Reclaiming Our Bodies Means Restoring Indigenous Wellness Practices
by Lorena Hernández and Vanessa García
As Mexicanas living in a Western society, it has become very easy for us to observe and realize that women are increasingly losing autonomy over their bodies. Coming from a culture of women that take pride over understanding and healing their own bodies, we have seen a movement away from this ideal. Presently, we see ourselves and other women succumbing to the Western medicinal and governmental bodily regulations without any resistance.
Recent bills in action have made us wonder, “What is going on with society?” The proposed House Bill 206 in New Mexico “would charge a rape victim who ends her pregnancy with a third-degree felony for tampering with evidence.”(1) This outrageous proposal not only attempts to reduce the seriousness of the emotional trauma caused by rape, but it also undermines the rights of women and the freedom to do lo que se les de la gana (whatever they want), with their own body. How did it become acceptable for the government to mandate corporal regulations? How did we lose autonomy over our own bodies? To fully understand this issue, we need to take a look at the evolution of healing and medicine in Mexican and Mexican-American culture.
Today, the majority of American people are treated with Western medicine. As Mexicans we are also recipients of these practices. “Western medicine is a term describing the practice of using scientific and rational methods to treat medical conditions.”(2) In the Western framework, doctors are the sole holders of knowledge who can tell people what illness harms their bodies and what medicines will cure them. An interesting aspect of Western medicine is that it is compartmentalized into various specializations such as physician, psychiatrist and therapist. This specialization leads to treatments that ignore all the components of health in the traditional sense: body, mind and spirit. The emotions of the patients are also largely ignored. For example, a doctor asking their patient, “What’s going on in your personal life?” would be considered unusual; the doctor is not supposed to be their therapist. Western medicine denies holistic healing, especially any validation of spiritual healing or anything relating to mysticism, which is integral to traditional medicine. This misalignment with the values and practices of traditional medicine can be traced back stemming from the colonization period, which we will address later.
During the colonial period in Mexico, the clash between the Western and indigenous worlds was not just about land but also about the way of life, especially healing practices. The indigenous people of Mexico had their own vast knowledge of how to heal people. Having lived in their homeland for more than 12,000 years, their knowledge is much older than Western medicine. Traditional medicine is the collection of healing knowledge from the Indigenous people of Mexico passed down from generation to generation. On a recent trip to Mexico, we experienced the existence of the knowledge that has survived colonial rule and even seemed to flourish. Fascinatingly enough, many of the indigenous cultures of Mexico seem to have diminished, but the knowledge of traditional medicine is very present in this community. We were fortunate enough to witness the intriguing way curanderas treated people.
We observed the curanderas who were knowledgeable women. They were women who had control over their being. They knew important things such as: if a woman’s uterus is displaced, all they have to do is give the women a massage and the uterus would move back into place. In Western medicine, would a doctor think that a displaced uterus could cause infertility and then assign a massage as treatment? While we recognize that, in the U.S., people of Mexican decent turn to curanderas due to the denial of health care to undocumented people, and there are others who prefer to rely on the knowledge that their ancestors have passed down for thousands of years with good reason.
The Holistic Healing of Curanderismo
In Latin American culture, and Mexican culture in particular, curanderas are the main folk practitioners of traditional medicine. Curanderismo understands our connection to earth and how to use its resources and are healers in every sense of the word. These women provide services free of charge, because their true goal is to free people of illness. They are the epitome of autonomous women. In their communities, they are respected individuals with power, and they are sometimes seen as “supernatural beings.”
When the Spanish arrived, the church did not approve of curanderas being placed on the same level as saints; therefore, they persecuted curanderas and deemed them to be witches. The church was afraid that people would lose faith in the religion if another entity was answering their prayers. They attempted to reduce these women to hush doctors and their healing to savage and backward practices.(4) Even after all of these ridiculous attempts to destroy the traditional methods, curanderas were still sought out and respected.
Curanderas have the same overall ideal of holistic healing, but each curandera has her own special focus or a combination of foci. Yerberas focus on herbs and remedies, sobaderas focus on physical healing, parteras practice midwifery, and curandera espiritual use prayer as the focus.(4) Analyzing closely, we can see that traditional healers attempt to cure a person as a whole, very unlike Western medicine. Western medicine rejects the notion of “listening to the patient’s words before diagnosing and treating a disease.”(5) The doctor knows everything so why bother with listening to the patient, right? Western medicine tries to separate the mind from the body and completely ignores the spirit. They see these as completely unrelated. The ideas on healing are quite different.
The Dominance of Western Medicine and the Power of Plants
Western medicine became the dominant healing method when midwifery (parteras) was overtaken by white, male doctors. Traditional midwifery was diminished because “parteras” weren’t seen as qualified to assist in childbearing. The truth is that men wanted to take over this profession because they believed women were beginning to have too much power over their bodies. At the time of the takeover of midwifery by doctors, women were still considered property. They had no rights and had no way of fighting back. Along with the church and the government, Western medicine practitioners repressed women in hopes of controlling their rights. Eventually people accepted this shift because they were convinced to trust the authority of science. For Mexico, the push for Western medicine came at a time when the country wanted to be seen as modern. They believed that adopting Western medicine would help shape this new image: a Western, industrial, and more prosperous Mexico. As Western medicine advanced, the basic knowledge of herbal medicine dwindled. Only those whose who still have a connection to their indigenous homeland have carried along remedies for illnesses. For example, the people of Mexican descent living in the United States still use the basic remedies to cure a sore throat, such as the following recipe:
Receta — Remedio de Té para la Tos: 1) In a saucepan, bring 3 cups of water and the 3 cloves of garlic and a stick of cinnamon to a boil; 2) Turn off the heat when the water boils; 3) Add 1/2 cup of the honey and ¾ cup of the fresh lemon juice; 4) Strain.
