My Limpia and the Curanderas: My Thoughts on Mexican Traditional Healing

I decided to do a separate blog on my experience with traditional healing because I knew it would be LONG. I’ve thought a lot about the differences between Western allopathic medicine and Mexican traditional medicine, and I’m still thinking!

Traditional healing here takes many forms, from potions and creams to prayers and special rituals. One special ritual used is called a limpia. A limpia is used to cleanse the spirit and determine what is ailing the body. Each of us got a limpia this weekend in the Sierra, and each person came out with a slightly different story of what happened. When I walked in, I was asked to close my eyes and keep them closed throughout the process. The curanderas then proceeded to whack me rather hard with herbs, spray me with some sort of herbal perfume, and spit mescal on me. The next part is universal for all limpias: they tap you all over with an egg, which absorbs some of your energy so they can diagnose you. They crack it into water and depending on the bubbles, yolk and white texture in the water they tell you what your ailment is.

Some diagnoses were incredibly accurate, almost to a creepy extent. We were silent the whole time -- no one shared any personal information with the curanderas -- yet they were able to glean a lot of information on us from each of our eggs. Many were told they had mal de ojo, a major affliction in Mexico. It’s basically the evil eye; when someone looks at you with malintent or jealousy, their negative energy can get transferred over, affecting the receiver mentally and even physically. Mal de ojo was blamed for stress, headaches, insomnia, and lots of other conditions. My curandera told me that I was suffering from stress and that I needed to stop letting little things bother me. I know this about myself – I do live in a constant state of stress and like being in control of my life, so this wasn’t very knew to me. I was prescribed a soothing tea and sent on my way.

After hearing the results of many other people’s limpias, I couldn’t help but be a little sad that mine didn’t tell me anything truly spectacular or new. But I decided to look at it from another angle. Being in a new country is stressful in ways I’ve never experienced. There have been times where every little thing around me has caused me stress or annoyance. In order to experience this trip to the fullest, I can’t let that happen. I need to let some things go and not let them get to me so I can get the most out of this experience. So I’m going to work on that.

Once I got over that initial disappointment, the deeper questions began. Listening to people talk about their limpias, the single thing I could muster was “HOW?” How could the curanderas look at a person and a broken egg and know such important things like frequency of migranes, whether they have troubles at home, issues sleeping, or are a few weeks pregnant with a boy (my host mom years ago, not anyone in the program!). I know it’s not magic, but it’s just so hard for me to grasp how they can do that.

The truth is that there is no way I could ever understand. That fact makes me sad a little, that even though I’ll be here for multiple months there will always be things that I won’t be able to believe or comprehend. The curanderas train from a very young age for this life, and this tradition has existed for centuries longer than our Western medicine. Sure it has changed over time, for example adding new ideas from the Spaniards, but the centuries of curanderas before now have made the traditional medicine here an incredibly powerful force. Western medicine may have stronger medications and be able to treat more more advanced diseases, but I feel like after learning about traditional methods here our medicine is missing something. It needs a bit more humanness in it.

As I’ve thought about this experience, I made some observations that have given me a deeper understanding of how traditional medicine works. My limpia was short and not very detailed, while those who were more accustomed with traditional healing (mainly the Chicanos in our group) got much more detailed consults.

So, my conclusions? Health here is not just about the cut and dry diagnosis. Here, an illness is heavily controlled by the mind. If you aren’t completely balanced mentally, your physical health may suffer. If you deeply believe in the power of the curanderas, then you will be affected by their diagnoses and treatments. If you believe in “mal de ojo,” then another’s anger or jealousy will affect you. It doesn’t even have to be conscious! Maybe we are affected negatively by others’ emotions in the US and we just don’t realize it. I tried to go into my limpia with an open mind, but you can’t just reverse 20 years of Western culture in a few seconds. When I walked in, maybe the curanderas knew that. A few people were stressed by what the curanderas told them, but it is there choice how they react to their experiences. If the illnesses are really affected by your mind, then we really have much more control over them. You can choose to believe in the limpia and follow the curanderas, or you can go another way. You can choose to fight your illness or you can let it control your life.

The more I write, the more I’m starting to think that our medicine is catching on to this. If a patient is extremely nervious before a surgery, the procedure is often delayed because a patients recovery time is much longer in such circumstances. Many mental disorders are half genetics, half experience. One’s will to live can make a huge difference in a terminal illness; sadly it is commonly known that there is little hope when a patient has lost theirs. It’s all about how much control you want to exert in your own head.

So when you first heard me describe my limpia, what was your thought process? Many reject it as “fake medicine” or simply distance themselves from the whole idea, seeing it as different from their world. I walked into my limpia seeing it as part of our unit on traditional medicine, trying to immerse myself but mainly seeing it as something to learn. After my experience, I’ve concluded that the curanderas are only as effective as you allow them to be. 

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