A new doula-longtime La Leche League friend of mine and I had this wild idea to go visit a curandera down in Mexico… a healer… some would call a curandera a witch. Use whatever form of wise woman you choose.
My friend (I will call her Julie) was driving her smallish, good gas mileage car and we drove around San Diego devising our plan before finally turning south… you know, since Mexico is south of California, right?
We two white girls had zero clue about curanderas or Mexican culture. What we knew were from bad movies that (now I know) mocked Indigenous People all over the continent. When we stopped at the small gas station god knows where, we bought a couple of nectarines and a couple of plums, microwave popcorn (3 bags) and, of course, unfiltered cigarettes. Healers want tobacco, don’t they? Sitting here with this trip so far in the past, I am ashamed of my stupidity, but am trying to offer myself grace for wanting to do the right thing.
And so Julie and I headed south, not having one idea where to go or how to find a curandera, but we just trusted we would find one.
What we did figure out before crossing the border was the question we wanted answered: Were we going to be midwives?
90 minutes later, we were sure we’d crossed into Mexico… no border crossing, no Border Patrol and certainly no fence gave us the exact moment we moved from in the United States into Mexico, but surely we were there by then, right? We were on an asphalt road in a pretty flat area of desert that looked much like the desert in San Diego, but the little bubble compass said we had been heading south for that hour and a half.
Driving into nowhere, we verbally asked the Universe for directions to a curandera. I’m trying to remember if I really thought that would work or not, but I do know we did it.
After not much longer, though, we saw some houses on the horizon and headed towards them… now on a dirt road. A really bumpy dirt road that had us both bouncing around the car, hitting our heads on the roof and everything. But we were giddy with excitement (and nervousness) that we might find who we were looking for.
Asking for Directions
We eventually made it to the neighborhood we’d seen on the horizon. There couldn’t have been more than 75 or a hundred houses in the small area we were in and a lot of people were outside, some working on cars, women talking, kids playing.
The houses looked kind of like this… there was a paved road with dirt roads every few blocks.
In my broken Spanish, I asked, “¿Dónde está la curandera?” The men were the ones who came down to the car to talk and every time I asked, they would point the way… pointing down the street. We would drive down the block, then ask again at the corner and someone else would point in the direction to go. When it was time to turn down a street, someone pointed the way. Not one person seemed to think what we were doing was odd or absurd. They all but nodded and showed us the way. We followed the directions until someone said, “Esa casa.” That one.
We parked a couple of houses away and gathered the plums, nectarines, tobacco and microwave popcorn and walked to the small house that looked kind of like this, without the fence.
We stood at the door and I was going to knock when a very old woman who was only up to my shoulders in height (and I am 5’2″!) opened the door and stepped back asking us in.
How she knew we were there is beyond me. We were silent walking up and it seemed unlikely that someone called to give her a head’s up. We saw no electric lights and the house was silent except for our breathing. There were two rooms… the kitchen/dining room and the living room. Both were 3 steps wide and about 4 steps long. The walls were covered with Catholic iconography. Take this next picture and put it on every wall, floor to ceiling and on the altar in the living room; that is what it looked like.
There were also candles burning everywhere including several to the Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary).
How Did She Know?
The curandera knew exactly why were there without our saying one word. She said the word “midwife” in Spanish (partera) which we both recognized and looked at each other, waggling our eyebrows as a gesture to say “How the holy hell does she KNOW?!?”
The curandera was magical. She was so tiny and wrinkled, but stood the whole time, giving us her 2 chairs at the table. She talked to us, recited many prayers and we were entreated to cross ourselves which I did even though I was studying Judaism. It seemed the right thing to do at the moment. We were asking… she was answering. She deserved our respect.
She pointed at me several times and I got the gist that she was saying I was already on my way to being a midwife. I was much closer than Julie was, that was true. I had worked through a lot of my fears, but it would still be many more years before I was able to BE a midwife and not freak out worrying about someone dying in my care.
After talking to me for a few minutes, she turned to Julie and made tsk tsk noises and tapped her forehead several times. She reached for a jar that had pink liquid in it… set right on the kitchen counter… and I could catch every few words of Spanish. She was telling Julie she could see how scared she was about being a midwife and she needed to stop being afraid.
She handed her the wide-mouthed jar 3/4 full of the pink potion and gestured for her to take a drink. Without questioning, Julie took a swig. Her face contorted from its vileness and she handed the jar back to the old woman who put the lid on and gave it to Julie again who was near tears from how disgusting it was. She said it tasted like brake fluid.
The curandera told her to keep the jar and any time she was afraid, she was to take a drink. Julie looked at me and said she would never be afraid again. Voila! The magic trip worked! We laughed about her calling it brake fluid because it was, in many ways a “brake” on her fear.
After Julie’s encounter with the brake fluid, we offered the fruits and tobacco to the sweet woman. We’d set the microwave popcorn aside thinking 1) she didn’t have electricity 2) she didn’t have a microwave 3) she didn’t have teeth, but the curandera pointed to it and we gave her the 3 bags. She did not want the tobacco and I could all but hear in her head, “What idiots!”
The curandera walked towards the door, letting us know our time was up and we hugged and kissed her on both cheeks as she bid us a lovely farewell prayer in Spanish. I swear we were high as we floated back to the car.
I asked Julie if she was okay to drive after the potion she’d drunk and she said she was, just really buzzy, which was the perfect description of how I felt.
While the trip there was over flat land, we somehow found a mountain going North to the States again. The mountain was a dirt road for much of it, but it became asphalt when we got inside the U.S. (That was my guess anyway.)
It looked a lot like the picture above. We drove slowly because we were never sure who was around the next bend and we would have to squeeze the car against the mountain so the people could pass in their cars. I was never so thankful to be in a tiny car.
Being in the passenger seat, I could look over the side and more times than not, when I dared peek over, there were buses and cars and carts down the mountain, clearly having fallen some time in the past. I told Julie if we fell over, no one would ever know where we were. We had not told anyone where we were going. There was no such thing as cell phones back then. We didn’t even have GPS to find our way… just the little bulb compass attached to the windshield.
Nervously, I laughed and Julie did, too. A wind picked our car up and dropped it down hard. We did not laugh again.
We headed north until we were clearly on a road leading to a highway and finally found ourselves on I-8 between Yuma, Arizona and El Centro, California… about 2 hours east of San Diego. Once again, there was no border crossing, no Border Patrol (we never saw Border Patrol on our journey) and no fence. We were not even certain when we passed back into the United States, but once on I-8, we knew how to get home.
As we know, I became a midwife. My friend Julie is a nurse and I am sure she is a magnificent nurse who deals with fear in every way she can. I know she still has that jar of brake fluid on her altar.