From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

“I Am a Curandera”

It was a miserable morning: cold, drizzling and gray with no promise of sun to warm the frigid mountain air. The sun was hidden behind ominous, dark rain clouds. My teeth chattered, and I trembled under my lightweight rain poncho. A huge droplet of rain hit my forehead, rolled directly between my eyes, then dribbled down to the tip of my nose. I wished I were somewhere else—anywhere else.

We were gathered in this mountain village in the highlands of Peru to hear midwives speak about their work. We were a mixed group of healthcare providers on a holiday under the guise of continuing education, and the course was a study of alternative healing in South America. We arrived from different parts of the world, bringing with us varying degrees of belief in medicine, alternative and traditional. But everything we had seen in the past week had changed us. Even the skeptics in the group were beginning to examine the possibilities of other views in the realm of healing.

Two men spoke to us first and explained their work as midwives. I was surprised to learn that men in this culture can be midwives; I had mistakenly stereotyped it as “women’s work” since that’s what it is in the United States. Both men had been trained by their fathers, who had been trained by their fathers before them. I learned that although a curandero or curandera is often called to the profession by a dream—the curandero’s or someone else’s— most curanderos pass the vocation down from one generation to the next, so it often runs in families.

Each man told of similar techniques he employs when delivering babies. Their deliveries involve indigenous practices such as rubbing a woman’s stomach with a urine-soaked stone for protracted labor and checking fetal position by reading the mother’s pulse in her feet. By tradition, they both cut the umbilical cord with a shard of pottery broken in the home at the time of delivery.

Agripina was the last of the three midwives to address us. In contrast to the men, who wore brightly colored woven ponchos of hot pink, flaming orange and brilliant red, she was dressed simply in a long, gray wool skirt and dark green sweater. Her dark hair hung in a single, thick braid under her gray fedora and fell almost to her waist. She had been sitting quietly, with her head bowed, while the men spoke. When they were finished, she rose and began to speak in a quiet, soft voice that had an almost mystical effect on the small crowd.

“I am a curandera,” she said, and our guide translated for us. “I have always been a curandera. Many years ago, when I was only eight years old, a mother sheep told me. It is not something I chose. It is something that chose me.”

The crinkle of rain gear ceased. Those who had been moving about or rubbing their arms briskly in an attempt to get warm stopped moving. Her words were enough to pique my curiosity, but it was her voice—a low, melodious hush—that held me spellbound. It had a timelessness and tranquility that seemed not of this world. It was as though an angel was mesmerizing me with her words.

Glancing around the small crowd, I saw that her voice had captured us all. The entire group leaned forward in rapt attention. Agripina had something special, something precious to say, and no one wanted to miss her message. But a sheep telling her that she was a midwife? The doubting Thomas had questions. What could she possibly mean by that?

She went on to explain that when she was eight years old, her family had left her home alone for several days. She didn’t explain where they went or why, only that she was left behind to tend the small flock of sheep. In this communal culture, children are small, responsible people who work hard from the time they begin to toddle. Everyone must participate in the flourishing of the community. So it was not at all unusual that Agripina was left alone to tend the herd.

Her job was to lead them to the stream each day, once in the morning and again in the evening. In between they would graze. It was not yet time for the lambing season. It would be easy. Besides, her family was not going far away. “They had only gone ‘around the corner’ and would return in a few days,” she told us. Of course, we had learned this week that “around the corner” is an expression that may mean literally just that, around the corner; or it could also mean a journey of many days. Time and distance mean different things to different people.

“But,” she continued, “even though it was not the lambing season, a mother sheep began to birth her baby. She cried and she cried for so long, and I became very frightened. My heart started to beat very fast. I looked, but I could see only one foot extending from the mother. What could I do?”

As she told her story, Agripina’s eyes opened wide. Her speech became more intense, though she never changed her slow, melodious pace. She had us hooked. We waited impatiently for our guide to translate her tale.

“What could I do? I was only a child. I was only eight years old. But then the mother sheep spoke to my mind.

“She said, ‘Help me,’ and I knew what I had to do. I took hold of that tiny foot, and I pulled and I pulled with all my strength. And the mother cried to me, ‘Pull harder!’ And I pulled and I pulled and I pulled until I thought my arms would break. But the baby lamb still did not come out. My heart was pounding like a loud drum in my ears.

“Then, little by little, a calm and peaceful feeling surrounded me. I could no longer hear my heart beating in my ears. And I knew what I had to do. In my mind, I said to the mother sheep, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here. I will help you.’ My mind spoke to her mind, and she became still. She no longer fought me. She no longer fought her own body.

“Now two tiny, wet, slippery legs protruded from the mother. I took one leg in each of my hands, and I pulled until finally a tiny, perfect lamb was born, and I knew then that I was a curandera.

Agripina went on to explain that when her parents returned home and heard what had happened, they too understood that she was a curandera. She began then, at age eight, to train with the village midwife. Over the years she has continued to learn from the old healers of her village and the other villages nearby. But, unlike the two other midwives who practice exactly as their fathers did, she has also learned “modern” midwifery and medicine from the nurses and doctors from other countries who come to teach in her village.

“I am a modern curandera,” she told us, with a proud smile.

When the presentation was over, I made my way toward this lovely woman and, with the help of the guide, I asked how could I help her practice midwifery in her village. “Is there anything that you need that I can send to you from the United States?” I asked.

Shyly, she smiled, then reached into her bag and pulled out a roll of brightly colored hand-woven cloth. She unrolled it and revealed a set of basic medical instruments— hemostats and scissors. She explained, “I boil these in water for every delivery. Then the baby and the mother will not get sick. But these are borrowed from a North American nurse. I must return them. I would very much like to have my own set of tools. If I had my own tools, I would not have to cut the cord with a piece of pottery,” she said honestly.

Such a simple request. I purchased the instruments when I returned home, and our guide took them back to the village six months later when the next tour visited. Agripina will never again cut the cord with a pottery shard.

I am filled with respect and admiration for this woman. Agripina will be a teacher for the next generation of midwives. This self-proclaimed modern curandera will teach indigenous birthing practices that date back thousands of years, while incorporating what is useful to her from other birthing traditions. In her isolated village, Agripina spans the centuries and bridges cultures.

With one foot planted firmly in the past and the other just as steadfastly planted in the present, this curandera will continue to work for the health and well-being of her village.

Nancy Harless

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