What is Curanderismo?

I am asked this question every time I mention the word.

Curanderismo is often described (somewhat disparagingly I feel) as “Mexican folk medicine”. I feel that the term folk medicine is used for the lack of a better term and totally undervalues this system of healing, for this is what it is.

The word curandero (curandera if the practitioner is female) is derived from “curar” (to heal) and curanderismo as it stands is a system of holistic healing that encompasses body, mind and spirit. Curanderismo is practised in an area from the south of the United States down through México and into South America. This healing art has evolved from the medical practises extant at the time of pre Columbian contact and has since evolved through contact with the Spanish and their introduction of Moorish sciences as well as the traditions of Africa which were carried into México via the abhorrent practice of slavery. Medical practices of the Aztec peoples were far in advance of the Spanish when they arrived in México. They understood that illness could be transmitted from one person to another (without the intervention of a god or gods) and practised personal hygiene by bathing every day and through the use of steam rooms (temazcalli). This practise was not common amongst the Spanish. The Mexica supplied public toilets along the main causeways into Tenochtitlan (while those in Europe still poured human effluent onto the streets), had socialised medicine which was free to the poor (so long as they reported the results of the treatments back to the physicians treating them), practised dental hygiene (appearance was important) and their wound treatment and surgical skills were so far in advance of the Spanish that it was not long before the conquistadors preferred the treatment of Aztec doctors. The Spanish were at this stage still treating battle wounds by pouring hot fat into them, sometimes animal and sometimes human fat was used.

A curandera performing a ritual.

Curanderos not only address illness/wellness through the use of diet, herbal medicine and prayer but through other specialties such as massage (sobador/a), bone setting (huesero/a) and midwifery (partera). They can also address the mental aspects of illness with counselling (consejero/a) and the spiritual (espiritualista) through the use of channelling, tarot cards or what may be termed outright witchcraft (brujo/a). There was also a variety of mental health care as it was believed that envy, rage and sadness were their own types of illness and there were both dietary, herbal and ritual practices to address these conditions. One aspect of mental/spiritual treatments that I find particularly relevant to our day and age is “susto” (or its more advanced, and dangerous, manifestation espanto). Susto is caused essentially by fear or shock and results in the spirit being separated from the body resulting in both mental and physical maladies (1). The treatment for susto can be applied to a child frightened by a dog or to a soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and has a particular relevance in todays society where any mental problem is usually treated with drugs.  

  1. it can also be broken down into further categories. Espanto de tierra (soil’s flight), susto deanimales (animal’s fright), susto de agua (water’s fright), espanto negro (black fright), espanto rojo (red fright), mal de espanto (fright disease). (Lozoya-Gloria, Edmundo (2003)

Curanderismo addresses illnesses according to their “temperate” values. This is a holdover from the Aztec times and revolves around the philosophies of balance within the universe (See Post Quelites : Quilitl). It is still generally claimed that this concept was introduced into Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th Century (1) and although this concept certainly held sway amongst European medical practices of the time the idea of balance was a central tenet of Aztec spiritual beliefs of the nature of opposing forces and how they were balanced within the universe. Other aspects of Mesoamerican medicinal practice were altered by the language and philosophies of the invaders. The humoural theories of Hippocrates still held sway in European medicinal practices at this time. This is reflected in the Badianus Codex when the Aztec term for melancholy was translated into the more Spanish term “black blood” and by doing this changed the entire dynamic of understanding the condition.

  1. http://hogarhispano.homestead.com/hispanichealth.html

This concept of hot and cold as it appears in the current time refers to both physical, mental, emotional and spiritual conditions and on la frontera (1) is taken into account by medical practitioners who interact with patients with more traditional beliefs.

  1. the borderlands between the U.S.A and Latino cultures

“Hot” and “Cold” Illnesses in Traditional Latino Medicine

Cold conditions

  • Cancer
  • Colic
  • Empacho (indigestion)
  • Frio de la matriz (translates – roughly – as “cold in the womb”, may involve decreased libido, infertility or menstrual irregularities)
  • Headache
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Pneumonia
  • Upper respiratory infections

Hot conditions

  • Bilis (anger/rage)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Nappy (diaper) rash
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Hypertension
  • Mal de ojo (“evil eye”)
  • Pregnancy
  • Sore throat or infection
  • Susto (“soul loss”)


  • Lozoya-Gloria, Edmundo (2003). [Recent Advances in Phytochemistry] Integrative Phytochemistry: from Ethnobotany to Molecular Ecology Volume 37 || Chapter twelve Xochipilli updated, terpenes from Mexican plants. , (), 285–311. doi:10.1016/S0079-9920(03)80027-8

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