WENATCHEE — It was late at night when Jorge Chacon watched his grandmother take her last breath in their home in Torreon, Mexico. She’d been using everything she’d learned from her own grandmother to battle tuberculosis, but her lungs had given up.
She had prepared Chacon for this moment. He was 10; she was 46. When it finally happened, he was the only one in the room.
That was nearly 60 years ago, but Chacon remembers the moment vividly.
“She knew that she was minutes away from death, and she said to me: ‘Jorge, please do not forget my teachings. I want to leave this world, but my spirit will be with you,’ ” Chacon’s palm moves past his face. “You can imagine the kerosene lights flickering and making all kinds of shadows.”
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Chacon’s grandmother, Ehecatzin Guadalupe, was a curandera — a traditional Mexican healer who uses herbs, teas and prayer to cure ailments of the body and mind.
Before she died, Guadalupe selected Chacon to carry on the family tradition of curanderismo. He sat in on her healing sessions, and she guided him through hours of silent meditation.
Chacon has collected a lot of different titles since then. He’s a Vietnam War veteran and an old Chicano-movement activist. He holds a master’s in psychology from Western Washington University and works as a family counselor in Wenatchee.
And for the past 40 years, he’s been practicing his grandmother’s curanderismo — mostly here in Wenatchee. He’s the third generation to do so in his own family, but one of few traditional Mexican healers in the state.
And by the looks of it, no one’s rushing to take his place.
The old and the new
He glances at the clock in his modest Wenatchee office. People will start arriving soon for a group-therapy session about domestic violence.
Chacon’s healing practice is different from his grandmother’s.
For starters, he splits his time between it and the counseling work he learned in college. And while much of the Western medical community ignores curanderismo as an effective treatment option, a program at the UW Medical Center is trying not only to preserve Chacon’s work but also to integrate it into educating a new generation of doctors.
Chacon served two tours in the Army before he started healing out of his home in Wenatchee when he was about 30. But he was already searching for other healers while on duty in Vietnam and the Philippines.
“All the other guys were looking for women,” he says with a laugh. “I was looking for curanderos.”
His grandmother’s curanderismo is a spiritual healing practice with roots in indigenous Mexico and similarities to Native American healing beliefs.
Chacon was taught to use combinations of herbs, prayer and incense to cure ailments through various rituals. He also prescribes herbal teas to his patients.
Those of all ages visit him. He says some patients turn to him when immigration status prevents them from going to hospitals. Others see him in addition to Western doctors.
He often starts with a basic cleansing ritual that involves running an uncooked egg up and down a patient’s body three times. Coupled with prayer, he says, the egg is meant to draw out toxins and bad energy.
often focuses on dealing with the effects of an ailment, he says, while traditional healing looks for the root cause. And he believes everything is connected, so the physical and mental aspects of a problem both must be addressed.
He tries to apply the same holistic principles to his counseling work.
“Practically everything I learned in college I also learned from my grandmother. It’s just a matter of learning from a different perspective,” he says.
Back in Mexico, it’s not uncommon to find an entire family of healers. In Mexican-American communities, however, that’s far less likely.
Chacon has seven children, but they are spread across the country now, and only one has expressed any interest in becoming a healer.
“At one time families stayed together, especially within the Latino community,” he says. “That’s how the families learned — the kids were exposed [to curanderismo] and selected to follow. Now, families are scattered.”
Chacon is an example. He moved with his mother to Washington not long after Guadalupe died, and it was 20 years before he returned to the work his grandmother taught him.
It’s hard to know how many others in the Northwest are practicing. As Chacon explains, being a true curandero is not something one announces.
“I don’t put up a sign saying that I’m a curandero,” Chacon says. “People will acknowledge what I am, but I won’t. It’s not a business, it’s a gift.”
He doesn’t charge for his healing services. Instead, people bring him gifts, which can be anything from a prepared meal or religious figurine to a cash donation. One time, someone came to the door with a puppy.
While they aren’t full-fledged curanderos, there are still plenty of grandmothers in Washington’s Mexican communities who Chacon suspects can perform smaller rituals such as ridding someone of the “mal ojo,” or “evil eye.”
But skepticism in the medical community has stigmatized such practices, he says, and people are less likely to admit to seeing a curandero
— or to being one.
Some in health-care circles believe that shunning traditional practices is misguided.
Pam Racansky is the director for workforce development at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Center for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. She says the medical community should better integrate traditional healing for the sake of preservation and safety.
“[Traditional healing] can be teas and mint and things like that. But it can also include some things that could conflict with medication,” she says.
St. John’s wort, for example, is a supplement sometimes used to treat anxiety and depression. Racansky says it can react badly with other medications a physician might unknowingly prescribe.
It makes sense, she says, to educate new doctors on traditional practices.
Racansky and former UW medical-school professor Dr. David Acosta co-founded the UW’s Hispanic Health Pathways program in 2008 after medical students asked for a program to better understand Hispanic-specific health care.
It’s part of a subset of courses available for medical students, including the Indian Health Pathway, Global Health Pathway and Underserved Pathway — many of which also cover traditional healing. A few times a year, Chacon travels to Seattle to present his techniques to students.
Racansky says patients often fall back on older remedies when facing health-care barriers like immigration status and cost. Plus, patients often trust what they’ve always known.
“There’s a lot of stress being away from family … and a lot of times not being able to afford a doctor means you go back to the traditions from back home,” Racansky says.
Doctors and clinics around Washington sometimes enlist Chacon’s help. Racansky says such referrals usually involve psychological problems like anxiety and depression, issues many patients feel more comfortable addressing with a curandero.
But Racansky says she’s struggled to find other curanderos like Chacon serving Washington’s Mexican-American communities.
“Maybe the longer you’re here, the less likely you are to get into traditional healing,” she says.
Chacon isn’t entirely sure about the future of his work. But he’s hopeful.
“There are individuals with the knowledge, not as many, but … some,” he says. “Of course there will be a gap, but so many people know just enough to help themselves and their families. Those traditions go way back in history.”
Inside his home, a brilliant orange altar hosts photos of patients’ children, tiny Virgin Mary figurines, and clementines from a family’s visit a few hours earlier.
At the foot of the altar is a photo of his aunt and mother.
When asked about a photo of his grandmother, Chacon shrugs. The only one he remembers was an old print pasted to a wooden board, and it was lost long ago.
But he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t need a picture.
Alisa Reznick is a freelance writer in Seattle. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlisaReznick