher entity and thus religion plays very important role in the work of traditional healers.
What Exactly Do Traditional Healers Do? Remarkably just like any health care professionals, traditional healers in Latin America also have their own specializations and areas of practice. While some have very narrow and specific areas, such are herbalists or midwives for example; others often have been trained in various specialties and can provide the “full package care” (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Regardless of the specialty every traditional healer always considers the illness as a complex manifestation of problems in physical, emotional and spiritual planes.
Traditional healers use variety of means in their practices. They prepare various mixtures, lotions, potions, oils and other substances for consumptions or for external use. But the substances are only the part of the practice. There are many rituals, offerings and prayers that constitute healing practices. The rituals could be very elaborate and include other objects and things such as for example birds’ eggs, or water or fire. All these things are believed to be important components in the healing process and are more often than not part of the ritual.
Healers often give their clients various amulets to protect or to heal them including bracelets, necklaces and other objects. Many herbal and plant matters are used including very common veggies, spices and fruits like papaya, potatoes, garlic, cumin, mint and others (Davidow, 1999). Finally traditional healers employ many psychological means as they are often keen observers and student of human nature (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Many healers admit that the use of rituals is done for the patients’ sake as it aids in healing process.
Remarkably there is a scientific support to this notion as the “placebo effect” indicates that something with strong suggestive power can deliver desired results. Economic, Religious, and Social Explanation For the Use of Traditional Healers in Latin America There are numerous reasons why traditional healers are so widespread and commonly used in Latin America. One reason is purely economic as traditional healers are the only medical care many families could afford (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Traditional healers in general do not take any money from their clients and definitely do not take anything from very poor clients.
They could accept offerings for their service but it is done on case to case basis. So for that reason the most important economic reason why healers are used is because their services are free. Another reason why healers are so popular is religious. As it was described above in order to be a healer one has to have a gift from the high spiritual power (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Healers often offer some sort of a mix of religious, spiritual and physical practices that resonate with the Latin American community that has this mix also present.
Latin American culture is both spiritual and religious and this is exactly what healers do offer. The religious/spiritual aspect of healing process is something that is strikingly different from traditional medicine and this is why healers are so popular. They often use religious objects in practices and the healing process including icons, crucifixes and so on. Finally there is a social explanation for why traditional healers are so often used even today. Healers have been traditionally not just a part of community but very well respected and admired members of community.
Latin American culture is well known for its strong cultural ties and strong community sense (Trotter & Chavira, 1997). Hence in case of illness or any other malady the first reaction is to go to the community member, a traditional healer than to go the hospital which many could not afford anyway. Healers also offer social and spiritual support and often even counseling, thus making it even more likely for a person to seek their help. As it was discussed above, economic, religious and social reasons for using traditional healers are very strong and more often than not they operate in conjunction even further supporting each other.
For example, when a person has no money, he is less likely to go to a hospital. A healer could also play into person’s religiosity and sense of community, so all this factors together make a traditional healer more popular than any local hospital. Conclusion Traditional healers have been and most likely will be in the foreseeable future a very important part of Latin American culture and way of life. Traditional healers operate within community and are important and well-respected members of the community.
They are often the last resort for poor segments of population, and the complex interactions of social, religious and economic factors often make them more attractive and popular than local hospitals. Traditional healers often have specific specializations such as herbalists or midwives, but many have numerous specializations. Not anyone can be a healer as it requires a gift and extensive training. Traditional healers offer a variety of services including physical treatment, various remedies and amulets and spiritual and psychological counseling.
Spirituality is important part of practice and is one component which makes healers so popular. Traditional healers’ approach differs significantly from traditional medicine approach because it is more multileveled and holistic. Healers in a sense try to address the issues on both physical and spiritual levels, while the traditional medicine often focuses on physical symptoms and definitely less on spiritual aspects of illness. Healers are of course often frown upon by the medical community and called “quack doctors” because they do not have formal training and education.
Yet Latin American communities still use their services extensively and remarkably even immigrant communities like Mexicans in the US for example, still use traditional healers. Recent estimates demonstrated that as many as 75% of Latin Americans living in Texas used traditional healers in one way or the other to either completely or partially deal with their illnesses or ailments (Tafur, 2009). This trend is very unlikely to change any time soon, after all traditional healers have been a part of Latin American culture for thousands of years.
- Avila E (1999). Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. New York: Penguin Putnam.
- Davidow J (1999). Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Tafur, M. M. , Crowe, T. K. , & Torres, E. (2009). A review of curanderismo and healing practices among Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Occupational Therapy International, 16(1), 82-88.
- Trotter, R. T. , & Chavira, J. A. (1997). Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing. University of Georgia Press.
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