Why is this remedy so useful? Cinnamon and garlic are known to be anti-inflammatory. Lemons promote immunity and help fight infection. Honey is an antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial component. This would greatly benefit someone who was sick instead of buying cough medicine.
What most people don’t know is that Western medicine took knowledge from indigenous cultures all over the world and incorporated what they noted as useful. Western medicine uses drugs that are the chemically synthesized version of a plant with the same healing properties. For example, Agosta mentions in his article that aspirin was originally extracted from a plant.(3) Drugs are the highly concentrated and dangerous version of natural medicine that the body wasn’t meant to digest. Besides being dangerous, most drugs merely cover up symptoms and instead of solving the root of the problem.
The passing of traditional medicine as modern medicine is one of the most irritating things about the Western world. They don’t acknowledge that traditional medicine is beneficial because that would undermine their practice. They will, in fact, use it because the knowledge could potentially lead to an FDA-approved and highly profitable drug. Western medicine is a business that banks on the fact that people will get sick. Underneath their pledge to help the sick lies the driving force in the world of medicine: to make money. The reason doctors don’t tell their patients about cheap herbal medicine is because the patient would not need to go to them as often. Also, the FDA can’t patent a plant because it is natural. This is the reason why every drug is chemically synthesized first and then patented- so that it can profit from sells. Medicine is just a game of money played with the government in this self-interested and capitalist society.
Loss of Corporal Autonomy — How Do We Regain It?
It is now apparent that the dominance of Western medicine has effectively reduced our knowledge of traditional medicine, such as those practiced by curanderas. The loss of this once common knowledge allows Western medicine to be the authority figure on health, especially women’s health. A passage from Speaking from the Body by the authors Angie Chabram-Dernersesian and Adela De La Torre, perfectly sums up the effect of Western medicine on women and their health:
“A sole reliance on conventional western medicine disempowers Latinas leaving us at the mercy of the omnipotent doctor: Our mind, our flesh, our energy system are all connected. If someone believes that modern medicine is the only answer to healing certain diseases, the diseased person is virtually helpless and depends on the doctor as an all-knowing God. She can’t participate in her own healing.”(5)
When we give up the authority over our medicine, we cannot participate in healing ourselves and this, in turn, becomes a renunciation of personal autonomy.
Women who have grown up with Western medicine as the only source of healthcare have become ignorant of their own bodies. They allow doctors to tell them what to do and they are now allowing the government to do the same. In particular, they have been told that the government has a say in how they should exercise their reproductive rights. House Bill 206, as explained earlier, could charge women with “tampering with evidence” if a woman aborts a pregnancy caused by rape. This bill demonstrates the power the government has on women’s bodies. It shows just how detrimental Western medicine has become to women’s health. This blatant oppression can be observed in how the victim is transformed into the criminal, similar to when curanderas and midwives were accused of being witches. To this day, we see that men still don’t respect women as equals, whether it is in medicine, politics, or education. How can we change this? How can we regain autonomy over our own bodies?
As Mexicanas and women of Mexican descent, we need to find a way to incorporate traditional medicine into our lives; the way our ancestors taught us. If we understood the earth, and the medicine it provides, we would become more in tune with our bodies. We would not need to rely on Western medicine to fix everything. Instead we would combine Western medicine with traditional, holistic medicine and regain autonomy of our own bodies. Once we regain this autonomy, we would be able to use our bodies as effective weapons of resistance to the Western ideology of medicine, rights, and the woman’s body.
(1) Laura , Bassett. “New Mexico Bill Would Criminalize Abortions After Rape As ‘Tampering With Evidence’.” Huffington Post 24 01 2013, Politics n. pag. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.
(2) “Western Medicine.” Wise Geek. <http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-western-medicine.htm>.
(3) Agosta , William . “Medicines and Drugs from Plants.” J. Chem. Educ. 74.7 (1997): 857. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.
(4) Amerson , Roxanne . “Reflections on a Conversation with a Curandera.” Journal of Transcultural Nursing. (2008): 384-385. Web. 10 Mar. 2013. <http://tcn.sagepub.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/content/19/4/384.full.pdf.html>.
(5) Chabram-Dernersesian, Angie, and Adela De La Torre, Eds. Speaking From The Body- Latinas on Health and Culture. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. 44, 163, 172. Print.
Lorena Hernández and Vanessa García are students at the University of Washington. This essay was prepared for a class on Comparative Social Movements: Mexico and the United States (Winter 2013 quarter); it originally appeared on the Environmental and Food Justice blog (moderated by Devon Peña), and is reprinted here by permission.