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Culture : Traditional Healers Preach Gospel of Health in Rural Mexico : Part doctor, part priest, as many as 2,500 curanderos tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the Tzotzil Indian community deep in the heart of Chiapas state.


CHENALHO, Mexico — Antonio Vasquez had only to listen to his dreams to learn that he would become a healer. At the age of 10, they told him where to unearth medicinal plants and how to administer them.

Dreams taught him to search a man's pulse for fear, envy and other sources of illness. They said that his spirit lived in a tiger, an animal with a strong heart.

Most importantly, Vasquez's youthful dreams instructed him that he had the power to communicate with God.

"If one has the power to heal, one uses it," Vasquez said, touching his heart with one hand and pointing heavenward with the other. "I learned purely from my dreams. First my father sent me to heal my mother. By the time I was 15, I was treating everyone."

More than half a century has passed since Vasquez became a curandero to this Tzotzil Indian community deep in the highlands of Chiapas state. Part doctor, part priest, the 70-year-old Vasquez tends to the natural and spiritual illnesses of his people much as his Mayan ancestors did for hundreds of years before him--with herbs and prayers.

While some highland villages like Chenalho have access to schooled physicians and modern medicine, the Indian communities still largely trust their health care to traditional practitioners called parteras , yerberos , hueseros and curanderos --midwives, herbalists, bone-setters and healers--who are also known as "preachers of the mountains."

Anthropologists estimate there are 1,500 to 2,500 curanderos attending to the more than 300,000 Indians who live in the highlands. Revered for the religious powers they are said to possess, the healers are mainstays of Mayan culture in traditional communities that remain on the margins of Mexico's dominant Ladino or Spanish society--the nation that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari hopes to modernize into a First World country.

"The healer (believes he) has contact with God," explained Maria Teresa Olvera, an anthropologist with the Organization of Indigenous Doctors based in San Cristobal de las Casas.

"His religion is a mixture of Western Catholicism and ancient Mayan religion, with apostles, angels, water holes, guardian trees and sacred places. He believes everyone has a spirit in the heart and a spirit--a nahual --in an animal. A healer has to have a strong heart," Olvera said.

Vasquez's nahual appeared in a dream: "A tiger came and kissed me and said we would live together. He said we have to have strength to cure people."

Vasquez seems to be strong in body and spirit. A dark man with broad cheekbones and brilliant black hair, only a slightly drooping eyelid hints of his age. He stands erect in the white toga that is the costume of men in his village, and he walks a brisk gait in leather sandals.

Twice a year, Vasquez leads a drum-beating excursion into the jutting, green hills around Chenalho to pray for rain, a hearty corn crop and the health of the community. He makes a third trip after the annual harvest to offer prayers of thanks.

The rest of the time he sells Coca-Cola and chips from the storefront in his house and tends to patients in need of treatment for everything from colds and diarrhea to rheumatism and epilepsy. Often, he said, the men and women who seek his help have already tried herbal remedies at home. Sometimes they have been to see a Western doctor, to no avail.

That leads Vasquez to suspect a spiritual illness as well as a physical one. Fear and anger can provoke sickness, he says, as can another person's envy. So can the glare or sorcery of a brujo --a witch--who is the healer's evil counterpart.

To discover the source of illness, Vasquez takes the pulse of his patient. "Anger, rage, envy are all felt here in the heart. Your left hand speaks from the heart. Even when you put one of those apparatuses in your ears and listen to the heart, you hear the same thing as the pulse tells you. Envy, for example, sounds like falling water, like irrigation," Vasquez said.

Herbs treat the symptoms but prayer addresses the cause. Vasquez keeps an altar in his house, with fresh flowers, incense, candles and decorated icons of San Martin--patron saint of the poor--and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Colored and white candles of varying lengths hang from the wall for use in his rites.

"This is God's food. The candle is like the soft drink I offer you. The incense is like bread and coffee. You have to know how to respect God. If you give enough food and gifts to God, you will get better," he said.

The herbs that Vasquez uses are wild, although recently, in cooperation with the Organization of Indigenous Doctors, he has planted an "orchard" of the flowers and bushes most frequently used in herbal medicine. He and other Indian doctors in the organization conduct classes for townsfolk on the preparation and uses of herbal medicine.

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