Traditional Healers in Mexico:
The Effectiveness of Spiritual Practices
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
It was believed that as biomedicine increasingly succeeded in treating the body, alternative healers would disappear. Biomedicine has acquired an exquisite understanding of anatomy and physiology; it has developed spectacular techniques in organ transplantation, in emergency medicine, and in new reproductive technologies. Despite biomedicine's extraordinary achievements, a multitude of alternative healing forms continue to flourish. Interestingly, in present-day United States a significant change in how traditional healers are viewed has occurred. Whereas, until recently, traditional healers have been regarded as charlatans and quacks, at present enormous interest exists in alternative healing systems of all kinds, both sacred and secular. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services opened a section dedicated to the study of alternative healing systems and, in the January 28, 1993 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Eisenberg et al. reported with some surprise that 34 percent of all Americans have used what they call "unconventional medicine." More recently, the same authors found that the percentage of individuals resorting to alternative medicine had gone up to 42.1 percent in 1997 (Eisenberg et al., 1998; see also Chapter 12 in this volume).
A wide variety of alternative healers practice around the world. These healers can be classified into at least two broad categories: sacred and secular. Secular healers may include herbalists, bonesetters, naturopaths, acupuncturists, homeopaths, yogi, and chiropractors. In Mexico, for example, where I have done extensive fieldwork (Finkler, 1991, 1994a, 1994b) there are injection specialists and a variety of traditional healers known as curanderas/curanderos.
Cross-culturally, sacred healers include many different types of shamans and other specialists who form part of a religious system and whose practices are embedded in a religious ideology. I studied one type of sacred healer in Mexico, known as Spiritual healers, over a span of 25 years. Unlike secular healers, sacred healers have some connection with divinity and are usually legitimated by their contact with the divine. For this reason, sacred healers share many similarities, including the fact that they often, if not universally, resort to altered states of consciousness by entering into a trance. Each healing system is, of course, unique and embedded in the culture of which it forms a part and from which it sprang. Nevertheless, healing systems, such as Mexican Spiritualism that I discuss in this chapter, share similarities with sacred healing everywhere as, for example, in disparate systems such as those of the bushmen (!Kung) of South Africa and Botswana, Native Americans, and even contemporary Americans (Jones, 1972; Katz, 1982; McGuire, 1988).