From the darkness of a small room Alberto Salinas, Jr. closes his eyes, holds a cross with his right hand and mutters: “Our Father who is in heaven …”. The flames of the candles tremble and bathe in light the little room in this sunset. Suddenly Salinas is in a trance, his eyes are white, and in a moment of serenity he says in a childish voice: “The Lord God is with you, light and understanding, love and peace, I am Fidencio”.
In the blink of an eye, Salinas, 55, a native of the Texas Valley, becomes the “stuff” of a Mexican healer born in the Texas Valley in 1898. It is said that José Fidencio Síntora Constantino, known as’ El Niño Fidencio ‘cured thousands of people from the remote town of Espinazo, north of Nuevo León, including former Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles.
Since 1978, Salinas has said that he has lent his body to the Child during his trips to cure physical illnesses, to expel the evil spirits and to hear the pains of his patients, in this way becoming a matter of the Child. After curing each patient Salinas says he feels exhausted, especially after so many years practicing curanderismo. However, he confesses that it is worth it. “This fills me up,” says the husband and father of two children.
For many, quackery is total madness – even something satanic. Others see the healer (matter) as their only “medical” resource to alleviate their health problems. The healers are an alternative to the medical system, either for physical or mental needs.
Antonio Zavaleta, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, argues that folk medicine is more popular than people think. The professor and researcher affirm that it is a taboo among the Latin population to go to a psychiatrist. Whoever comes to one seems to be weak. On the other hand, doing a “sweep” is more acceptable.
“Latinos have the same mental health needs as others, but for economic reasons or because of fear of” what they will say “, they look for someone to give them advice or make them” clean “,” explains Zavaleta, who studies curanderismo for four decades.
It is not known exactly how many Latinos seek the help of healers, spiritualists or naturalists, but a study by the Surgeon General (from 1998 to 2002) David Satcher points out that, in 2001, between four and 44 percent of Latinos used the services of a healer. Satcher, the federal health authority, says in another study that medical conditions that affect Hispanics increase the risk of mental health.
He adds that the fact that Latinos, immigrants or not, are poorer than other ethnic groups puts them at high risk. With poverty come low levels of education, prison, drug and alcohol abuse, and all these factors contribute to the mental health problem.
CURANDERY IN AUSTIN
There are no definitive figures that indicate how many Latinos go to healers, spiritualists or naturalists. What Zavaleta does affirm is that “there is a big place for folk medicine in Austin”.
“The Latino population is marginalized from the medical system, particularly in mental health issues,” says the UT-Brownsville researcher. In other words, as long as Latinos do not have access to the medical system, they will continue to seek services from healers.
People who go to healers mainly suffer from “emotional and behavioral problems,” Zavaleta explained. “In effect, they are folkloric psychologists.”
Lee Cantú is a healer who practices in Austin, at Cantú’s Imports, located south of 1st Street. Clients visit Cantu for the same reason they would visit a therapist. “90 percent come here because of their personal relationships,” he confesses. Since 1984, he practices what he calls alternative medicine: he offers clean, tea recipes and acts as a subject to solve economic and amorous problems of his patients.
Gregorio Martinez, another practitioner of alternative medicine located east of 7th Street, prefers to recommend his clients to see a doctor when he deduces that mental concerns are affecting the patient’s physical health. His work, he clarifies, is to heal the soul and the spirit.
Healers and healers in Austin and the Valley of Texas express that their clients come from all social and geographical classes: students and lawyers, from Mexico and Cuba to South America. One of them is the Mexican María Tamayo, 70 years old and currently practicing in Brownsville. Tamayo, like Salinas, lends his material to Niño Fidencio for 36 years.
LATINOS WITHOUT MEDICAL INSURANCE
The lack of legal status is a reason why many Hispanics are afraid to request assistance in the mental health system, and those who legally reside in the country do not usually have health insurance. According to the state demographer, 31 percent of Hispanics in Travis County do not have health insurance policies. Even with medical insurance, mental health services can cost hundreds of dollars a year while many healers charge with donations, or whatever the patient wants to pay.
Apart from the lack of money, a legal status or psychologists who speak Spanish, the stigma can alienate Latinos from adequate medical services. Fear of family rejection is another reason why Latinos do not seek help for their mental conditions. With all this, the possibility that Latinos seek help for their mental health is even more doubtful.
In 2006, 28 percent of Texans who applied for help for mental health problems were identified as Latinos, says the Texas Department of Health. Another report, conducted this year by the National Institute of Mental Health, indicates that immigrants enjoy lower rates of mental illness than Americans: 24 percent of Hispanic immigrants compared to 46 percent of the rest of the country’s population.
But Latinos tend to suffer from higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by traumatic events that can result in depression, violence, and antisocial behavior. According to the Surgeon General’s report, Latino veterans of the war in Vietnam tend to suffer more from this stress because of their experience in war than the Anglo-Saxons, and Central American immigrants also struggle with this stress for the history of wars in their homelands.
Another alarming fact is the lack of therapists who speak Spanish. According to the Association of Psychologists of North America, only one percent of its members identify themselves as Latino.
The high cost of medical services and the lack of social assistance programs for low-income people or in Spanish motivate the population of Latinos to seek alternative shelters with healers such as Salinas and Cantú. The mystery of folk medicine practices like curanderismo that give results to many motivates Professor Zavaleta to continue his studies.
The healers, he explains, are folkloric psychologists.
Between Mental Health and Curanderismo
Sara Inés Calderón now!
EVALUATING MENTAL HEALTH
I remember when I was a child my brother got sick during a visit to our grandparents in Eagle Pass, on the other side of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. My aunts, one of them a nurse, placed a glass of water mixed with a raw egg next to my brother’s bed. They also broke toothpicks in half and placed them inside the glass.
I did not understand the meaning of what they did very well, but it made me reasonable. Like many Latinos, I simply relied on the traditions of quackery.
Latinos in this country do not lack access to medical services, especially when it comes to mental health. An investigation entitled ‘Health Care Utilization Barriers among Mexican Americans: Evidence from HHANES’ cites that one in three Mexicans encountered barriers when seeking help.
If healers can fill this gap of mental health specialist, listening to problems, offering reasonable advice, and then practicing a ‘clean’, what a bad offer if at the end of the day you feel better.
Healers occupy an important place in our culture, but they can not always replace the services of mental health specialists.
Anthropologist Antonio N. Zavaleta told me that healers often recommend that their clients seek help from doctors, but doctors rarely send their patients to a healer. I believe that the two can work together.
Since there are only 29 Spanish-speaking mental health professionals per 100,000 Hispanics in the country according to a report from surgeon David Satcher-I doubt they can unconditionally provide services to their Hispanic clients. In addition, healers are not trained to understand all types of mental condition.
Looking for a healer or a professional is a decision that everyone has to make on their own. Although there is a taboo against the use of psychologists in our culture, the same psychologists have told me that it is easier to continue with your lifestyle than to change it.
The years have passed and although I am already an adult, I still can not tell you why my aunts fixed that glass with an egg and chopsticks, or what was their goal. What I do know is that shortly after that my brother was composed.
-Sara Ines Calderon