photo of Mexican man the sierra norte
Mexico glossary








health promoter/traditional doctor


Tiltepec, Oaxaca


13 September 1999



Elvira is from San Andrťs Yatuni in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, and she was interviewed during a consultation visit she was making to Tiltepec. ďBernaĒ, as we know him, took the opportunity to do the interview because he considered it extremely important to document this beneficial work in his community. (Note by Judith RodrŪguez of SERBO.)

Section 1
SeŮora Elvira, what types of illnesses can you cure?
Well, as a traditional doctor I can do cleansings to take away impurities causing illness, cure panic attacks or severe shock caused by fear or grief, severe stomach problems, bruises, headaches, stomach pain, also attacks of nerves, high blood pressure and fits or convulsions.

What plant do you use for shock?
For shock we use santa maria (Chrysanthemum parthenium; feverfew, used to relieve migraine, help prevent blood clots, as an anti-inflammatory for relief of arthritis, and as a digestive aid) among other plants, which we soften with alcohol [and put in our mouth] to blow over the patient that suffers from severe shock. We also give him or her some plants to drink, one of which is called river palm. There are other plants too, it depends on the type of shock: if itís [caused by] water, the river, [or] the road, or a snake or dog Ė well, depending on the shock the patient has, it applied like this, because there are many plants for shock.

How can you tell if someone is suffering from shock?
First we make a diagnosis with an egg cleansing (rubbing the body with an egg to remove impurities). With this we can identify the type of shock the patient has, or if he has shock or the ďevil eyeĒ (sickness caused by someone casting envious eyes on an individual or their family/property) or if he has mal de aire (a cold caused by sharp changes in temperature and/or breezes at night, when spirits are believed to be about). But we also make a diagnosis by looking at the egg glass (after the cleansing, the egg is broken into a glass of water; the healer interprets the illness according to the form the egg takes); we see what the person has. We do everything Ė because I work with nutrition and with traditional medicines. We are traditional doctors in Calpulalpan, we make a diagnosis and thatís how we find out the type of illness the patient has and then we give the treatment.

What other illnesses can you cure?
Attacks and nerves, high blood pressure too.
Section 2
Okay, so with the attacks, as a healer how do you know, how do you find out what the patient has and how they began?
Well, in fact thereís no diagnosis as the person is already suffering, heís already having attacks, heís still having the attacks, which were caused by a fright he had or because of the illness of the nerves. First the patient takes a purge and then the cure for shock. Afterwards the patient is given a daily treatment of plants. We use many plants Ė so the treatment lasts for a month and a half, during which time improvement is seen. So thatís how we cure it, if the patient has been ill for ten, eight years, the treatment lasts for three months, but if itís just been one or two years itís a month and a half of treatment but daily - the treatment must be taken daily. The plants that cure attacks and shock must be taken every day. The patient is also put on a diet: he mustnít drink Coke or Pepsi or eat pork and he mustnít get angry or scared again. The patient needs to be very careful as this disease takes a long time to treat, but it can be treated.

And do you know how to cure high blood pressure with plants?
Itís treated with zapote blanco (white-fleshed fruit of casimiroa edulis; the treeís leaves, bark and seeds contain a glucoside which can act as a sedative or analgesic), tila (flowers/fruit of tilia mexicana, used for infusions to calm the nervous system; alleviate indigestion and insomnia), passionflower (passiflora spp, plant with several therapeutic qualities, including sedative) and diente de leůn (dandelion, Taraxacum officinale). There are many plants for high blood pressure; these are some that we give daily for a while so that the high pressure improves.

How many days does it take to cure high pressure?
Itís quick: [patients] drink the tea, about two or three cups, and then one checks the blood pressure and itís dropping. The tea is only for when the pressure is high: the plants are strong and the pressure will drop. A diet is necessary too; if the patient is fat he shouldnít eat so much salt, sweet food, Coke, Pepsi or chocolate as they affect the nerves. So thatís how you can improve blood pressure.

