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Curanderas Employ Herbs, Mysticism in Healing Rituals


ARLETA — A single-family home in the heart of a Latino neighborhood here is a haven for those who believe.

They are there to see Mina, a slightly built woman with a head of uncontrollable brown hair and wild eyes, who they believe can cure physical ailments, help the lovelorn and bring fortune to lost souls--all in her converted washroom.

It is there that she has used her powers as a curandera for the past 10 years, calling on spirits and employing a combination of herbs, mysticism and religion to heal clients.

Mina, who asked that her real name not be used, claims that she can cure an infant's stomachache with a massage or rid a man of mal fluido, or a bad aura, with a "spiritual cleansing." Prayers and a candle ritual even brought a woman's wayward husband back, she says.

Recently, the age-old practice has come under fire after a Reseda woman practicing medicine out of her home allegedly gave a lethal injection to a 22-year-old man who complained of a cold. Neighbors called Refugio Sandoval a curandera, but authorities on the subject say it does not involve Western medicine.

"Curanderas primarily use herbs and medicinal plants. They don't engage in giving injections," said Juana Mora, chairwoman of Cal State Northridge's Chicano Studies Department.

Mora said Sandoval, who authorities believe fled to Mexico to escape manslaughter charges, was simply practicing medicine from her home. "She is typical of men or women in the community that have had a little bit of medical training in Mexico and come here and use it," Mora said. "It is a dangerous practice, and is becoming more of one on this side of the border."

Mora had never met Mina but, when she heard a description of her activities, said Mina seemed to be a classic example of a traditional curandera.

Mina's largely Latino clientele come to her in search of solace. They enter her tiny living room, passing under a good luck charm dangling from the doorway on a blue ribbon--an upside down horseshoe with a ceramic eyeball. They come to find answers to their problems or herbal remedies for ills. Some want to become rich or find a lover. Some want to become pregnant or cure their arthritis.

On a recent afternoon, the blaring of a Spanish-language soap opera drowned out the sirens of police cars on the busy street outside. Clients patiently waited on couches in the living room for their consultation with the curandera.

Mina entered in a simple cotton smock and lead her next client into the washroom.

"Come and sit," she said soothingly in Spanish, and with that the $15 session begins.

Her altar, central to her craft, rests on the hinges of a pull-down ironing board. She lit a candle in celebration of Hermano Simon, or Brother Simon, a Guatemalan spirit that, she says, gives her power. Other offerings--a cigar for pleasure, bread for nutrition--had been placed on the altar to honor him. A glass filled with water symbolized the spirit's presence. Her clients have thrown change in a bowl to show their appreciation for Brother Simon's power.

She laid her thick, brown hands on a small table and asked the client to cut the stack of Tarot cards next to her. She laid all the cards face up. Reading them with a pensive face she began to ask questions about her client's life.

After a brief consultation, she sternly advised the woman to return for a limpia, or spiritual cleansing.

"It will give you good luck and wash all impurities from you," she advised. "Bring all white clothes and afterward don't bathe yourself for the rest of the day."

Mina performed a cleansing on her next client. After asking him to take off his shirt, she rubbed an uncracked egg over his body, beginning at the top of his head. As she worked down his back, suddenly it broke, and panic crossed her deep brown eyes.

"This isn't good," she said. "Is there something going on in your life?"

He told her his situation and she started the limpia again, concentrating harder and reciting a prayer in Spanish. Next, she rubbed him with a lemon, cutting its sides first to allow the juice to seep out. This, she said, will make bad thoughts and feelings leave his body. Next, she poured white wine over a eucalyptus branch and brushed his body with it.

She ended the limpia by placing the branch over his head saying, "At this moment he is watching over you. Brother Simon, open up his path and rid him of all enemies."

Then, leading him into the living room, Mina told the man, "Your body is like a car, and I just gave it a tuneup."

Born in the Mexican state of Colima, Mina said that, as a child, she was surrounded by healers at home, and the craft came to her instinctively.

"My grandfather was a curandero. My mother practiced healing and was a midwife," Mina said. "I started when I was a little girl, first giving out remedies and then performing sober. "

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