Looking for Roots: Curandera and Shamanic Practices in Southwestern Fiction

By Robinett, Jane | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2003 | Go to article overview

Looking for Roots: Curandera and Shamanic Practices in Southwestern Fiction


Robinett, Jane, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Arguing that the relationship between native American and Mexican American cultures has often been ignored, this essay explores connections between cultures by focussing on traditional healing practices. These practices, evident in the fiction of Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolpho Anaya, and Ana Castillo, reveal origins in Aztec and Mayan medicine.

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While, over the past two decades, much has been written about native American ethnobotony, medicine, archeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics, the divisions between these fields often make it difficult to address issues that involve cultural linkages. For example, little work exists that links these fields with native American literature to demonstrate the common heritage shared by the native American peoples (Navajo, Pueblo, Hopi) of the southwestern United States and the Mexican Americans who share the same geographic region. One way to explore the native American heritage of the Chicano people is through examination of the nature and function of the curandera/os (Spanish-speaking practitioners of traditional medicine) and the shamanic healers as they are represented in the novels of several southwestern writers. Here, it can be demonstrated that native American practices reaching back to the sixteenth century underlie traditional healing practices of both Mexican American and native American comm unities.

Like the divisions between fields of study, geopolitical borders, too, are fabricated. Governments and their agents want to see them as clear, rigorously maintained divisions between territories and peoples, but anyone who lives in a border area knows well that the border is largely a fiction, a kind of semi-permeable membrane through which passes a rich mix of languages, customs, cultures, and peoples that share border ground. Yet, like governments, we as individuals too, tend to make sharp divisions between peoples. Many Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been taught to regard their lineage and culture as Spanish and completely distinct from that of the native American (First Nation) peoples like those of the valley of Mexico and the lands around the Rio Grande. They seem to have lost sight of the common origins and practices of traditions they claim as their own. One tradition that can be examined in the work of three New Mexico writers is the practice of traditional medicine and healing observed in the f igure of the curandera in the texts of Chicano/a writers like Rudolfo Anaya in Bless Me, Ultima, Ana Castillo in So Far from God, and the shaman figures in Laguna-Mexican-American writer Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. In these healers, we see reflected a long tradition of medicine and healing that has its roots in native American practice on both sides of the border. The use of both herbs for healing and rituals for cleansing and restoring the person to a proper relationship within the family/community/self is common ground for both native American and Mexican American peoples in the border country from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. It is one of the places within Chicano culture where direct links to a native American heritage can be traced.

For many, what is most immediately obvious are the differences between curanderas and shamanic healers. But a detailed examination of their practices reveals much common ground, far too much for likenesses to be considered simply coincidental. In fact, these two traditions are not entirely distinct but arise from a common body of knowledge and practice that was dismissed and nearly destroyed by colonizing Westerners. They parallel each other closely in intent, purpose, and practice. Once these parallels are established, differences can be examined and accounted for more thoughtfully than they have been in the past. How these two apparently distinct traditions evolved from their shared roots reflects the history of the Aztec and Mayan peoples of the valley of Mexico and the tribal peoples American Southwest and their encounters with the invading Spanish.

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