Latino Folk Medicine: Healing Herbal Remedies from an Ancient Tradition


In Latino Folk Medicine, journalist Anthony DeStefano explores for the fist time the healing power of Latino folk cures. Fro m 21st century botanicas in New York City to the lush, airy plant markets of Central America, he takes us on a journey of history, spirit, and healing. More than sixty botanical substances, from the familiar (anise) to the exotic (Dragon's Blood) are ...
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In Latino Folk Medicine, journalist Anthony DeStefano explores for the fist time the healing power of Latino folk cures. Fro m 21st century botanicas in New York City to the lush, airy plant markets of Central America, he takes us on a journey of history, spirit, and healing. More than sixty botanical substances, from the familiar (anise) to the exotic (Dragon's Blood) are introduced, with the common ailments they treat, including:
  • each plant's traditional and historic used
  • scientific and common names
  • forms in which the plants are available
  • medicinal properties and contraindications
Just as books on Chinese medicine brought time-tested alternative remedies to the West, Latino Folk Medicine introduces North America to a centuries-old tradition of natural healing.

About the Author:
Anthony DeStefano is a reporter for New York Newsday where eh covers the changing face of New York through immigration. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal. De Sefano was part of the Newsday team of reporters who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. He is a graduate of Ithaca College, Michigan State University, and New York Law School.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter DeStefano (New York Newsday) offers information on approximately 60 of the most widely used medicinal plants in Mexico and Central and South America and among North American Hispanic populations. The author provides a brief historical background and cultural/spiritual context but focuses on descriptions of the plants, including uses, dosages, precautions, and research findings. Many of these plants are native to Latin America, but others, such as anise, eucalyptus, peppermint, and ginger, were introduced to the Americas. Much of the information seems drawn from publications widely in use, such as Mark Blumenthal's The Complete German Commission E Monographs (American Botanical Council, 1998). Although DeStefano interviewed curanderas and other healers, as well as physicians, it is disappointing that the book was not co-written with a specialist. Complementing the many resources describing traditional Asian herbal remedies, this book fills a niche and is guardedly recommended here, but one should also consider Abel Delgado's Los Mejores Remedios Caseros ("The Best Home Remedies," Rodale Pr., 1998).--Andy Wickens, King Cty. Lib. Syst., Seattle Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345438362
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/30/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 202
  • Product dimensions: 5.47 (w) x 8.27 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Read an Excerpt


The Spirit and the Medicine

Under the gaze of the ceramic saints on the shelves and the smiling Buddha
by the door, a dark-haired, heavyset Dominican woman paced back and forth
in the store. Looking out onto Broadway in upper Manhattan, she was
clearly anxious; her animated eyes betrayed her inner turmoil.

The woman, named Lisa, spoke softly in Spanish to no one in particular as
the store's proprietor, a quiet, bespectacled man named Antonio Mora,
chatted with a visitor. Mora's establishment is known in Spanish as a
botanica, a place where people can buy a variety of medicinal herbs,
perfumed waters and oils, incense, and other items endowed with religious
significance. Customers can also, for a small fee, talk with Lisa in a
private consulta, a heart-to-heart talk that delves into the magical and
the spiritual. An errant child, a marriage problem, depression,
anxiety--Lisa is able to talk about all of it with visitors to the shop.

But on this particular day she was preoccupied with something more
immediate. A man had appeared earlier outside the Botanica Santa Barbara
and uttered some words to a large statue of Saint Barbara, the store's
namesake, which was the centerpiece of the window display. No one heard
what the man said, but Lisa figured it had to be nothing good. For he was
reputed to be a santero, a practitioner of a Cuban-African religion that
has many followers in New York City's Hispanic community, and when he had
last been in the store he had not left on very good terms, at least
according to Mora.