Which of the more frequent illnesses can you treat?
In the communities the most common are childbirth, knocks, and headache. There are massages for headaches and sprains.

Do you also cure knocks and sprains with plants?
Yes, theyíre cured with plants. We make an ointment with medical plants to massage the sprain with; we have to prepare our own ointments.

So can you give the massage after youíve made the ointment?
On the feet, hand, whatever is injured, sprained.

How old were you when you began treating?
Well, Iíve been a traditional medicine healer for 36 years and a promoter for 16 years.

How was it that you began treating?
I learnt from my grandmother and began to treat when I became a mother. I had two daughters and I saw that it was necessary to treat them, to see what they had. So I began with my daughters and then the community, then I began to travel to other communities. Iíve treated people with the available plants. Iím known as a traditional healer or traditional doctor there.
Section 3
Where did your grandmother learn how to treat people?
She learnt from a woman, a grandmother who was from San Miguel AmatlŠn, who also learnt as a girl.

So then you began treating. Before you used plants did you use lopac [?] medicine?
The Lopac? No. In 1980 I was a rural community health assistant for the IMSS (Mexican Institute of Social Services). From there the way opened up - I got into an institution called the National Nutrition Institute (INN), Salvador ZubirŠn. After being an assistant I took on the position of health promoter with this institution. Then a training centre was opened for the training of community health promoters and I gained a lot more knowledge there. It was necessary for the community as it lacked someone who could cure and diagnose diseases and knew how to help. Well, with that in mind I committed myself to the work of being a medical promoter, healer, to broaden out. So then Iíd opened the way for myself; I put [all] my effort into it, I liked working as a promoter. From the training centre I gained more training and more knowledge and work in the traditional medicine centre. All this has enriched my work and knowledge, exchanging experiences and knowledge with colleges from other communities.

Who advised them when they began?
The National Nutrition Institute, Salvador ZubirŠn.

Were these women ready when they began or did more people come to teach them about all the medicine?
No, thereís just the exchange of experience: how weíve treated patients in our community, what plants we use and how, because this varies too. Someone may show us what plant she uses in her community but the ecology of other communities is different, so then it has to come from experience or plants from every community.

So is this how youíve been treating people, your family and others up till now?
Iím still working Ė well, it was a lot of work for me. Iím with an organisation of traditional doctors, OMISJO (Organisation of Traditional Doctors in Sierra JuŠrez (Sierra Norte)), in the Development Centre in Calpulalpan de Mťndez now. Iím continuing to work with traditional doctors, with different communities and with OMISJO.

How old were you when you began this work?
I was 18 years old when I started and now Iím 52 - since 1964, now itís 1999 and Iím still working.

Were you married when you began working or did you live alone?
I got married when I was 15 and was 18 when I began, so Iíd been married for three years when I began working.

How did you become interested in the work? Who told you there was a training organisation?
Well, as I mentioned before, it was necessary for me, for my family and for my
community. I was a mother then and I had to give help as a midwife for the children. Then the organisation OMISJO and that institution INI (National Indigenous Institute) that Iíd known about from 1984 until 1994, and thatís the history of my work that Iíve done with these institutes.
Section 4
Was there a healer before you began?
Yes, but what happened was that they werenít interested; we donít all have love for our work. They got fed up with it, they didnít make much effort; well, they didnít like it. There are healers now who are 70, 75, 80 years old and theyíre tired now. Thereís a shortage of traditional doctors in my community; thereís the others who trained in the programme with me and myself who are trying.

And do you have your own house where you live?
In my village? Yes, I have a house.

How big is your family?
Well thereís me and Iím alone with my husband because my children are married now, I have sons-in-law and grandchildren now.

How many daughters did you have?
I had five daughters. I have four son-in-laws and 11 grandchildren.

Are they all working?
They all have their own lives now; I donít get involved with their problems. They were working and have already made their homes.

