A Few Herbs, A Prayer And Often A Cure

Josephine Romero, who has lived in the remote mountain village of Truchas, N.M., for 11 years, rarely sees a doctor. When she developed pain in her joints, Romero rubbed them with a liquid made from nine herbs by her neighbor, Sabinita T. Herrera. After two doctors failed to clear up her baby's rash, she followed Herrera's homey advice. To heal a wound on her son's hand, she used encerado, a secret herbal ointment. And to ease her own ulcer, she drank a soothing tea made from Herrera's herbs.

All the cures worked. No wonder Romero, along with many other Hispanics in the little villages that line the old High Road, the historic link between Santa Fe and Taos, calls Herrera la curandera, the healer. "I say it's a gift from above, and also, it takes a lot of dedication," says Romero, 41, who has gone to curanderas all her life.

Today, it's not easy to find them. Herrera, 60, is one of the few curanderas left in northern New Mexico, where her kind once often meant the difference between life and death. Doctors and rural clinics have made them all but obsolete. That's ironic, since many young Anglos raised on Western medicine are developing an interest in natural cures and seeking out healers such as Herrera. In part because of that interest, Congress in 1991 appropriated $2 million for an Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health to study and evaluate folk remedies.

There's a lot to study. There are different kinds of curanderas. Herrera specializes in medicinal herbs. Some healers are akin to chiropractors, giving massages and manipulating bones. A few even practice exorcism--but not Herrera. She's scornful of witches. "I wouldn't be able to help people looking for that kind of stuff. I tell them to take their money and go," she tells me as we sit at the kitchen table in her four-room adobe house.

Her home is filled with family pictures and colorful plaster statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Herrera is a devout Roman Catholic. "I offer prayers at night for the people who come during the day," she says. Catholicism here is melded with folk traditions. The people believe the dirt taken from a small hole at a nearby shrine, El Santuario de Chimayo, is sacred. During heavy rainstorms, Herrera sprinkles some of this holy dirt in front of her doorway, in hopes of keeping the creek that runs by her house from flooding.

The church appears to accept Herrera. "I have all the faith in this, because it's Mother Nature," says Father Casimiro Roca, a priest at Chimayo for 35 years. On the day I visit, the little church is oppressively hot, not from the summer day but from dozens of candles that have been lit by the faithful and from the tourists who crowd inside hoping to witness a miracle.

"SNOOTY LADY." Anglos aren't always welcome in these New Mexican villages, expecially by the macho young men who cruise the dusty roads in their low riders. Older folks view us with resignation and sometimes grace and good humor. Once, when I ignored a panhandler who approached me, he merely smiled and said: "Jesus loves you, snooty lady."

But Herrera exudes warmth, and I understand why people trust this friendly woman with graying hair, who says, "I get along with everybody. I'm here to help." Soon, I find myself asking her advice for treating my own ailments.

Herrera's knowledge and confidence are not surprising. After all, she made up her mind at age 10 to be a curandera, like her father and grandmother before her. As a child, she helped her father gather herbs. When he died, his patients turned to her, already a wife and mother at 19. Herrera, who left school after the seventh grade, has been la curandera ever since, using her knowledge of 105 herbs to heal the 10 to 15 people who come each week.

During the summer, Herrera gathers herbs high in the mountains, often taking along her granddaughter Conchita, 15. She goes where the plants "are clean. Not by the roadside with all the smoke from the cars. Uh-uh," she says. She'll go to Chama, nearly 100 miles west, for rue to treat earache, or to Belen, to the south, where she gathers chaparral for stomach cancer.

Herrera washes the herbs in the creek that is her sole source of water, chops them, then dries them on clean sheets spread over bedsprings in a cool, dark log cabin. Herbs dried in the sun lose their strength and color, she says. She stores the dried herbs in plastic bags or mixes them into special remedies or the encerado ointment that smells of pine pitch. She developed the unguent some years ago to cure a skin condition of her own. Now she uses it to treat everything from pimples to burns to ingrown toenails. A few years back, it was so successful on a rattlesnake bite suffered by an Arizona professor that he offered her $2,000 for the formula.

She turned him down. "I don't know why," she shrugs--even though it was a lot of money for Herrera, who charges $5 for most of her herbs. Her remedies bring her roughly $1,500 a year, some of it in bartered potatoes, beans, and chili peppers. Advice--and house calls--are free. So are the herbs if the customer is poor. "I tell them if they can pay me, fine. If not, just keep me in their prayers." If she can't help, she sends ailing folks to medical doctors. Sometimes, hospital workers in Santa Fe or Espa ola ask Herrera to bring herbs to their patients.

Most of Herrera's customers, such as Patsy Trujillo, the Truchas postmistress, use a combination of conventional and folk medicine. When her family had bad coughs last winter, "we tried Robitussin and Sudafed, but none of those worked," she says. "We got osha [from Herrera] and boiled it and drank it with honey, and we got rid of that cough."

HOLLYWOOD CONVERTS. Truchas looks as if it hasn't changed since its founding in 1754, but it's not as sleepy and unworldy as it appears. In 1986, the last time I drove through prior to this visit, the road was blocked with semis and mobile homes, and there were banks of high-tech equipment set up around the old buildings. I got out of my car to see what was going on and spied Robert Redford crossing the road. He was filming The Milagro Beanfield War here.

Herrera was an extra in the movie. If you look closely, she says, you can spot her dancing in the bean field at the end of the film. She could have worked all summer as an extra, but "I wouldn't be able to gather herbs," she says. Some of the Hollywood people became customers and still order her herbs by mail.

I became a customer, too. I buy spearmint for tea to ease migraines and a tiny jar of encerado for a skin blemish. Before I leave, Herrera pours water into a tin basin, washes her hands, and shows me how to apply the ointment.

Then she walks me outside, into the bright sunlight. She warns me to drive carefully over the tortuous road to Santuario and on into Santa Fe. Stepping back into the shade of her porch, bright with pots of petunias, she waves until I am out of sight. And as I get on the road again, I hope that la curandera will say a prayer for me, too.

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