"He stopped outside and talked to Santa Barbara," Morasaid, gesturing
toward the large porcelain religious statue in his store's window. "She
saw him," Mora went on, referring to Lisa. "The spirits told her

The spirits had apparently told Lisa something about the negative forces
the man had tried to use, and she knew she had to act fast. She gathered
up a glass bowl and some items from behind the counter and disappeared
into the back room of the store, the place where she plies her own trade.
Mora, a soft-spoken man who had emigrated from Cuba three decades earlier,
seemed to have a slightly bemused smile as he watched Lisa go through her
paces. When she went to the back of the store, Mora turned to talk with a
visitor by a display counter stocked with piles of herbs and plants.

Mora's botanica is well known in New York City. Located near the George
Washington Bridge, it is right in the heart of New York's thriving
Dominican community. Fed by a steady stream of immigration, the area now
has the largest concentration of Dominicans outside their homeland. The
rush to open businesses catering to this immigrant culture has been so
steady that there is hardly a vacant storefront along Broadway and the
side streets. The neighborhood resembles other Latino ethnic enclaves in
East Harlem, Los Angeles, and Miami. Stores that once catered to an older
German community around World War II have been replaced by restaurants,
boutiques, butcher shops, electronics stores, and Chinese restaurants, all
sporting signs in Spanish. Remittance and telephone stores cater to a
steady clientele who wire money back to the Dominican Republic, the
economy of which is partly sustained by the flow of cash sent from
immigrants living in New York.

Botanica Santa Barbara's niche is a special one for the city's Hispanic
community and is symbolic of both the widespread use of medicinal plants
and, as Lisa's presence reminds us, the reliance on spiritual elements and
religion for health care among Latinos. No one knows for certain how many
botanicas exist in New York, but where Hispanic populations settle, the
botanica will soon follow. If none exists to serve the community,
enterprising men and women will start selling medicinal plants and
religious items from their apartments. If business improves, they may
expand their operations to storefronts.

Each botanica is unique, but most stock the same things: magical perfumed
air sprays, oils, votive candles, and religious figurines that relate to
Roman Catholicism, Santeria, and even Buddhism. There are commonplace
medicines, such as Vicks, and more specialized ones known only to
Hispanics, such as siete jarabes, or seven syrups, a blend of extracts
from seven plants, including wild cherry and castor (used in Latin
cultures as an expectorant for the treatment of asthma). Medicinal plants
are also in abundance, perfuming the air with the smell of mint,
chamomile, and many other types of vegetation.

Mora stores his medicinal herbs and plants in a refrigerated display case,
which he believes keeps the products fresh. In other shops the herbs are
kept out in the open, often in a helter-skelter array of boxes and crates.
There is
a steady turnover, said Mora. For no matter what other health care
Hispanics may use, experts estimate that about half rely on folk
medicines, a figure that remains constant even when education or
employment status is taken into account.

It is not just Hispanics, Mora insisted, who come to the botanica. There
is a substantial flow of traffic from other ethnic groups such as
African-Americans and Asians.

"A lot of white people, a lot of people who spend money, come in here," he
said, adding that he even attracts customers who work at the nearby
Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the largest hospital in the
metropolitan area.

Having emigrated from Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro came to power, Mora
landed in New York after a brief stay in Miami and began his career as a
waiter, working in some of the big hotels. A couple of days a week Mora
attends to the affairs of Botanica Santa Barbara, in which he took a part
ownership after some friends approached him with the business proposition.

Mora does not pretend to know the science behind the medicinal plants. But
he does know what sells and why people continue to buy. Waving his hand in
front of the display case, Mora pointed out insulina, a plant that, as the
name suggests, is used because it is believed to control diabetes, a
disease that is particularly prevalent among Hispanics, according to
federal government health studies. Ruda, known by the English name rue, is
also a big seller and has been used in Latin America as everything from an
abortifacient to a treatment for cancer and headaches, even though some
experts say it can cause severe stomach pain, vomiting, and even death if
taken internally. Also evident are herbs such as roma sarquey, used in
Santeria to clean up evil, Mora said.

As Mora was talking about the plants, Lisa emerged from the back room of
the botanica holding a glass bowl of water colored blue with a dye that
came in a small paper-wrapped cube. Floating in the liquid were clumps of
camphor, a substance distilled from the wood of a tree and normally used
as a liniment. But camphor is also known to be a disinfectant; combined
with some ammonia Lisa had added,
the water had an unusual potency against germs and, she hoped, against the
evil that threatened the shop.

Walking to the front of the store, Lisa stopped by the door and with a
paper cup began splashing the blue water onto the floor and throw rug that
lay in front of the medicinal plants. Going behind the glass-topped
counter, she splashed some more, making sure to cover the spots hidden
near Mora's desk. When she was done, Lisa cleaned up the floor with a
cloth mop, using long, languid strokes. She said nothing and returned to
the rear of the botanica. Any prayers she may have spoken were internal
ones, known only to her and the powers she addressed.

Lisa soon came back out again, carrying a coconut in a silver chalice.
Asking Mora for a jar of palm oil, she then smeared some of the oil
lengthwise along the coconut. Lighting a black candle and sticking it atop
the oil-streaked coconut, Lisa walked the concoction over to the door and
placed it on the floor next to a gilded porcelain statue of a smiling
Buddha. She then went to the back of the shop again.

"It is to protect this place," Mora said about the ritual Lisa was

Many botanicas have people like Lisa affiliated with them, emblematic of
the inseparable link that traditional medicine in the Hispanic community
has with spiritual and religious components. Sickness is very often
perceived to be not solely a question of microbes and biochemical causes
but inextricably intertwined with the spiritual elements of a person's
life and those who take on the job of performing the healing. This is
particularly true in the Puerto Rican community, which has deep historical
ties to espiritismo. According to one survey of Puerto Rican households in
New York, 53 percent of the families had at least one person who believed
in espiritismo.

"Spiritism is the more traditional healing practice among Puerto Ricans,"
says Vivian Garrison, who did a medical anthropological study in the South
Bronx in the late 1960s. "[But] in its present form and its literate
tradition it dates back only to the last half of the nineteenth century
and the writings of Alan Kardec."

An engineer and hypnotist, Kardec, known also by the pseudonym Hippolyte
de Rivail, wrote about and gave form to the belief in spirits that was
popular in Europe during the late nineteenth century. Some of the
adherents to spiritism and Kardec's teachings were Victor Hugo, Mark
and Napoleon III. In his Book of the Spirits, Kardec expounded upon a
detailed system of relationships among spirits and the living beings,
known as seres. It is a complex system of good, imperfect, and pure
spirits, with various levels within levels. But the essential elements,
according to Garrison, are protecciones, Catholic saints or Santeria
deities, and mediunidades, or mediums, who are able to communicate with
helpful or good spirits. It is in the latter category that Lisa from the
Botanica Santa Barbara seems to fit.

Spiritism seems more deeply entrenched in the Puerto Rican community than
in any other Hispanic group. Beginning in the 1950s, Puerto Ricans set up
a number of spiritual centers, known as centros spirituales or "white
tables" because of a table covered by a white cloth at which twelve men
known as "apostles" sat.

"Each apostle received a spirit for a case," remembers Jorge Vargas, a
botanica owner in East Harlem, "and people came for healing. Each
[apostle] would prescribe something, prayers, blessings, washing with
herbs," as well as a decoction or bath with some kind of herbal remedy.
The aim, according to Vargas, was to cure both psychological and physical
ailments, which were often linked.

Vargas believes the spiritual centers helped a lot of Puerto Ricans in
their time. Over the years they disappeared because they usually charged
nothing for their services, he said. It remained then for individuals like
Lisa, often working out of botanicas, to fill the need and work the
spiritual cures that the community still pursues. While the ritual of the
white table may be gone, the spiritual nature of many Hispanic healing
practices remains evident.

There are two main ideas that need to be comprehended in order to
understand the spiritual aspect of Hispanic folk medicine. According to a
study of folk medicine in Puerto Rican communities done by Dr. Lee M.
Pachter and others and published in the Archives of Pediatric and
Adolescent Medicine, a traditional belief in Hispanic culture is that
emotions can cause physical illness. For instance, it is thought that
asthma, a common childhood malady, can be controlled by keeping the child
calm, Pachter said. Maintaining balance, he stressed, is a key part of the
Puerto Rican ethnomedical belief system. Espiritismo also holds that
illness can be caused by disharmony or bad forces in a person's social

To treat illnesses, adherents of espiritismo not only will talk with
mediums but will also bathe in water infused with medicinal plants, pray
to various saints, or burn any one of a number of tall prayer candles that
Mora and other botanica owners sell in great numbers. A number of
illnesses, including some problems believed to be caused by spiritual or
psychological disturbances, are tended to with herbal and plant remedies.
A condition known as susto, or fright, which occurs following a
frightening event, has as its symptoms anxiety and insomnia. It is often
treated by Hispanic folk healers with the ritual passing of an egg over
the patient, followed by the drinking of mint or herbal tea, which,
particularly if chamomile is used, can have a calming and sedative effect.
According to one study of Mexican folk remedies done at the Texas Tech
University Health Sciences Center, colic, known as colico among Hispanics,
is also treated by mint and chamomile, as is empacho, the folk medicine
term for a blocked intestine.

In his store, Mora sells plenty of chamomile and mint, both fresh and
dried. But customers of Botanica Santa
Barbara are also attracted to items that have no known
biological effect on a person but are important elements
of another part of the Hispanic ethnomedical system--

Santeria (also known in Cuba as lucumi) is an amalgam of the Yoruba
religion of West Africa and Roman Catholicism. It appeared in Cuba during
the seventeenth century after slaves from Africa were brought to the
island to cultivate and harvest sugarcane and other crops grown by Spanish
settlers. In contrast to Catholicism, Santeria is polytheistic. A number
of deities, known as orishas, were originally worshiped in Africa, but
over time, as missionaries brought Catholicism to Africa and the
Caribbean, they became the rough equivalent of Catholic saints in Santeria

"Santeria is a curious mixture of the magic rites of the Yorubas and the
traditions of the Catholic Church," says anthropologist Migene
Gonzalez-Wippler in her book Santeria: African Magic in Latin America, one
of the key works on the subject, written after her experiences with its
adherents in New York. "All the legends and the historical arguments that
surround the lives of Jesus, Mary, and the Catholic saints are of great
importance to the santero."

But Santeria is also mostly primitive magic, Gonzalez-Wippler adds. "Its
roots are deeply buried in the heart of Africa."

The accoutrements of Santeria are very much in evidence at Mora's
botanica, as they are in other botanicas around the city. For a start, the
beautifully crafted statue of Saint Barbara in the store window, though
representative of the pantheon of Catholic saints, is also symbolic of the
Santeria orisha known as Chango, the deity believed to have power over
lightning and fire. That symbolic connection appears to stem from the
legend that at the moment she was killed, Saint Barbara's executioner was
struck down by a bolt of lightning. By the herbal display case hang
colored beaded necklaces, known as collares, which are used in the early
part of the process of initiation of a person to the rank of santero. Made
under elaborate ceremonial rules, the necklaces have the effect of lending
a person powers needed for protection until he or she develops the right
relationship with the deities, according to Garrison.

Hanging from other shelves in Botanica Santa Barbara are strings of
seashells. While at first glance they might look like tourist souvenirs,
the shells, known as caracoles, are said to be highly prized items for the
santero. Known as a diloggun when they are strung together, the shells are
used as ways of talking with the saints. The shells are thrown or allowed
to fall onto a table or other surface, and their arrangement indicates a
message that is read by a santero.

To become a santero requires going through a number of rituals and
ceremonies, with final initiation by a babalawo (godfather) or santera
(godmother), according to Gonzalez-Wippler. Once a person is made a
santero, he or she is
invested with the power to give consultations in the community, a status
that holds a great deal of power and prestige. People who are sick,
gamblers in desperate straits, lovers who have been jilted, wives and
husbands who suspect their spouses are having affairs, people seeking
success in careers, or those facing some ill-defined anxiety--all consult
the santero to solve their problems. People can invest hundreds and even
thousands of dollars in items used to cast spells. If the spells seem to
work, the practitioner can grow wealthy.

"Highly successful santeros become rich very rapidly," said
Gonzalez-Wippler. "They own real estate and profitable businesses, and
have staggering bank accounts."

Magic is an element intrinsic to Santeria, and because the belief system
views nature as the source of power, something natural seems to be needed
for the spells to work. "The most basic spell in Santeria will require a
plant, an herb, a stone, a flower, a fruit, or an animal," says
Gonzalez-Wippler. It is with those elements that any santero, she writes,
is believed to be able to cure a "simple headache or a malignant tumor."
While there is no way to test such a claim, it does appear that Santeria
relies on a number of medicinal plants that, when used together in a
ritual inititation drink known as the omiero, may be viewed as an elixir.
Gonzalez-Wippler lists twenty-one herbs she was told are used in the
sacred drink. Four of them, as noted elsewhere in this book, are used
widely in Hispanic cultures as medicinal plants: basil, sarsaparilla,
mint, and aniseed. Other plants used in the mix, such as lettuce,
watercress, river fern, and vervain, are consumed as food. True, the
omiero is not used in Santeria as a medicine. But for the Hispanic
cultures that value magical and spiritual powers, the use of the medicinal
herbs in the rituals appears to reinforce and validate the traditional
uses of such plants for health care practices, even if it is done outside
the bounds of Santeria.

At one time, health officials expressed concern about the availability in
botanicas of mercury under the name azogue, a substance imbued with
significance in espiritismo, Santeria, and voodoo. A person would carry a
small amount of it in a leather pouch or sprinkle it at home or in an
automobile for good luck or to ward off evil spirits and bad energy.
Sometimes it was burned or used in baths. The problem is that mercury can
harm the nervous system, particularly in children and developing fetuses.
The sale of azogue was once commonplace; a study done by Drs. Luis Zayas
and Philip O. Ozuah and published in the American Journal
of Health found that nearly 93 percent of the New York botanicas polled in
1995 sold mercury. But a public education campaign by health officials
appeared to have stemmed its sale in botanicas, according to one city

Somewhere in between the world of espiritismo and Santeria is the role of
the curandero, the lay curer in Hispanic communities who tries to heal a
person's soul and body together in the practice known as curanderismo.
Like Santeria, curanderismo has African roots. Some of the spiritual
beliefs and medical practices of black slaves brought to Mexico found
their way into this form of Hispanic folk medicine, according to Elena
Avila. The Spanish influence, Avila says, came with the belief that the
responsibility for sickness was intertwined with curses, magic, and sin.

"In general, illness was considered an effect of a possession by evil
spirits, resulting from not following God's laws," Avila writes. In her
view, curanderismo evolved as a way for the indigenous cultures of Latin
America to heal their loss of soul, known as susto, that resulted from the
conquest of the Americas and the destruction of the local cultures.

In the Hispanic folk cultures, there is a standard list of diseases, both
physical and emotional, that are treated by curanderismo. Some experts
have likened the folk illnesses to the ancient Greek concept of imbalances
in the four humors. Hispanics believe that a disorder of hot and cold
principles causes the problems afflicting a patient. Under this belief
system, stomach problems can occur if cold food or drink is ingested
continually, causing contractions and spasms that can lead to indigestion,
diarrhea, and other gastric upsets. Diseases are characterized as either
"hot" or "cold," signifying an imbalance that has to be addressed by
remedies that restore the equilibrium in the body through the use of a hot
or cold therapy. For instance, a respiratory condition such as asthma may
be considered a "cold" illness that is best treated by keeping warm.