And did you go to school?
Just primary, I didnít go to secondary. There wasnít even a sixth grade in my community. I finished primary school in Santiago Xiacu. Thatís how I got to finish primary school but I didnít manage to study more as my parents were poor, they didnít give me the chance to study more. People used to say you shouldnít send girls to school as they wouldnít end up with a cargo (unpaid community position), but it isnít like that now because you know that everybody, women and men, are equal now and can carry out whatever cargo. It wasnít like that before, unfortunately; we didnít have support to continue studying like there is now.

Did you ever have a cargo?
I have held a lot of cargos in my village. In my community thereís the Liga Feminil (Womenís League) and I had the cargo of president and secretario (community secretary), and then as promoter, I worked in my community for 16 years.

And you only did this or did you work in the country too?
I did both, a little farming and a little of my work, but I was mostly getting myself familiar with the plants. I spent most of my time with the plants and I donít work in the fields now, I just do this work.
Section 5
Where do you find the plants when you need them?
I collect them in my community, I dry them, I process them, and I make ointments, tinctures, cough syrup, soap for dandruff, for hair loss, for cleaning wounds, and we make many medicines.

Are the plants from the countryside or are they cultivated?
Theyíre wild, theyíre all from my community; we collect the ones that we know can cure. We use the natural resources we have in our community; allopathic medicine is expensive now. Well, what we have in the community is cheap and easy to find and it doesnít irritate the skin; we prefer traditional medicine. It isnít harmful if administered according to the illness, it doesnít cause injury, thereís no need to have caution; theyíre administered like allopathic medicine - the administration of allopathic medicine is also dangerous, the plants are the same. If we give the wrong plant it could be poisonous, itís the same with the allopathic medicine: each one has its own function.

So when you began, did people come to see you or did they send for you?
People came looking for me. In Calpulalpan we have a work rota: when itís our turn [we see patients]. Weíre in the Traditional Medicine Hospital in our community. The people come to our community to find us because weíre well known now; they know us through the Development Centre Hospital, through the Organisation, thatís how they track us down. We also have connections with other institutions, communities, and also our work puts us in touch with many colleagues in other communities Ė so like this we travel with our work.

So you are very well qualified in everything as well as midwifery?
I also train other promoters, I get sent for by other communities to train other promoters. Well thatís it, we have to spread what we learn, what weíve learnt in the Training Centre, like how it was done before we were in the Training Centre where they trained and developed us more. When we go to give a course for promoters in other communities we share everything weíve learnt, everything we know, so that this knowledge is spread to colleagues from communities that donít have the services that we have in my community.

So is that everything that you do, or do you have something else? After youíve seen to the medicine, what else can you do?
The work in the field, planting, and thereís my personal life.

Do you have a schedule for the work with the medicine? And after that do you have a schedule for work in the field?
No, we donít use a schedule because the sick donít follow time, they get ill suddenly
and we have to go to them. I never have a set pattern for working in the field Ė thatís for labourers. I only plan the work so that it gets done. People come looking for me with emergencies at all hours.

Do you go immediately when someone is having a baby?
Of course - itís an emergency.

For how many days do you visit the woman after sheís given birth?
About eight days. She has to have treatment with plants, her temazcal (steam bath using medicinal plants and herbs to stimulate recovery and milk secretion after childbirth), massages with ointments and steam baths so she makes a good recovery.
Section 6
How many times does she take a temazcal after giving birth?
Twice, and sheís given three massages.

Good, well, letís finish now, thank you for explaining everything. For me itís interesting to know what you do.
Yes, my friend. We, the traditional medicine promoters shouldnít be egotistical. If you need some help or information that we may have through our experience of treating the sick, well, go ahead and ask. Weíre here to help you improve your community so one day you wonít even need medicine. Promotion of hygiene is very important too, we encourage hygiene, toilets and everything to change the way of life - even as far as people buying preventative medicine so that they donít get sick. Itís very good to help with oneís experience, to help and train.

Well, thank you very much, I will contact you when itís necessary, weíll work together in the community. Thank you.