"Curanderismo is not just a medical practice but a whole culture of health. It is a culture that seeks equilibrium between the self and nature by engaging the cosmos, by learning to honor natural laws, customs, traditions, energetic systems, and social systems, as well as our personal biological system. Illness is not seen as an individual problem. It is viewed as an imbalance in which one individual becomes the focus of the healing process that in the end will purify and balance all of the systems and community or family members involved..." -Elena Avila
I spent my Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the desert of Tehachapi with my family, which gave me an opportunity to unplug from social media and the city's frequencies. It amazes me every time I arrive to this higher elevation, my body surrenders and I once again feel grounded. Typically, it takes me months to get through a single book - but in a span of a day and a half I was able to complete reading "Woman Who Glows in the Dark" by Elena Avila.
Woman Who Glows in the Dark documents Elena's journey of being a professional psychiatric nurse to becoming a curandera. As one of the few women of color in her graduate nursing program, her professor requested that she do research on curanderismo - only to realize that these traditional healing practices were a part of her childhood. While she hated some of her mother's advice that seemed backwards, medical research was now beginning to take these rituals into consideration (such as drinking sugar water after witnessing a traumatic event, incorporating altars, ceremonies, and soul retrievals) .. Envy is also a disease that is not recognized in the U.S., yet is seen as the root cause to many illnesses in other cultures. During the time of Elena's studies, literature was lacking on curanderismo so her search for more knowledge took her back to Mexico to meet with curanderos that would become her teachers and mentors on this path.
Despite the recognition she was gaining as an expert on curanderismo, which then led her to becoming a lecturer on the subject (even though she said she only knew a little bit more than her audience), she was forbidden to incorporate these practices inside the hospital. She decided to leave and took a job as the director of a domestic violence agency, where she was met with the same discomfort from her staff when doing something as simple as introducing altar items to create a sacred space for healing. Her mentors in Mexico advised that she envelope her clients who were suffering from sexual abuse into the earth so they can feel what it's like to be embraced again by releasing their traumas into the soil. While her coworkers already found her strange, she knew this would never be accepted by the organization. So eventually, she left working altogether to open up her own practice as a full-time curandera from her own home in the middle of the desert. To her surprise, people traveled from all over the nation to receive healing from her, where she included limpias (cleansings) and platicas (soul retrievals) along with other modalities that centered around the importance of spirituality and rituals. Since she also had a western medical background, she knew when it was time to refer clients to the hospital - though many of them showed up at her doorstep after feeling utterly failed and unheard by the medical industrial complex.
As her practice grew, she knew she had to take on apprentices to pass down this medicine. Not just to create referrals, but also because she had been on this path alone and needed support in her own healing. (Healers often facilitate healing for others and rarely for themselves!) With her teachers being in Mexico, it was a big struggle for her to find community in the U.S.. It was also a challenge being born and raised as a Mexican-American, where she felt polarized between two identities as if she wasn't Mexican or American enough. But because of her radical vision, there is now a growing community of people practicing curanderismo and reclaiming their ancestral ways of being.
I reflected on my mother's own journey of how she became a nurse along with the sacrifices she had to make to survive in the United States. While she expected of me to become a nurse or a doctor, I always knew this wasn't my calling. And in my recent trip to Thailand to learn about traditional healing, I came home to see my mother recall memories of what life was like before hospitals. It was as if stepping on my path opened a portal for her to share such intimate details of her childhood. I love hearing her stories as a young girl of following the village midwife, who was her grandmother, and how today she interacts with plants as if they were her own babies she midwifed into the world. I know my mother saved many lives in the hospital with her fierce and compassionate nature (that she said was not taught in her schooling), and while I did not follow in her professional footsteps I'm grateful that her big heart is something inherited. Yet still, I have been feeling the hunger for the right teachers and mentors to come into my life - just as they did with Elena Avila. Where are the Thai shamans and curanderas I can learn from? How can I meet someone like Elena to be my teacher? Must I go back to Thailand to do so?
Before our Tehachapian Thanksgiving dinner, I offered a prayer to the indigenous people of the land we were on, the Kawaiisu, expressing gratitude for allowing us to share this space with them. My mother, feeling joyful to be away from the city, set up camp outside to meditate and sleep under the stars. She then recommended we visit a Thai temple nearby to offer alms to a popular monk who many proclaimed to be a healer. Supposedly, this monk claims he was Kawaiisu in his past life, which is what called him to Tehachapi from Thailand! People travel from everywhere to receive healing from him via body scans and traditional plant medicine. Many have said he's able to see into the past and future, and prescribes herbs or spiritual advice for people to follow.
I couldn't help but think, is this the teacher I've been praying for?
