Complimentary and Alternative Medicine~Medicina Verde
From the beginning of time, humans have eaten, experimented, and used plant leaves, fruit, flowers, and seeds for medicinal purposes. The indigenous people of Borikén, the Tainos of Puerto Rico, used certain plants for food and healing. With modern medical advances throughout history, natural medicine saw a decline and has grown in popularity in recent times. My grandmother, an intuitive healer, learned to cure with herbal remedies passed down from her mother and the women in the community, which she passed down to me.
I spent several of my childhood years living in Puerto Rico with my family, including summer holiday breaks at my maternal grandparents’ home when we lived off-island, from elementary school to my mid-twenties. As it is with most kids, there were times my sister and I got sick over the summer with colds, tummy ailments, headaches, and general malaise, and during these times, it was my grandmother who cured us, not the family doctor.
My grandmother’s back yard garden was a tropical paradise with an enormous mango tree for shade, annatto trees, and hibiscus, Isabel Segunda, anise seed trees, and thorny trinitaria plants that grew in large cement planters. Large terra cotta pots and urns spilled over with medicinal plants, such as verbena, yerba buena, Caribbean spearmint and yerba bruja, Kalanchoe. Her ferns, rhododendron, and crotons were planted in smallish spaces in the garden and then grew to almost prehistoric size, turning the backyard into my secret garden, perfect for hiding when playing hide and seek. As a kid, I only saw a beautiful flower garden, but to my grandmother, the garden was her pharmacy, and what she didn’t have growing in her garden, she bought from the botánica, the botanical shop at the Plaza de Mercado, the market in the center of Ponce, to make her concoctions. Some were her remedies; some were recipes prescribed by the family espiritista, spiritist and medium (who happened to be my grandmother’s good friend and spiritual counselor named Doña Pina) for despojos, spiritual purification and/or santiguos, massage or rubs with medicine accompanied with prayers. Some remedies simply involved eating mangos, papayas, guavas, and sour sop fruit, which were always plentiful and fresh.
If we had respiratory ailments, my Catholic grandmother boiled the leaves of Caribbean spearmint; or anise seeds; or black nightshade, or yerba mora for teas. For tummy aches and indigestion, she boiled pieces of ginger and we’d sip the tea. When we complained of headaches, we chewed on annatto leaves with a little oil. To rid us of the ‘evil eye’, we were to bathe with flower petals and leaves for a few nights. And for general well-being, my grandfather was big on taking a daily dose of cod liver oil pills, which tasted like hell. The only herbal remedy I remember my grandfather offering when we had high fevers was…to collect our own urine and pour it over our heads, as his mother did to him, which would explain why we kids never complained of anything to my grandfather! I never knew if that story was true or not, but the visual of such an experience was enough to pretty much cure us on the spot. My grandfather explained that our own bodily fluids were the perfect medicine.
My grandmother believed in hot and cold medicine: “The unique health and healing philosophy shared by the Hispanic population is attributed to a fusion of cultures. Ancient native indigenes from Central and South America believed that natural forces in the sea, earth, and moon played an important role in an individual’s health. A healthy life could be achieved only by demonstrating respect for the power of these natural forces.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, the Catholic religion and Hippocrates’ humoral theory of health were introduced into the New World. According to this theory, health was dependent on the proper distribution of the body’s 4 humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, which are classified based on their physical properties as hot, cold, moist (wet), or dry. Illness was attributed to an imbalance of these humors, and treatment was targeted to restore balance.
Religion and faith were also considered vital to the maintenance of health and well-being. Spiritual healing (curanderismo), magic (santería), and some herbal remedies were introduced by African slaves, particularly in Brazil and the Caribbean. This blend of spiritual, humoral, and herbal health concepts was the base for the development of the hot/cold theory of health and disease and the Hispanic Complimentary and Alternative (CAM) practices of today. In the Hispanic theory of disease, ailments are thought to develop as a result of an imbalance between 2 humors: hot and cold. Based on this principle, specific diseases and conditions are classified as hot (caliente) or cold (frio). Consequently, the medications, remedies, and foods that are used to treat them are assigned descriptors accordingly. Therefore, the treatment recommended for any condition will usually have the opposite classification or properties. For instance, cold diseases are treated with hot remedies, while hot diseases are treated with cool or cold remedies.” http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/557983_3
My grandmother knew nothing of New age complimentary and alternative medicine, so when I returned from London where I’d studied and certified as a Reiki Master, an energy healing modality, and I excitedly shared what I’d learned about energy, channeling energy and healing–she understood completely. “Mija, we’ve been doing that for hundreds of years,” she said with a grin.
And I realized she was right.
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of PEN America and the Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.