ACROSS THE COUNTRY
On the Texas Border, Folk Healers Bring Modern Touches to Their Ancient Practice
Known as curanderas, they carry on a tradition long revered in local Hispanic culture.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In the Rio Grande Valley, which straddles the Mexican border in Texas, cities like Edinburg, Pharr and McAllen are steeped in old Mexican American traditions.
By Edgar Sandoval
Photographs by Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas
Edgar Sandoval grew up in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley, where Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas lives and where both covered this story.
Dec. 16, 2023
On a recent day, Chriselda Hernandez heard a knock at her door in the Texas border town of Edinburg. It was a college student who said she was suffering from a string of bad luck. A drunken driver had crashed into her car. Then someone broke into the new car she was driving and stole her laptop. “I need a limpia,” she pleaded — a spiritual cleanse.
Ms. Hernandez moved to an altar in her living room that bore an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Slowly, she mixed a concoction of sage and palo santo, a wood native to South America, and lit it with a match. Then she turned back to the young woman and waved the healing smoke over her body.
“You are holding on to something,” Ms. Hernandez whispered to her. “Let it go. There is no shame.”
For generations, Hispanic communities along the Southern border have turned to curanderas, or folk healers, like Ms. Hernandez, often seen in the popular imagination as old women with candles and religious icons operating in the shadows of society out of rusty shacks.
But the ancient healing art has entered the age of Instagram. More and more younger people are taking on rituals they learned from their grandmothers and deploying them against 21st century problems. They conduct limpias on public beaches, trade recipes online for blocking “envy energies” and sell artisan candles bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in shops. Their clients are often college-educated, like Clarissa Ochoa, the young woman who went to Ms. Hernandez for help.
“I think it’s an honor to be a curandera; it is something very beautiful, but also very limiting,” said Ms. Hernandez, 42. “I feel like we are breaking those boundaries, that curanderas are just herbs and little old ladies. My calling is just to heal whoever I can.”
A culture of folk healing preceded the arrival of Spaniard conquistadors to Latin America and Mexico. Over time, curanderos, a term used for healers of both genders, began mixing Indigenous rituals with elements of Catholicism and influences from Asian and African folk traditions along the way.
The practice has taken hold in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, located a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, in large part out of necessity. Hidalgo County, home to McAllen and a majority Hispanic population, has one of the highest rates in the nation of people without health insurance, and many people rely on curanderas for lack of other affordable options, said Servando Z. Hinojosa, a professor of anthropology who teaches a class on Mexican-American folk medicine at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Mr. Hinojosa said many Hispanic residents also tend to be mistrustful of the medical establishment. This is especially true when it comes to mental health. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that while the number of Black, Asian and white people who have sought mental health care treatments has climbed in recent years, there has been very little movement among Latinos.
“There’s an element of distrust, but there is also structural alienation,” Mr. Hinojosa said. “They are a population that will seek affordable resources, and they will go to where the products are and where the advice is to be found.”
In the past, the medical establishment has warned people not to rely on folk remedies for physical ailments, some of which can be harmful. Many Latino children have fallen ill and even died after consuming such remedies known as albayalde,azarcon and rueda, powders often used for stomach-related illnesses that have been found to contain lead.
Curanderismo has become so accepted in the Rio Grande Valley that it is not unusual to see street signs and TV ads advertising folk healing services.
Ms. Hernandez said her great-grandmothers had both been parteras, or midwives. When she was a little girl, she said, she discovered that she possessed her own set of gifts; as she grew older, she said, she began interacting with an entity she believes to be the Angel of Death, Azrael. She works at a cellphone call center and lives with a girlfriend in a modern house in the suburbs of Edinburg, a city close to the border.
“You make it your own. There is no right or wrong. You do what’s right for you,” Ms. Hernandez said.
Another modern folk healer, Danielle López, 39, a former student of Mr. Hinojosa who said she also learned she had a don, a gift, as a young girl, has embraced the moniker of millennial curandera. She has combined the old traditions she learned from the grandmother who raised her, Consuelo López, and an aunt, Esperanza Rodriguez, with new skills learned at institutions of higher education.
Her academic record includes a master of arts in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in Mexican-American literature, medical anthropology and Latin art history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is completing a doctorate in English with a focus on borderlands literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she is also a lecturer.
“For me it’s a continuity,” she said of her spiritual work. “I feel like we need it more now.”
It is not unusual for people to ask her for trabajitos, little jobs, including blessings, limpias and home remedies, when she is not buried in books. Not long ago, Ms. López got a request to bless a new business for a friend. When Ms. López cleansed the establishment with a bouquet of roses, six petals fell, prompting her to warn her friend that six people “did not have good intent.”
“They may say they are happy about her new business, but they are not.”
She also sometimes offers more science-based advice. When people tell her that they are feeling anxious or cannot sleep, she recommends that they cut their intake of sugar or caffeine. Because the advice comes from a curandera, she said, people tend to trust that she has their best interests at heart.
The concept of a curandera is so pervasive in Latino enclaves that in September the Texas Diabetes Institute, a state-of-the-art facility operated by University Health on San Antonio’s west side, a historical Mexican-American neighborhood, brought back to its lobby a sprawling wall-size painting, “La Curandera,” by the Chicano painter Jesus Treviño, who died early this year. The painting had been removed for restoration.
Still, when it comes to luck and matters of the heart, many people avoid professional help and turn to curanderas, because there is no substitute, said Sasha García, 39, a curandera who is known for her fire-red hair.
In northern Mexico, where Indigenous culture is not as widespread and the Catholic Church’s hold is stronger, Ms. García said, her ancestors often operated in the shadows to avoid the stigma associated with folk healers. By contrast, on the American side of the border, she not only feels freer to practice openly, but some Catholic priests stop by for her counsel, she said.
Ms. García welcomes clients at La Casa de la Santísima Yerberia in the city of Pharr, near McAllen, next to two imposing statues of La Santísima Muerte, skeletons each wearing red and black robes. Ms. García reminds people that while the image of La Santísima, a Latina version of the Grim Reaper, may evoke frightening emotions, death is to be revered.
“If you pray to her properly, she can heal and deliver love, freedom and wealth,” she said. “I only ask her for positive things.” (She laments that criminal elements along the border and in Mexico have appropriated the image.)
On a recent afternoon, Jocelyn Acevedo, 27, a frequent client of hers who runs a credit repair service, arrived for her monthly limpia. She had heard about Ms. García four years ago and after the first limpia, she said, she saw her business begin to boom. She was so convinced by the session that she since has regularly driven 60 miles from nearby Starr County, near the Rio Grande, for her sessions. She now has a tattoo of La Santísima.
Ms. García instructed Ms. Acevedo to rub three coconuts all over her body. Ms. García then broke them on the ground to release what she said was the negative energy her client had been carrying.
“Did it work? Of course,” Ms. Acevedo said.
Ms. García has embraced touches of modernity along with the old customs, including consultations now offered over FaceTime. Her clients have responded with their own offerings from popular culture, including a sign one brought in that now hangs on the front door: “Witch Parking Only.”
“No one listens,” Ms. García said with a smile. “The word may be becoming more modern, but we curanderas are still here. Just don’t park in my spot.”