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Curanderismo and Healing the Fractured Soul

Curanderismo, a traditional medicine practice in Mexico, aims to treat unhealed soul wounds through holistic integration

GRACE ALVAREZ SESMA HAS always been a dreamer. But this night was different.

“We were a very humble family,” she says of her upbringing in the Mexicali barrio of Colonia Pro-Hogar. She didn’t have a real bed, and, every night with her sister, would have to roll out a little cot across their home’s earthen floor. It was on that cot that she was visited by a spirit who would give her life purpose.

Grace was seven years old, asleep next to her sister. She remembers the arrival of a beautiful woman draped in a resplendent rebozo shawl woven with pinpricks of starlight that moved in luminous constellations. The woman reached down to the wide-eyed child and asked: Will you come with me? 

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Grace could only nod. The woman lifted her from the cot and placed her in what felt like a carriage. “She is telling me things, talking with me,” Sesma recalls. “Asking me if I will do something.” The woman then returned her to the room where her sister still slept, stroked her dark hair in a tender blessing, and disappeared. 

Sesma identifies this spiritual encounter as her initial call to return to Curanderismo, her family’s ancestral ways of healing. 

Curanderismo, from the Spanish word curar—to heal—is a sacred, traditional medicine practiced throughout Mexico and Central and South America. Practitioners treat illnesses arising from physiological, psychological, spiritual, relational, or environmental disharmonies using a blend of herbs, rituals, and remedies. Unlike allopathic medicine, which tends to silo human health into specialties and subspecialities, Curanderismo views wellness as integration. “Whole person health is an ancient concept,” Sesma says. “This medicine has been around for five hundred years.” 

When her daughters were young adults, Grace accepted an apprenticeship from an “extraordinary and controversial” Yaqui mentor in Tecate, as well as Indigenous grandmothers who exhorted and taught her through vivid medicine dreams. During training, she climbed a mountain to fast, sing, pray, and take what is called plant power medicine. “It can kill you,” she says, “I thought they might find my corpse, but I persisted. My mentor took the time to hold me in the medicine when I might have given up—he wouldn’t let go.” 

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Like that of other curanderas, Sesma’s now thirty-year practice has flowered from the roots of her Indigenous culture—Yaqui, Mexica, and Zapotec traditions—which view each human as being made up of a physical body, a soul, and a spirit. In Náhuatl (an Uto-Aztecan language spoken by over 1.5 million people in Mexico), the immortal spirit is referred to as teyolía, and leaves the body permanently only upon death, while the soul, or alma, is tonalli and can separate from the body under a variety of circumstances. A traumatic event, for instance, can fragment the soul, leaving a piece behind at the time and place of crisis. This creates excruciating soul wounds, and many illnesses Grace treats stem from such pain.

“After a traumatic experience some can’t get healthy—because there’s an aspect of them that is still suffering, stuck in that place,” she says. “You can talk about it, try to heal from it, but if we don’t address that missing piece and bring that aspect of you back, then you’re not going to have that breakthrough that’s required.” 

Her patients range from soldiers razed by war, to adults struggling with embedded childhood trauma, to teens tangled in suicidal ideation, to women recovering from sex-trafficking. (“Let’s call it what it is,” Grace emphasizes, “it’s rape and it’s torture.”) Depending on the patient’s illness, treatment to restore the soul includes prayer and sacred rituals centered on everyday, natural elements. 

Left: Angelina Mei/Unsplash | Center: Ankit Choudhary/Unsplash | Right: Safiyah Ganpat/Unsplash

A limpia, or soul cleansing, uses a raw egg in its shell. Sustainably harvested bundles of fragrant peppertree, white sage, rosemary, or rue might be brushed over the patient in a barrida, or energetic sweeping. Other remedies might involve burning Bursera tree resin gathered in small batches, sound reverberating from within a swirled conch shell, life-giving water, cool aloe, a stone, lime, basil, feathers, vibrant bougainvillea, crimson roses. 

“I’m a spiritual healer,” she adds. “which means that I pray to see if I’m the right person to help. And if I am, how do I proceed?” If not, she refers patients to other healers, including trusted doctors and mental health professionals. Though research in Mexican communities has shown that Curanderismo can be as, and sometimes more, effective as psychotherapy for a spectrum of mental health issues—including anxiety, depression, and PTSD—like in any healthcare field, cures are not guaranteed: the patient (and always in the case of minors, the family) must commit to being an active participant in the healing along with the curandera. 

“It takes a lot of courage,” Sesma says, “because once you acknowledge this happened to me, it means you have to do something about it. Internal change becomes reflected externally: What is that going to look like? Am I going to truly release that person from my life? Am I going to stop that self-sabotaging behavior?” 

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Traditionally curanderas see patients within their own homes, which creates a personal, intimate environment. Sesma opens each session with prayer, which sets an intention for healing, followed by a confidential plática. Best translated within the context of Curanderismo as a “heart-to-heart,” a plática gives the patient an opportunity to share their entire story without judgment. 

“Those who come to see me come to me with confianza—a Spanish word for a form of trust,” Sesma says. This profound type of trust acknowledges the patient’s total safety. That their body will be respected. That wounds shared will be honored. 

“You are entrusting me, not just with your story, but with your spirit. With your heart. That means my work is sacred,” she says. “And I do my best to treat it as such, to make sure that I treat myself well, so that I can do my work.”

Sesma describes a session for the Consciousness and Healing Initiative that involved a patient whose fractured soul hindered her adult relationships:  

With my spirit eyes, I see a gray-colored sphere of congested energy, right below her breastbone, together with a thick twisted energy braid of swampy dark brown that tethers her heart to her mother, and another dark-colored cord attached to a man about whom she has not yet spoken.

I interpret these images as being of a long-standing issue with her mother which is also connected to her inability to have a healthy romantic relationship.

With surprise, she confirms my interpretation and acknowledges that she has never been able to confide the sexual abuse by her stepfather to any of her previous therapists.

I sweep her body with the egg and plants—and with her permission—my obsidian knife, used within her spiritual energy body to sever the braided cords of the tug and pull of power, need, and accusation between her and her mother…she shivers as they are set free of each other’s controlling and unforgiving energies.

Fragrant healing herbs and colorful flowers have been simmering in a pot on my stove, their guardian spirits standing close by, ready to continue helping her release fear, pain, and self-blame as I pour the herbal plant medicine into the bathtub, and turn to help the now crying woman sink into the warm, prayed-over water.

I pray and sing love and forgiveness into her.

I pray and sing her soul into her.

Together we pray in gratitude to the Creator and the good healing spirits who are still shaking their gourds and singing, orbs of light dancing around us. After her healing bath, wrapped in a warm blanket, she sips a cup of hot tea.

We sit in comfortable silence for several minutes before we discuss her “homework” and agree on a follow-up plan to mentor her as she incrementally makes needed changes in a way that will support the work we’ve done together.

Left: Martin Widenka/Unsplash | Center: Ilyuza Mingazova/Unsplash | Right: Nelson Flores/Unsplash

“You become a midwife to their soul,” Sesma says of patients who experience profound relief. “You’re helping patients birth a new way of seeing themselves, a way of being that builds on the wisdom that they’ve learned through their challenges.” 

“As a community healer, this work is vast: people ask me to be with them as they are dying, to help their spirit make the transition. People ask me to be present while they’re giving birth, to pray and bless their children. It makes my heart happy that they know I’m here for them. And though sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed with the responsibility, it is such a beautiful path.”