Traditional Mexican healing practices are survival medicine. The earliest Mexican settlers to the Chicago area survived boxcar living during harsh winters with home remedies such as teas, massage, and ointments. Many people living in the boxcar barrios often preferred to pay parteras (midwives) to deliver their children in the boxcar homes, where they were relegated to live, instead of the local dispensary. In Mexican Labor in the United States, sociologist Paul S. Taylor documented the opinions of many people in these communities who expressed distrust of doctors and the medicines they offered.
I have been a student of traditional Mexican healing practices since childhood, and often visit Maya and Native American communities in the U.S. Raised by Mexican grandparents, I first learned these lessons around the kitchen table, listening to grandma tell me about the tea simmering on the stove. “Do you think I had time to go to the doctor’s office with six kids?” Of course not. Nor was there money for doctors’ visits or medicine. She knew that with so many people to take care for, an ounce of prevention was worth much more than a pound of cure. “Drink your tea while it’s hot.”
Grandpa referred to these practices affectionately as brujerías (witchcraft). His own mother, my great-grandmother, Fidencia, brought traditional Mexican healing practices with her in 1923 when she, her husband, and her young child, Antonio (gramps), arrived to the Blue Island boxcar camp at 135th Street. In Guanajuato, my great-grandmother had learned to sobar (massage), learned about medicinal plants, and helped bring babies into the world. Her skills helped her young family survive physically and economically as they migrated north.
Traditional Mexican healing practices have survived conquest, colonization, and the professionalization of medicine because many modalities require little if any equipment, and what is needed is easily transported or easily obtained. Information is transmitted orally, without need for documentation. Although some commonly used ingredients have Asian, European, or Middle Eastern roots, they were incorporated into indigenous Mexican healing practices during colonization and continue to be used today. Many of the plants used are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and effective.
I am not a medical professional, and this is not medical advice. I am not offering the cure for the coronavirus, for cancer, or for the common cold. What I am offering is some of the information I’ve learned over the years that I’ve found effective in alleviating pain and taking care of the people I love. The elements I recommend have been demonstrated to have medicinal properties that help prevent and treat various diseases.
Hot herbal teas: Most of the teas I serve my family are based on plants and can be used in compresses or baths, or to make oils for massage. As a tea, they’re comforting, delicious, and warm you up on the inside. Here’s some of the teas I most commonly prepare:
- At the first complaint of any flu-like symptoms, I simmer soft cinnamon/canela sticks in about a quart of water until the water is medium brown. After removing the sticks and reserving for a future simmer, I add honey and serve to everyone in the house. We all get a bit of aromatherapy as the house fills with the wonderful cinnamon fragrance, and it makes us all feel good immediately. Cinnamon has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and antioxidant properties, and research suggests that it can have beneficial cardiovascular effects, although robust human trials still need to be conducted.
- Chamomile/manzanilla is one of the most common natural aids for anxiety and mild depression in the Mexican culture and is thought by many to be a great sleep aid. There are many uses for chamomile; its medicinal use dates back to ancient Egyptian times. When someone is feeling agitated, stressed out, or can’t sleep, or when someone’s tummy is upset, manzanilla is comfort in a cup. It’s the first tea I introduced to my children and grandchildren. Some parents use it as a home remedy for treating colic in infants and relieving stress in parents. I don’t have access to fresh chamomile, but I remember it grew wild in front of our house when I was a child. Fresh flowers are usually the tastiest and best for you, but dried chamomile can be found in Mexican grocery stores all over Chicago. Ready-made tea bags are also good, and those are just about everywhere. I always have some in my kitchen and sometimes take a bag or two with me when traveling. Note: Expectant mothers should use caution when using any herbal remedies, but chamomile is one herb I was taught should be avoided during pregnancy.
- Spearmint, mint/hierbabuena has been studied as a possible treatment for digestive issues and as a pain reliever especially for headaches, and is good for managing stress and anxiety. It is sometimes used to help alleviate asthma attacks as it calms the muscles in the respiratory system. It is an antioxidant and has antifungal and antibacterial properties and a very pleasing fragrance. Its oil is used in candles, bath and beauty products, and for diffusers.
Limes/limones are not just for margaritas, folks! Mexicans put limes on practically everything! Two of the three types of limes most commonly cultivated globally, the Persian lime and the Key lime (commonly known as Mexican lime), are largely produced and consumed in Mexico. The Mexican lime thrives in heat and grows abundantly there. It is believed that Portuguese and Spanish voyagers brought limes to the Americas in the early sixteenth century, and cultivation of Mexican lime in the United States began when it was brought from Yucatán to the Florida Keys in 1838. Lime is used as a diuretic, for sore throats, coughs, and colds. People use it to soothe nervousness and anxiety, stress-related digestive disorders, and insomnia. Limeade has only three ingredients: water, limes, and sugar (add in that order). You control the amount of sugar added. It’s refreshing and good for you.
