Wednesday, November 14, 2012

La Curandera: A Traditional Healer #western

Jude Johnson, author
La Curandera: 
A Traditional Healer
by Jude Johnson
Author of Dragon's Legacy
Read Jude's interview and an excerpt of Dragon's Legacy

In the desert southwest, where Native American and Mexican culture mingled for centuries before “settlers” arrived, those who helped the sick get well were highly respected. While many Americans mistakenly think Geronimo (Goyahkla to the Chiricuhua Apache) was a chief, his position as medicine man was far more influentialand fearsome. The medicine man worked with powers of the Unseen and his decisions on which plants to use literally made the difference between life and death.

In the Sonoran Desertan enormous ecosystem expanse from northern Mexico to PhoenixNative cultures mixed with Spanish influences in all aspects of life, from language to social interaction and healing traditions. The medicine man or woman of Native tribes became La Curandera in Mexican communities. As the Catholic Church gained influence and control, often a curandera was also called brujawitch. But among the people, that didn’t carry the negative connotation the Church intended. Native culture saw no conflict with following the church and still believing in the powers of The Unseen. It was all the same to their way of thinking.

My mother’s mothermy Nanitawas a curandera.

La Curandera was first and foremost a keen observer of human behavior. When a family called upon her, her first step was often to sit quietly, watching every member’s interactions while she listened to their situation. Psychology was in its infancy in Europe, but the Maya, Aztec, Apache, Navajo and other Native cultures understood all too well that the patient was not an isolated collection of conditions but under the influence of his or her surroundings.

Herbs and local plants were dried or concocted into syrups and teas. So a healer was also an herbalist, botanist, and chemist, calculating what combination would be beneficial as well as how much would be too much. Most of our modern medicines have been developed from plants used for centuries all over the world, so these healers often weren’t too far off the mark.

Ritual was an integral part of a healing. Was it part of the psychological component similar to placebo effect? Perhaps, but for many the comfort of ceremonial steps such as lighting sage, candles, and incense calmed their anxiety. And who knows if that wasn’t half of the problem with their health anyway?

Una curandera was chosen and trained by the elder healer of a community and apprenticed for years before attaining permission to do a healing on her own. Partly to be certain she had a firm grasp of her herbology, an apprenticeship also ensured acceptance by the clientele and confidence in her skills.

Oh, and one never offered a curandera money for a healing. Flowers or food gifts were acceptable but money was considered crass and insulting.

When allopathic doctors came west, they disregarded these healers and dismissed their traditions as “superstitious hogwash”often to the detriment of the patient. Over the past few years on the Navajo and Apache reservations, the shaman/medicine woman is now brought in as an equal consultant to give the doctor insight into the patient’s life and calm the patient as well.

Mexican communities never dismissed their curanderas Botanicas and yerberias flourish in the barrios of most Latin communities, including Tucson.

My grandmother treated people in the Barrio Historico area until her death in 1960. Unfortunately, I never had the honor of meeting her, since I was two when she passed. But I have many of her recipes and ritual steps from my cousin who knew her well. As a chiropractic physician in Tucson, I like to think I’m sort of following in her footsteps.

I based one of the main characters in my Dragon & Hawk seriesReyna, the curandera who saves the life of and falls in love with Welsh immigrant Evan Joneson her.

Nanita, I hope I’ve done you proud.

If you would like to read more about a modern curandera, here is the link to a recent article in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star: Tucson Herbalists.


Comment with the title of your favorite Western book or movie (no later than 11:59 pm Pacific Time on November 16th) and I’ll have my deranged cat, Fritz, choose a name at random to win a PDF copy of your choice of my novels PLUS a $10 Gift Certificate to Champagne Books (So you can purchase the others in the series if you like!).

Drawing will be held at High Noon, Tucson time on Saturday, November 17, 2012. Please leave your email address so I can contact you if you’re the winner. (If you type it in this manner: myemail AT whatever DOT com, it won’t be picked up by spammers.)


  1. I commented earlier, but don't see any comments! So, here it is again: Lonesome Dove.

  2. ditto Mona, left comment but it's not here. Any John Wayne and Quigley Downunder. Great interview.

  3. Jude, what a terrific article. I'm so glad Jacquie has your as a guest on her blog. I use a curandera in one of my novels, and am fascinated by them. I also highly respect chiropractors. Best wishes with your writing. I look forward to reading your books.

    One of my all time favorite western books is Jacquie's MUCH ADO ABOUT MARSHALS.

    caroline at carolineclemmons dot com

  4. Wonderful post. Loved it! Favorite western movie - The Missing with Tommy Lee Jones and Kate Blanchett. There was a bad bruja in that one.

  5. Thanks, Everyone! (I see your comments now, Mona & Cathy. lol)

    I'm thrilled to learn others have heard of curanderas in a positive light. I wish I could have met my grandmother; by all accounts, she was a strong and wise woman.


    Fritz the Tombstone Brothel cat chomped your name! I'll be in touch soon!



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