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COVER STORY : Faith in Folk Remedies : Many Immigrants Trust Their Well-Being to Spiritual Healers

July 28, 1994|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Sophal Kong's children burn with fever, he visits the Buddhist temple near his Long Beach apartment. There, he offers a meal to his Cambodian ancestors, whose spirits, he believes, can shield his family from sickness and misfortune.

A few miles to the north, in Huntington Park, a distraught woman named Maria has just returned from the curandera-- or faith healer--where she hoped to learn why her husband cheats on her. The answer: An evil mistress who dabbles in black magic has cast spells on the couple.

Like Sophal Kong and Maria, thousands of Asian and Latino immigrants across Southeast Los Angeles County seek folk remedies for their maladies--from indigestion to lost love to AIDS. The faithful flock to botanicas and temples where air is sweet with incense and candles flicker atop altars devoted to Jesus or Buddha.

Although they arrived here from different parts of the globe, the newcomers share an unshakable faith in mystical worlds inhabited by spirits who, they believe, can wreak calamity, cause illness or bestow good fortune.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 4, 1994 Home Edition Long Beach Part J Page 4 Zones Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Folk remedies--Due to an editing error, the Botanica Indio de Oro in Bell was identified incorrectly in a July 28 story in the Long Beach/Southeast editions of The Times.

Those accustomed to Western medicine might frown on fortunetelling, herbal elixirs and blessings to cleanse the soul. Health officials, meanwhile, warn that some traditional medicines can even kill. But to people reared in other cultures, the cure-alls are often more trusted than any X-ray or antibiotic.

"I have complete trust that the curandera is telling the truth," said Maria, 38, who did not want her last name used. Her $10 visit to the faith healer revealed that a back injury, frequent headaches and fainting episodes have all been caused by the mistress' spell.

Many like Maria, who cannot speak English or afford frequent visits to the doctor, find an alternative source of care in trusted elders known for their home-grown herbs and celestial ties. People unaccustomed to fortress-like hospitals find comfort among these word-of-mouth shamans who can speak their language and fathom their demons.

"Some disease cannot be treated by Western medicine," said Chhor Sok Lorn, 55, of Long Beach, who nurses her arthritis with a sour potion of white wine, ground porcupine jawbones and dried roots--a mixture prepared by her uncle, a Kru Khmer or traditional Cambodian healer.

"When you go to the Kru Khmer , you get well forever," Lorn said. "You will be cured."

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Such homespun sentiments--and practices--reach into the lives of illiterate and educated alike.

Counselors at the Southeast Asian Health Project in Long Beach, who teach prenatal care to expectant mothers in the city's poorest neighborhoods, still "coin" themselves in the privacy of their offices--rubbing balms and coins on their bodies in a ritual that bruises the skin but is said to relieve minor irritations such as muscle aches.

A member of the Lynwood school district's PTA ties raw potato slices to her children's necks overnight to reduce swelling from sore throats, a remedy she learned from her mother in a small town near Guadalajara, Mexico.

The vice president of the Long Beach Recreation Commission boils ginger root in a tea said to relieve headaches--a simple remedy handed down through four generations of her family in Puerto Rico.

"My mother was a registered nurse, and yet every time I got sick, she pulled out the herbs," Gladys Gutierrez, the commissioner, recalled. "I don't know if it was the magic of her hands or the brew she was fixing, but I always felt better. Now I would rather take a tea than a pill."

Health educators predict that the traditional medical practices will continue to play an important role throughout Southeast Los Angeles because of the area's large immigrant population.

Cities such as Compton and Lynwood, once predominantly African American, are now home to thousands of Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America.

Long Beach, which is nearly a quarter Latino, also has several thousand Laotian and Vietnamese residents, and a Cambodian community that has grown from a few hundred people two decades ago to an estimated 45,000 today, the largest concentration outside Cambodia.

Most of the newcomers once lived in rural villages where doctors were scarce. In America, many of the first-generation residents live in tightly knit enclaves, often isolated culturally from the English-speaking world around them.

They shop at corner groceries that carry familiar spices and ointments. They pray at churches or temples just steps from their front doors. And they cling to Old World beliefs, among them the view that hospitals are places where the sick go to die, according to doctors and health educators in both communities.

"Hospitals are very cold, very impersonal--a foreign establishment to individuals who didn't grow up with this kind of system," said Abel Martinez, health education coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "They carry a negative connotation--a lot of pain, grief and torment."

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