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The Origin of Mexican Folk Medicine
by Annette Sandoval

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Despacio se va lejos.
Slowly one goes far away.

Mexican folk medicine is a healing philosophy with several disparate pasts. Two significant influences are the seemingly incompatible races of the American Indian and the Spanish conquistadors. The fusion of these two cultures has created the unique healing philosophy of the Mexican people.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, Meso-America (the area of central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras) had been agricultural for over three thousand years. A connection between nature, religion, and health was slowly established. The Aztecs referred to this delicate balance as a "harmony" between themselves and nature. Disease, it was believed, was caused by the gods to punish sinners. Tilting one's balance would cause serious illness or death. Similarly, the Spaniards believed that health was "God's will," and could be taken away as rectification.

In the fifteenth century, the Huaxtepec garden was developed by Moctezuma I. It housed a collection of several thousand medicinal plants. Academic priests conducted research with plant derivatives for their pharmacological benefits. About this same time, Spain was leading in European medical advancement. Its superiority in medicine had been due, in part, to the knowledge acquired while under Arabic rule.

In the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadors first set foot in the New World. The ancient codices of the Aztec priests were considered blasphemous by Catholic priests, prompting Hernan Cortes to order all works on botany and science to be destroyed. The values, convictions, and traditions of the Aztec people were almost completely eradicated by Spain in a relatively short period of time.

The early missionaries played a paradoxical role in salvaging the remnants of Aztec knowledge. They traveled throughout Nuevo Espana collecting and documenting materia medica, while integrating European healing philosophies. The friars also introduced the Catholic faith and the use of prayers for curing illnesses. Some of the native remedies have survived the conquest due to quick-thinking Indians who renamed the plants used in ancient ceremonial practices, using the names of benevolent saints.

The Spaniards introduced humoral pathology, Hippocrates' theory of health being dependent on the proper distribution of the body's four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. From humoral pathology, the hot and cold theory of disease has survived in Mexico and in the Southwestern United States. In order to restore the body's symmetry, plants with opposing qualities are still taken.

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, a great quantity of the America's medicinal plants and vegetation, such as potatoes and corn, were shipped to Europe. Likewise, Old World plants such as garlic, chamomile, and lemons, were imported to the Americas. Medieval superstitions, including witchcraft and sorcery, were also introduced to Meso-America by the conquerors.

Fortunately, many remedies did survive the conquest and are still used in Mexican America. The Mexican Institute for the Study of Medical Plants was established in 1975. Researchers at the institute have been examining the sixteenth century records, to determine the validity of indigenous medicines, with great success. The science which had dismissed traditional remedies, has begun to reevaluate therapeutic values of botanical lore.

Excerpted from Homegrown Healing: Traditional Home Remedies from Mexico, (Berkeley: Berkeley Books, 1998). The author can be contacted via email

 

 

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