Honey/miel de abeja and the practice of beekeeping was documented in the Madrid Codex; creator god Itzamna, who is identified with the powers of curing, is shown holding a beehive. The stingless bees were important to the diet, economy, and medicinal and ritual practices of the ancient Yucatec Maya. Today, the Yucatán peninsula represents thirty-two percent of the total volume of honey produced in Mexico and some of the highest-quality honey produced for the international market, making the region an important beekeeping area of the world. While honey should not be given to babies under twelve months old, for everyone else, honey can help with digestive issues as well as with the symptoms of coughs and colds. Putting honey in tea can bring out the flavors of the leaves and make your tea more palatable. One natural remedy for children over the age of one is to infuse honey with eucalyptus, then give the children a spoonful. The children in my family have never been able to get it down, though—eucalyptus has a very intense flavor.
Sobadas: Traditional Mexican massages have been used to treat digestive issues, musculoskeletal pain caused by tendon or nerve issues, and infertility, and to manage the effects of trauma on the body, mind, and spirit. During a sobada, the practitioner will likely use oil or an ointment made with plant matter. While there are many Mexican curanderas/os (healers, female and male respectively) who have chiropractic training or have apprenticed with a curandera/o, there are also many who have had little to no formal training at all. For some, the ability to sobar (massage) is a don (gift) that is learned and requires intuition and faith.
A sobada is different from a massage in several ways; firstly, a sobada is done when something is wrong, whereas massages are often preventative and for relaxation of muscle tension. Another difference is that sobadas focus on the injured area, but massages are typically for your entire body. Massages often feel wonderful and are very relaxing. Sobadas are not relaxing; in fact, they can be quite uncomfortable and even pretty painful. Each curandera/o has their own technique; there is no one true way to sobar.
There are a few rules that people commonly adhere to when receiving a sobada. You should not bathe or get wet after receiving a sobada until the following day. The idea is that you’ll shock the body because it’s just been heated up with the therapy. Water, even warm water, will cause the muscles and tendons to stiffen, and it’s thought it can leave you open to catching a chill, especially through the compromised part of your body. It’s best not to eat before a sobada. While I’ve been told by some practitioners that it’s only necessary to have an empty stomach when working on issues within the abdomen, it’s possible that pain or the release of blockages could cause nausea, so it’s best not to eat before the treatment.
Oils—Eucalyptus, turpentine, menthol, and camphor (Vicks VapoRub): It’s a long-running joke that Mexican moms use “vaporú” for a lot of things. Originally called Vicks Coup and Pneumonia Salve, it was invented by a pharmacist in 1890. Although its efficacy hasn’t been studied in detail, many Mexican moms know it helps with coughs and colds and is good for insect bites, headaches, and muscle fatigue. Its main active ingredients are eucalyptus, turpentine, menthol, and camphor. It has been proposed that these oils produce a cooling effect that makes us only think we’re breathing better. However, either way, that’s helpful for coughs and colds; it can make breathing feel less congested. In my house, this process begins with a sign of the cross made on the forehead with a vaporúed finger and a prayer for healing. I warm about a tablespoon of the ointment in my hands (grandma used to warm it over an open flame in the metal can that it used to be sold in) by rubbing my hands together really fast. While I hold that heat in my hands, I put it on the chest, back, neck, throat, and feet, finally making sure the entire body is covered and warm.
Smudging: The practice of burning medicinal plant matter and using the smoke and vapor to cleanse and bless bodies, minds, and the environment is practiced by many Native American peoples. Sage, sweetgrass, and cedar are some of the most commonly burned by tribes in the United States. In Ancient Mexico and modern day Mexico, this was and is commonly done with copal. Evidence of copal has been found in the Great Well at Chichen Itza in Yucatán in the Maya region of Mexico and at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City.
In the pre-conquest Codex Borbonicus, the story of Oxomoxo and Cipactonal, the ancestor couple of all humans, is portrayed. Facing each other on a red mat, she casts lots while he holds an incense burner, smoke rising from it. Copal was and is used during ceremonies across what is now Mexico and the Southwest United States. It is thought to be mentally uplifting and calming. One study, published in 2018, found that rats demonstrated reduced fear behavior and an increase in active social interaction after being exposed to burning copal. The word copal derives from copalli, the Náhuatl (Aztec) term for the aromatic resins from a number of plants. It has been used for centuries as incense for religious ceremonies, as a food preservative, and as a treatment to cure headaches and to clean the body after being exposed to sick people. Copal resins were ground and dissolved in water to treat diarrhea, as an anti-inflammatory poultice, to plug tooth cavities, and to treat pneumonia. It was used against uterine diseases, to treat fevers, chicken pox, sore throats, and to heal wounds. However, few studies have assessed its effect on the body today.
Some practices, such as burning of copal and use of the temazcal (sweat lodge/bath house) are not very commonly practiced here. Building and maintaining a sweat lodge is no easy task, and filling your home with smoke will get you a visit from the fire department. But making a cup of tea or providing a loved one a massage are easy ways to care for ourselves and each other. While we wait for this time to pass, that’s all we can do, is care for each other. I wish you and yours good health and safety.
Laura De Los Santos is an independent researcher and a docent in The Field Museum’s Ancient Americas permanent exhibit. This is her first contribution to the Weekly.