Out of the Shadows: Trading the couch for the curandero

October 21, 2011

By Aurora Aguilar

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(Flickr/peppergrass)
Latinos often seek help from curanderos, or 'spirituals who cure.'

According to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 15 percent of Latino youth in the United States have considered attempting suicide. By comparison, rates for black and white youth were 13 percent. Experts say cultural stigmas, as well as a lack of education, can lead many families to reject mainstream treatment for mental health issues. Instead, some look to traditional treatments from their homeland. WBEZ’s Aurora Aguilar shared the story for Out of the Shadows.
 
For the past 25 years, Jerry Flores and his family owned and operated La Botanica Emanuel in Little Village. The small corner shop sells religious candles and books on homeopathic medicine. And on any given day, you could find a line of customers waiting for the services offered here.

“Card readings, spiritual cleansings, what we call ‘somabadas.’ Someone threw out their arm, their knees,” recounted Jerry Flores.

Flores and his family are curanderos, or “spiritualists who cure.” Their talents for healing are passed on generation to generation. Many Mexicans believe folk healing can fix everything from a broken heart to a broken psyche.

“Basically we try to help the people, we always put God first. Like the saying goes, we are here to help people spiritually as well as physically. Our number one recommendation is prayer,” Flores explained.

People come to La Botanica Emanuel asking for advice on important matters or sometimes, to get a spiritual tune-up. Others have bigger issues.

“People come with their kids. It’s because their kids are aggressive and they don’t know how to control them. They hear noises or feel someone with them, behind them. Some kids come with bruises and marks and they think they were dreaming but it’s happening. You know, there are good spirits and bad spirits. So, we recommend what to do.” a Spanish-speaking Leti Flores, Jerry’s wife, explained.

Leti often recommends is a limpia, or a spiritual cleansing. Flores lit a musky incense and prayed to the saints, asking for the customer's safety, health and luck. She showered the customer with sweet-scented oil infused with natural herbs. The prayer part and the curandero motioning, like they are pulling out bad spirits from the body, mimic the healing practices that take place in some Christian churches. The curandero’s rituals, however, are very private. A parent whose child was participating in a limpia refused to be interviewed for this story. But she swore it lifted her child’s aggression, symptoms that some experts might flag as a mood disorder.

Michael Kelly, a professor of social work at Loyola University in Chicago, was working as a social worker in Addison, Illinois in the 1990’s. He laughed and said that most ethnic groups in this country don’t want what they offer. The Chicago suburb was well populated by Latinos, many of them poor. He often found it difficult to connect with them, but not just because he's a white guy from Oak Park.

“I couldn’t use traditional psychological language to engage them. It wasn’t interesting. They even sometimes thought it was a barrier because they weren’t sure what I was going to do to them. I had to learn a cultural frame, but I had to learn a lot of both the cultural frame but also this spiritual piece, traditions and dynamics,” said Kelly.

As a public employee, he said se couldn’t ask about religious or spiritual beliefs when he was a counselor. But he found that Latinos often brought up the topic themselves.

“They would casually say before they were taking a trip or making a big decision, ‘We’re going to see a curandero,’ and I would say, a ‘Cura-what?’” Kelly remembered.

One of the children he worked with was Jose, who heard voices telling him to hurt people. He had taken a knife to his sister, which in the medical-model world, Kelly said, met criteria for psychotic symptoms.
 
Kelly himself found that Jose met the criteria for schizophrenia, and advised the mother to hospitalize him. She politely refused and said she would instead take him to a curandera. The mother believed some devil had taken over Jose.

“They often speak to people who are possessed or supernatural,” Kelly said.

Kelly asked if he could meet with the curandera and when he did, he brokered a deal.  He asked the curandera to counsel the mother but convince her to get him psychologically evaluated. The curandera obliged and so did the mother. Jose eventually was placed on medication—and Kelly found a way in.

“We were walking on eggshells talking to these parents and here they go to this curandero, they get more information and they end up telling them to do a lot of things,” Kelly explained.

More importantly, the curandera spoke to Jose’s mom about her son’s behavior in a way she could relate to. Many Mexican immigrants know little about mental illness or refuse to admit that it’s an ailment. Lack of Spanish-language information on the topic and universal stigma against mental illness don’t help matters. The curandera talked to the mom about “nervios,” meaning anxiety or unease like the less severe symptoms of mental illness.

“There are kind of third-rail words to not use, often the words that white, Anglo medical professional want to use like ‘depression,’ like ‘anxiety;’ or big ticket ones like, ‘Bipolar,’ ‘PTSD.’ Those are not terms they want to apply. They are pejorative.  If I could talk to a mother about her daughter having ‘nervios,’ I could get some movement to get her to do a screen, if there was someone culturally competent. Cause sometimes you can get someone to the water but you can’t get them to drink,” Kelly explained.

Irma Hernandez is the program coordinator of the Hispanic Diagnostic and Family Support Program in Chicago.

“Last year we had a year and half wait for a diagnostic. Which was ridiculous, you know? It was embarrassing to tell parents that they had to wait a year and a half to come to our clinic. But the reality is we’re a small program we’re a state funded program and budget cuts don’t allow us to hire any more staff,” Hernandez said.

The clinic where she works is one of two that cater specifically to diagnosing Latinos with mental illness in Chicago. In addition to access, Hernandez says another huge barrier is deep-set cultural traditions.

“A lot of these families have been living in either very rural towns or places where they don’t have access. They do the herbal sweeps; they sweep the body up and down,” Hernandez explained.

She said that mental health professionals need to acknowledge that their patients’ lives depend on open lines of communication.

“Our role here is not to criticize back in our country this is what you do, especially when parents are desperate. As long as parents know they are being respected, they don’t have a problem with trying something else,” Hernandez said.

Latinos and Native Americans have the highest suicide related fatalities of any young population in the country, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Experts say that the importance of family and tradition in these cultures underscores the need to find creative ways to engage mentally ill patients in these communities.
 

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