Anthropology professor explores curanderismo

By Alma Linda Manzanares

Published: Monday, April 18, 2011

Updated: Monday, April 18, 2011

Anthropology Professor Dr. Elizabeth De La Portilla

Abiel Rodriguez

Anthropology professor Elizabeth De La Portilla poses next to her book "They All Want Magic."

Dr. Elizabeth De La Portilla, anthropology professor, was trained as a cuandera, a folk healer dedicated to curing physical or spiritual illnesses, but she never heard a spiritual calling to heal.

Her book, "They All Want Magic: Curanderas and Folk Healing," which explores the world and practices of San Antonio curanderas, was published by Texas A&M University Press in March 2009.

"The practice of curanderismo is so much a part of the culture that we don't even realize that's what we're doing," De La Portilla said.

Curanderismo is about 500 years old and was introduced by the Spanish, who combined it with many cultures. It takes ideas from European medicine; they took it from the Greeks and the Aztecs, but also from Indians in Texas, she said.

Those ideas were combined with Native American ideas of medicine, healing traditions, religion and spirituality, De la Portilla said.

Curanderismo is meant to enhance wellness through prayer, herbal medicine, healing rituals, spiritualism, massage and psychic healing.

De La Portilla said even though she doesn't have a calling to heal, she would be considered a sobadora, a healer that heals through massage for both physical comfort and reaching out to one's soul for healing.

"People who become healers always feel a spiritual calling to heal," she said. "I never heard a voice telling me ‘you should heal,' but I was trained as one because of working with the curanderos."

De La Portilla said she became interested in the practice, plants and healing because of her grandmother. "She had a huge garden, and I used to follow her around in the morning when she would water things and send me out to pick the chile pequin before the birds got it," she said.

Her grandmother would prepare jams and chiles and make teas to help with sicknesses such as an upset stomach. A healer wants people to learn how to heal themselves because everyone has the ability to heal, De La Portilla said.

"Everyone can sing, but some of us sound better in the shower than we do on stage," she said. "Everyone can heal in one way or another, but some people just have more of a gift for it."

De La Portilla said she worked with a curandera for her book and in response to the question, "What do people want from you?" the curandera replied, "They all want magic and so do you."

De La Portilla said she was looking for magic, unknowingly, to validate the things she had grown up with such as stories of magic.

When she asked, "What is it that people come to you for?" the curandera replied, "They want love."

De La Portilla said people want to belong to family or community and feel accepted.

"It's not uncommon for people to have a 20-minute to an hour conversation with a curandera before the healing actually takes place," she said. "It's uncommon for a doctor to do that before he decides on how he's going to treat you."

She said part of the tradition is to incorporate something that people can do for themselves, so they can take on ownership in a very different way than when a doctor gives you pills.

Healers help others understand what made them ill and what they can do to help themselves, she said.

De La Portilla said her book helps others understand curanderismo as a way to heal the community and themselves.

"We can take the lessons and apply them to social issues and use the way people heal through plants and praying, but also through the arts and social engagement," she said.

Healers have told De La Portilla her gift is in teaching.

"I grew up with this tradition and I'm just reporting what I know and what others have experienced," she said.

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