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Wellness Around The World: Curanderos in Mexico

My name is Rafael Toledo but just about everyone calls me Kiko. I was born in Texas, first generation American of Mexican parents. I spent every summer in Mexico as a child then at 15, I moved there. From there I lived in San Diego, Florida, Beijing for a bit, Seattle and recently a little island offshore called Vashon. I studied biology and chemistry in college and worked as a research scientist in neuroscience for about 6 years before completely changing careers. I initially became interested in wellness because of experiences I had with my father and the world he introduced me to at a young age. Which brings me to a topic that extends wellness past our southern border: Curanderos, aka Mexican Alternative Healers. My father practiced traditional pediatric cardiology but quickly became frustrated with its limits and inefficiencies and began to explore alternatives. He began in Mexico and let me tag along as an 11 or 12 year-old kid. We visited and interviewed dozens of Curanderos. They were somewhat underground, though not hard to find since most people hesitated to admit visiting one, but visited nonetheless. There was plenty of wonder in these visits, especially for a curious boy. Dark smoky rooms filled with a roller-coaster ride of quiet whispers, frantic screaming, cry-sobbing, flicking out demons and curses, as well as rolling eggs along the body and cracking them open to expose black, smelly and spoiled yolks. Lots of candles and incense and chanting. I loved it, and thought it was quite the adventure. Recently, we’ve come to appreciate many of these ancient practices – Ayahuasca, Tepezcohuite and Nopales to name a few. But it was a bit different in the late 80’s. These remedies were seen as superstitious and a just a little bit backwoodsy (before backwoodsy was a good thing). The conclusion we came to after many sessions and interviews was that in many cases, yes, the herb, oil or tea helped. But more than that, folks needed a space to unload. To talk about their taboo desires and anxieties disguised as demons. Metaphor manifested as reality. Most people wouldn’t go to a Curandero for a broken bone and the good Curanderos (there were crooked ones as in any industry) would send away people with more serious maladies. No, most would visit for those hard-to-pinpoint ailments. The pains traditional medicine is terrible at diagnosing, let alone correcting. It’s so much easier to unload, inspect and let go of emotions and uncertainties in a dark room smelling of burnt herbs with a cup of pungent tea in your hands than it is with a cardiologist and his unblinking notepad in a sterile medical facility. As the child of an MD, I know this first hand. What I took away from those experiences, as well as my stint in science, was to try to keep an open mind. To try to not judge what works for others as a way to heal. To not be intimidated by new words or concepts and use it as an opportunity to learn. To not let the uncertainty of something lead me to grasp at the first person with a purported cure. To question, experiment and be grateful for what works for me and put aside that which doesn’t. To challenge the things I don’t understand, but to try and be willing to listen to the response without prejudice. To take the best of time-tested remedies (the healing power of Manuka honey is real ya’ll!) and those developed by science.
After all, the best science is just an interpretation of Nature. The powerful results of meditation are as real as the life saving capabilities of a heart transplant.

Kiko Toledo works in video production and lives on Vashon Island with his wife Lindsey. Feel free to tell him about your favorite backwoodsy remedies or ask about what they use in Mexico at @rkikotoledo. Or if you’re as interested in seeing the various sides of the world as he is, say hello at @ramblinhombrefoto

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