The Espiritista Healer

A dog had bitten María, and blood was dribbling from the gashing wounds. She and José tried to control the bleeding with rubbing alcohol, ethanol solvent, cotton swabs, and a healing lotion. Later that evening a local nurse, affiliated with the community's small health center, arrived at the house to wipe off the lotion and apply iodine to María's leg wound, which she then wrapped with gauze. At least they suppressed the bleeding, but the wound itself would require further treatment--whatever was affordable and effective.

After making our purchases at the Tuesday Cerro market, we reunited to board an outbound truck. Upon our return to the Altepetl entrance, we crossed the short bridge leading to the main road along the community's south side. At the bridge's other end, we met a Nahua teacher on her way to the Altepetl elementary school where she taught. Her black leather loafers were muddied from walking from her home in Chalchihuites. Her face was somewhat longish, and her short, wavy locks were decidedly different from the long, straight hair that most other Nahua women sported. Most ostensibly, however, she wore a circular metallic pendant with a Star of David on one side and a pentacle on the other--not exactly a typical ornament for a schoolteacher. José and María began to converse with the teacher, named Leonora, about the wounds and the remedies they had been advised to use. This was when the teacher shared her own practices, for she was an Espiritista--a female specialist in healing practices immersed in divination and spirits. She claimed that, unlike the traditional male curanderos, she did not need to cut paper or sacrifice chickens, but instead she used beeswax candles and chicken eggs to cleanse away spiritual contaminants. Although she was on her way to meet someone at Tenamitl, José and María insisted that she come to the house by afternoon, to perform a healing ritual for María.

To begin the rites the central room was closed off, both of its wooden doors shut. I entered the room through the thin purple curtain draped across the kitchen entrance. Under the focused light of the single fluorescent bulb hanging over the central room, the teacher was rubbing an orange beeswax candle over María's head. José stood nearby.

At last! Now I had no ritual obligations to impede my note-taking. Perhaps I could learn something with more thorough observations. I sat on the corner of José's and María's bed, between the domestic altar and the shut doorway at the west end of the central room. I produced my notebook and began to write.

Leonora paused her prayer and told me that I shouldn't be taking notes, for hers was a sacred activity. Damn. I was in a better position when I was folding paper sheets last week. All that I had discerned until then was her waving candles and reciting the paternoster in Spanish, activities that I could just as well have observed during Mass.

Neither should I be at the bed, she added, in between the altar and the doorway. Harmful winds could be afflicting María with her current crisis, so if Leonora had to withdraw any from her, they would be channeled to the altar and then expelled through the doorway. I was already in a psychic hot zone by being so close to the spirit trafficking, more so by sitting directly in the exhaust pipe.

Something was overwhelming me. Maybe something was in the room with us--invisible, intangible, altogether imperceptible save for its overbearing pressure against my consciousness, like a damp towel tightening around my brain. Could it have been a sentient wind? I was slipping into an otherwise inexplicable exhaustion, causing me to nod off even as I was trying to follow Leonora's incantations, including the paternoster and the credo, both uttered in Spanish. Most of her ritual utterances were in Spanish, but other parts could have been in Nahuatl, yet mumbled too low for me to hear.

Not that the winds were actually willing to cause such harm. Does a microbe think about how much damage it inflicts upon its host? Its parasitism is natural, as are the biological responses to it. Thus are the wind spirits. They are not inherently malicious, only naturally infectious when drawn to contact a human body.

The teacher rubbed a chicken egg over different parts of María's body like a Geiger counter, to detect whether a foreign spiritual being had invaded it through tsonwiteki, a perhaps not so metaphoric 'hit on the head.' She then cracked the egg into a glass cup filled with water, and raised it against the ceiling bulb's light to read the filaments and suspensions within the floating yolk. The yolk's constitution would determine whether Marí's illness was natural, spiritual, or both, which she described in Nahuatl. Because spiritual illnesses are more contagious, especially along kin lines, Leonora diagnosed José to read whether he was also at risk.

She handed María a vial of aromatic lavender oil to rub over her neck and chest, to prevent the spirits from returning and causing any further harm after their expulsion. The oil was then handed over for José to do the same. Then it was my turn. I should not only rub it over my nape and chest but also spread the oil in crosses over my forehead and upon each cheek. Usually this oil was solely for the patients, and not for me, but Leonora had made exception because she was "human." She offered to perform my own cleansing, should I need to remove personal obstacles, such as those frustrating my work. Then the doors could open for me.

Leonora explained that I shouldn't take notes during her rituals because the notes alone could reflect only my observations of them, and not actually their meanings according to her perspective. I told her that I hoped to continue discussing these practices. Had I told her then that I was an anthropologist, and not a week later as it happened, maybe we could have continued that conversation.

The teacher left for Chalchihuites, but she would return tomorrow, for the first of several days of follow-ups on María's condition.

María applied an herbal solution on her leg wounds. The Altepetl nurse returned to the house with a bottle of iodine and other medical supplies. She cut off the white tape that was holding the leg-wound gauze in place, and she poured more iodine on the exposed wound. After smearing a white fungicide powder on the leg wound to prevent its infection, the nurse replaced the old gauze and taped the new pad.

Leonora and the nurse alternated in this way for the following two days. In the morning I found two magical candles alit on the floor in front of the altar: one to counter anyone's envy that could develop into witchcraft, the other inscribed with a prayer to Saint Alejo. In the afternoon José boiled fresh, palmate cocoa leaf and death thorn leaves into a broth that María rubbed against her wounds. By evening the nurse came to inject a solution of benzyl penicillin into María's buttock. Such was the essence of illness and its healing among the modern Huasteca Nahua. Natural causes and chemical therapies were always sought first: if the affliction were microbial or physiological in origin, clinical medicine or even local herbs should neutralize it. If the cause was supernatural, only a supernatural response could handle it. José and María's gamut of pharmaceutical, herbal, and ritual treatments showed a world in which science and religion were complementary, not competing. Anything could happen.