The Newly Discovered Alternative Medicine

While images of chiropractors and acupuncturists may appear into our mind, just what does Alternative Medicine mean for the Latino population?  This website is dedicated to presenting issues about some of these alternative beliefs and medicines.  While it would be impossible to detail or outline all of the home remedies as well as the historical and traditional beliefs, this website will explore some of these areas.  Additionally, resources are provided to learn more about traditional medicine and beliefs. 

History of Traditional Medicine

For centuries, traditional healers such as Curanderos (healers who typically prescribe, prepare and administer cures), herbalists, and brujos have existed to help cure the native population; their belief systems of Santeria, Espiritismo, and Curandismo have co-existed as well.  These traditional medical treatments and belief systems have always been highly variable across regions and Latino sub-cultures, even for the same ailments. These treatments involve a variety of different rituals based on purification, spiritualism and occasionally, repentance.

Mixing with Western Medicine
With all of our modern advancements in medicine, why do people still seek cultural healing techniques?

Dealing with Personalismo and Familismo

The answer is due to a lack of cultural competency on the part of most health care providers.  Cultural competency is defined by the level of understanding that health care providers have and their ability to recognize that people have different yet valid health systems and beliefs.  Cultural incompetence results from a lack of knowledge and understanding of cultural traditions, beliefs, values, and ethical issues by health care providers of patients.  Latinos are most concerned about the relationship between themselves and their care provider and are less concerned about the clinic, hospital or health care system.  Because of a lack of understanding, a distrust of formal institutions propagates.  This lack of Personalismo, the Latino patient's expectation that they will be dealt with in a caring and respectful manner, results in a poor patient/ provider relationship.  Latino patients want clear evidence that the provider is concerned about them personally (Villa, et al. p. 36)

Latinos also have a strong belief in the involvement of significant others and the important role they play in a successful treatment and healing process.  This is a sub-category of Familismo - the belief that cooperation, mutual assistance, and problem solving should involve a family decision (Villa, et al, p. 37), thus requiring that others, usually family members, be included in decision making of medical treatment.  Strong family support systems are very common and can and should be enlisted by Health Care Providers who care of Latino patients.

Then, are most Latinos seeing Curanderos?
Well, it depends on how you look at it.  The Hispanic Health and Nutrition survey conducted in 1984 found that only 4.2% of a national sample of Latinos had consulted a folk healer or curandero, and the strongest predictors of having done so were limited English language ability and dissatisfaction with modern medical practices (Latino Health Profile).  Other reasons for resorting to traditional healers or remedies were to appease family members, reassert cultural roots, or to validate modern treatments by invalidating traditional ones.  However, the number of Latinos using traditional treatments is unknown.  In fact, research has shown that most people who use these healers also use modern medical resources if available (indicating affordable and accessible).  However, what is not known is how many Latinos who use modern medical resources also use some form of traditional medical resource.  It has been shown that traditional or folk beliefs and use of folk healers occur primarily in immigrant segments of the Latino population.

What is known, is when a San Francisco television station asking for Mexican home remedies opened an on-line forum, the response was overwhelming.  In fact over 420 postings have been received and posted on the web-site.  While these responses varied from curing a crying baby, commonly known as Mal ojo (a result of being given the evil eye), to quelling a sore throat by simply boiling a clove of garlic in water, all of the responses seemed to come from traditions passed down from generations before.  People spoke of their abuelitas (grandmothers), mi madre (my mother) and mi tio y tia (my uncle and aunt) practicing some form of healing techniques on them, whether they were psychological or tangible (i.e., superstitious praying or specially brewed teas, respectfully).  From this we can draw the conclusion that while traditional medicine may not always be used, nor most commonly used, it is still quite prevalent.

Mainstream Recognition

While Latinos have long benefited from these traditional or alternative (natural) treatments, many doctors have just recently validated and acknowledged the effectiveness of these types of therapies.  Now, even the most conservative and most critical link in the health care system, Health Management Organizations and Preferred Provider Organizations, seem to be coming around as well. The number of managed care companies allowing access to alternative (natural) medicine is growing rapidly.  This recognition is evident in two ways, from the 60 percent of medical schools that now offer courses on natural medicine, to the way states are licensing providers of massage, naturopathy, and other natural treatments.  While perhaps not yet inclusive of Curanderos, due most likely to their performance of solemn rites punctuated with mysterious incantations, mainstream recognition is on the rise.

The remedies themselves

Many Latino concepts of disease center around the experiencing of intensely negative emotional states like fright, anger, envy, or bodily changes and magical causes (Latino Health Profile).  Again this suggests a link between spiritualism and health status.  Thus just the belief that an imbalance in either spiritual or physical terms is present can have a detrimental effect.  This would explain some of the remedies that are practiced.
Examples of home remedies Latino remedies for particular ailments rely heavily on a strong sense of religious or spiritual belief by the patient.    For instance, a crying baby can be relieved from Mal ojo, the evil eye, by passing an egg over its body then cracking the egg into a glass of water and placing the glass underneath the baby's bed.  Placing a slice of raw potato over each temple can cure headaches.  Prayers or religious practices with a Curandero can cure "Susto" or fright (Mexican home remedies).
Of course some remedies for ailments are relieved with various herbs and foods such as colds, which can be cured by inhaling a concoction of herbs through the nose.  Ginger is often used as an ingredient for teas in the relief of fevers.  Empacho, or upset stomach, is cured by massaging oil or grease on the child's back and stomach in an attempt to dislodge the offending substance.

Continuing the Tradition

How have these techniques been passed down?

For the most part these remedies have been passed down from generation to generation by the teaching of the Curandero and other healers.  While this tradition is still practiced today, most Latinos have passed on these traditions by practice and word of mouth.  Children who grow up being treated by their abuelitas (grandmothers) as well as their mothers, are passing down the same traditions to their children.  However, Curanderos are still practicing openly and even advertising on the World Wide Web.

An example is Charles R. (Chuck) Garcia, a third generation Curandero, who directs and instructs at the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  He states that he inherited the title from his maternal grandfather and that he continues to acquire a great deal of herbal knowledge from his 80-year-old mother.  While the school's focus is primarily Herbalism, Garcia focuses on the "teaching and preserving of the healing techniques of Hispanic and native California healers, including folklore, rituals, mysticism and magic as it pertains to healing."  This reinforces the connection between the psychology and the practice of healing in the Latino culture.  Garcia also credits and encourages his student to study Western views and ideas of Herbalism, thus illustrating the merging of Western and traditional Latino beliefs.