Hispanic Folk Practices

Miriam Murphy
History Blazer, February 1995

Alternative medicine is widely recognized and talked about in Utah and throughout the United States. Discussed in popular magazines and on television, it is more than a late twentieth-century fad, however. Its roots run deep, and its practice encompasses many aspects neglected by the mass media.

Curanderismo, for example, is a folk curing practice that is widespread in Hispanic communities in the United States and in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and parts of Europe.

Scholars disagree on the precise origin of curanderismo—whether it is based on ancient European practices, pre-Columbian American healing arts, or some combination of the two. They do agree that the skills of the folk healer are usually passed down from generation to generation, often from mother to daughter in Mexican-American communities.

E. Ferol Benavides, who studied curanderismo in the 1970s, identified some prominent Utah curanderas (female folk healers) who offered to help those in need. Mrs. Blanco, a Salt Lake City woman reportedly from a Spanish-Romanian background, was so well known that people came from surrounding states to seek her services. Those wanting a cure for themselves or a loved one were cautioned to follow her instructions exactly and were often required to pray for many hours each day.

Another Salt Lake City woman, Incarnacion Florez, was esteemed throughout the Intermountain Area as a curandera. She was born near the turn of the century in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico, and came to Utah with her husband, a railroad worker, in 1920. Mrs. Florez exemplified the traditional Mexican-American curandera in her use of prayer, herbal medicines, and ritual acts to help the ailing. She emphasized that the cure came from God and that she was only a instrument of the divine will. Mrs. Florez, like all “real” curanderas, Ms. Benavides emphasized, did not advertise and did not take money for her services, only an occasional gift to help defray expenses. Like other reputable curanderas, Mrs. Florez recommended that the sick also seek help from a regular medical doctor. For more than 40 years she quietly offered her assistance to those in need, and until her death in 1968 the sick came from as far away as Houston, Texas, to see La Medica in Salt Lake City.

Te Marie Cisneros Valdez, born in La Madera, New Mexico, in 1928, was another Utah curandera that Ms. Benavides discovered during her research. As a girl of twelve, Te Valdez apparently cured a sick cousin with an herbal tea. After witnessing this display of aptitude and initiative, her grandmother Agustinita Cisneros, a well-known curandera, began to train her as an herbalist. When Te Valdez and her husband Eddie moved to Ogden in 1948 she continued her work as curandera. Although she based her practice on herbal remedies, she also used massage and other traditional folk treatments.

These curanderas provided a uniquely Hispanic perspective to healing, but they are also part of a larger group of folk practitioners in Utah that includes women and men from virtually every ethnic community.

See: E. Ferol Benavides, “The Saints among the Saints: A Study of Curanderismo in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (fall 1973): 373-92.