We arrived at the temple the following morning, greeted by an entrance of a giant pink lotus on the side of the rode and several teepees. Inside these teepees were dolls of brown children dressed in Native American garb surrounded by a bag of candy and rice that had recently been offered to them as alms leftover from Thanksgiving. There were several statues of other indigenous people surrounding the temple, each of them gifted with a tray of food and burning incense.
Despite the dry desert land that this temple was built on, medicinal herbs and fruit trees were in bloom around the property. The temple was converted from a tiny mobile home, where the corners and shelves were filled with healing crystals ranging from amethysts to obsidians. The living room, which held a giant altar, had a separate table full of various fermented brews such as kombucha, and a large stainless steel water container that read in Thai: "Medicinal water". I peeked inside to see several mineral stones meant to turn this liquid into an alkalizing elixir.
Sitting at the head of the altar was the curandero monk, whom I will call "magic monk", or MM for short.
Several people were ahead of us to receive healing, but I was told this was a very good day to come since it is common for others to wait hours for his "treatment". We offered food to the other monks, received blessings, and I couldn't help but feel so grateful to be in the presence of Thai elders in the middle of the California desert as they laughed and shared recipes that reminded them of home. They spoke of where to find certain fruit and vegetables that were difficult to come by, and how they were willing to share some of their crop that they successfully cultivated on soil that many said wouldn't survive.
Then came our time for healing. We entered the altar room, and MM poked my mother and I in our backs with a long candle stick. (Male monks are restricted from having any physical contact with females.) It felt as if it had been nearly an hour, until MM said, "You're fine". I asked a couple questions, such as, “What is my life's journey?" and "Do you have advice for me to stick with for the next year?” But his only response was to "meditate more". THAT'S IT?! Tell me one thing wrong I may need to fix! My partner was in the room with us, refusing to get treatment, but MM had already been focusing on him from afar. Other witnesses laughed and said MM does not need the candle stick or hands to read you; he can scan you from across the room. MM recommended my partner to eventually remove the plugs in his earlobes to prevent vision problems later (since there are nerves connected from our ears to our eyes), and to shave his beard if he wants to be rich. My mother, excited to hear about the critique on my partner's ear plugs and our potential for a financially rich lifestyle, asked the monk if I should also remove my septum nose ring to prevent any problems, to whereas the monk said my nose, and future, were fine. (My mom let out a big sound of disappointment knowing this meant I was not going to remove my nose piercing.)
MM then proceeded to retrieve pictures of himself from when he was my partner's age to show off times he was a handsome young soldier during the Vietnam War. He also shared what he knew of Southeast Asian history, from the Greek's attempt to colonize the people to how we all used to be one unified country before Europeans imposed borders on us. After realizing we were going to getting a history lesson instead of a psychic reading from him, we knew it was time to leave.
As we walked out the door, I turned to see MM scratching a lottery ticket, gifted to him by one of his faithful followers in hopes that his magic touch would manifest winning numbers.
My partner and I drove away in confusion, jokingly saying he would shave his beard when we got home - but the earrings would stay. I was frustrated I did not receive the call to be an apprentice, and much of my experience felt like a hoax. But there was no denying that he has in fact helped many people on their healing journey, from cancer patients to even doctors in need of soul retrievals. Was there something wrong with me, or was everything genuinely right? And why was I looking for something wrong in the first place?
I pulled out the book I had just completed, wishing I had someone like Elena Avila to guide me on this path. I knew this was impossible, since she had passed away in 2011 and all that remained of her legacy remained in these pages. I had bought it used off of Amazon, and turned to the inside cover to read the handwritten letter scribed from the previous owner. Although I had already completed the book, I didn't pay attention to the first words written inside the cover - until now.
Beautiful Bright Flower. welcome to your 2nd cycle and thank you for gathering us to your place and town. We will heal our little souls and create more beauty. Blessings..."
It was then I realized that it was signed by Elena.
Even though it wasn't written directly for me, I couldn't help but think that somewhere in the ether she was speaking of my own second cycle of Saturn Return, moving into my 30s. Like Elena, I had worked inside of a domestic violence agency only to realize that much of the healing work I was hungry to share would not be accepted inside these institutions, whether it be within a hospital or a rape crisis center. The harm I experienced brought me back to my roots, and to a community of other healers I am grateful to now know in Long Beach and beyond. The more I walk confidently in the direction of my dreams, the greater I attract those who I have been praying for - even in the form of my mother’s younger self and her grandmother. Many of us are awakening to this calling, but we are not alone.
We are the teachers and mentors we are searching for.
Also, my mother had turned 70 this weekend. Although she wanted to stay home and do absolutely nothing, my sister and I surprised her with a small slice of tarot cake and showered her with gratitude. It was the least money we had spent on her birthday, yet she cried tears of joy saying it was the best yet. The greatest gift = presence + appreciation. And cake. (which symbolically represents the placenta, but that's for another story.) Happy birthday to the one who birthed me!!