While the hot-and-cold principle of diseases helps
explain the logic and method of treatment used for some folk illnesses,
understanding the illnesses requires a brief look at their classic
descriptions. The physical ones are empacho, bilis, and mal aire, while
the mental or emotional
illnesses are mal ojo, mala suerte, and susto.

Empacho is defined as a blockage of the stomach or gastrointestinal tract
caused by overeating or by ingestion of the wrong kind of food or a
hard-to-digest food. This condition, which one survey found that 64
percent of Hispanics polled reported suffering from at some point, leads
to vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea. Bilis is rage, which Avila says is
thought to be caused by excessive secretion of bile brought about by a
person's chronic state of anger. Mal aire, which translates to "bad air,"
refers to exposure to night air that is believed to cause colds and
earaches, a belief that Avila says is based on an old Aztec concept that
there are particles in the air that can make a person sick.

The emotional illnesses in Hispanic cultures are often defined in terms of
transmission of energy between people, explanations that for some may
border on the magical. Mal ojo has been referred to as a belief that
illness in a child may result from a person with a "strong eye" merely
looking at a child. It can come from too much attention being paid to the
young one. Mala suerte is bad luck and is really an explanation of the
emotional state of a person suffering from low self-esteem and despair who
finds him- or herself in a spiral of misfortune. Susto can come from some
startling and traumatic event, which can cause insomnia, depression, and
anxiety. There are also conditions resulting from curses and ghosts.

To heal the body and soul, curanderos use a variety of methods, from
counseling to massage to herbal therapy. But when it is apparent that a
person's illness is beyond the ability of folk medicine, a good curandero
will refer the patient to a conventional medical practitioner. According
to Avila, a majority of curanderos use herbs in their work, as do other
ethnic healers. This is another way in which medicinal plants have become
an essential part of Hispanic folk medicine. The plants may be used by
curanderos as treatment for a specific illness or in one of a number of
cleansing rituals known as limpias.

Within the folk medical traditions of Hispanics, the lines of demarcation
between the various practices are never rigid. There is frequently a
crossover of rituals and practices. Curanderismo's principle of mending
the soul and the body as a unit, espiritismo's belief in a world of
spirits paralleling the material one, and the magical practices of
Santeria are all often closely intertwined. A curandero may practice
espiritismo, and a spiritist or medium may also practice Santeria. Some
curanderos are also reputed to dabble in black witchcraft or brujeria.
Whatever the practice, medicinal plants play an important role.

To be sure, each approach is different, but all incorporate concepts that
are beyond the bounds of the more "rational" Western medicine. It is the
reliance on the spiritual and the magical that is important for anyone
attempting to understand alternative medical practices or wanting to act
as a health care professional within an ethnic community. This does not
mean that there has to be a wholesale acceptance of the belief system
underlying the practices. But some medical experts believe a
doctor-patient relationship is better served by an atmosphere of trust and
understanding than by one in which a trusted folk remedy is seen as
bizarre or worthless. But while it may be important to understand and
tolerate the melding of the spiritual and the medical that goes on in the
Hispanic communities, it is also crucial to realize that sometimes the
traditional healing systems can be dangerous.

Just how dangerous reliance on traditional healing methods can be is
demonstrated by some cases that have made their way into the medical
journals. Two cases in particular involve the practices of particular
curanderos active among ethnic Mexicans; one instance took place in Texas
and another in Mexico. Both cases involved children, and in each incident
the child died.

In the Texas case, a twelve-year-old Mexican-American girl had been
feeling ill for several months, exhibiting nausea and lack of appetite.
Her grandmother was a noted
curandera in the city where the family lived, and not surprisingly the old
woman's advice was sought in an effort to help the child. The child, the
grandmother surmised, was suffering from empacho, a blocked
gastrointestinal tract, and cups of chamomile tea were prescribed, no
doubt with the strong expectation that the little girl would get better.

But the child did not improve and in fact remained sick for months. A
regular doctor diagnosed the condition as anemia and implored the family
to allow further laboratory work--a request that was denied. Lesions and
bruises appeared on the little girl's body, and her condition markedly
deteriorated. A priest gave the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church,
and an ambulance finally took the child to a hospital. It was there that
doctors discovered the girl was suffering from leukemia. She died within
five hours of being admitted.

The details of this case were first published by Wallace W. Marsh, M.D.,
and Mary Eberle, M.D., in an article in the February 1987 issue of the
journal Texas Medicine. According to Marsh and Eberle, the actions of the
family were dictated by a number of Hispanic cultural beliefs about health
and health care. For instance, there is the belief that a good doctor
would know the right diagnosis on the first visit. As a result, the
authors say, "the family was more likely to accept the curandera
grandmother's immediate diagnosis of empacho rather than the judgement of
the physician who had requested further tests." Blood drawing in
particular, according to Marsh and Eberle, is frowned on in the culture,
which also views hospitals as hostile places where a person goes only to

Another case illustrates how some folk healers may recklessly apply
traditional medicines, also with tragic results. Such was the case of
another Mexican child, one not quite three years old, who was treated by a
local curandera in Mexico, presumably for a gastrointestinal problem such
as worms or diarrhea. The healer administered oil of epazote (Chenopodium
graveolens), also known as wormseed. In Latin cultures, epazote is a
traditional remedy for intestinal parasites and intestinal gas, and
sometimes is used as a sedative. The plant oil known as ascaridol, which
is effective against intestinal parasites, is said to be the major
component of oil of epazote.

However, the dose administered by the curandera, according to a report of
the case published in a Mexican medical journal, amounted to 1,560
milligrams of ascaridol, twenty-six times higher than the recommended dose
for such a young child and well above the 1,000-milligram dose reported as
lethal for humans. The child went into a coma, suffered seizures and other
problems, and died. An autopsy revealed swelling of the brain,
pancreatitis, and other problems.

A review of medical literature has not shown further recurrence of
incidents like the Texas leukemia case or the epazote poisoning. That
would indicate that either the cases go unreported or the vast majority of
curanderos refer patients who appear to have serious physical illnesses to
professional medical personnel for further treatment, as Elena Avila has

In his shop on Broadway, surrounded by his herbs, incenses, magic sprays,
prayer candles, and Santeria artifacts, Antonio Mora personifies the
special commerce that has evolved in Hispanic communities to supply the
unique blend of spiritual and health practices that are so important to
the immigrant cultures. But it is Lisa, the woman who acted to protect the
store, who symbolizes the bridge
between the spirit world and that of the flesh. No one is certain about
the number of adherents to Santeria or how many people are curious about
the religion. But it is clear from a look around Mora's store that there
is interest at all levels of society. The musician Tito Puente used to
visit the botanica--Mora showed me photographs of one of Puente's visits to
the store the year before the famous bandleader died. And high up on a
shelf is a picture of Yankee pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

In her last act of protection against what she believed to be evil energy,
Lisa waved a maraca in the sign of the cross, first with slow rattles and
then faster, all the while backing up as she faced the inside of the
botanica door. Satisfied she need not do anything else, Lisa sat down and
fixed me in her gaze. Through Mora she explained that at the age of
thirteen in the Dominican Republic she started working as a medium.

"She was born with this," Mora said about her gift.

Lisa was sitting back in her chair, looking serene and content, a knowing
smile on her face as she glanced out onto Broadway.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2001

    Great herbal reference book with a little history lesson

    Anthony DeStefano read my mind. His book ¿Latino Folk Medicine: Healing Herbal Remedies from Ancient Traditions,¿ is great. This book of Latino folk remedies is just what I wanted. The first half of the book talks about the history of these wonderful home remedies, their traditions and uses. The second half lists a healthy amount of herbs, their most common names, and what they treat. Mr. Destefano really looked into my culture to find the best and most common remedies, I can now make the herbal teas and natural herbal medicines my grandmother made when I was a child. If you prefer the natural way of curing illnesses then this is the book for you¿

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