Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A date with Doña Huesera

Hueso in Spanish means "bone" and in Mexico, a huesera is a healer who works with bones, massaging, twisting and manipulating them in the style of a chiropractor, albeit without the patient information questionnaires, fancy examination tables or insurance forms.

After a week of soreness in both of my feet, caused by chronic tendonitis, I heeded the advice of an American friend and Félix the gardener--that inexhaustible source of Mexican folk wisdom--and headed for Doña Remedios, the local huesera, for some treatment. My gringo friend had had a nagging hip pain cured and Félix a left foot he had dislocated while playing soccer coaxed back into place.

And hey, Remedios is Spanish for "remedies" and she has a busy enough practice that appointments are recommended. Those two omens were enough to convince me to give her a try. There might be something to this.

When I got to her clinic, actually a combination treatment room and a tiendita--a tiny store usually attached to someone's home and selling mostly sweets and soft drinks--I had to wait outside because she was currently assisting another patient, who eventually emerged. She was an unsteady and dazed-looking woman in her forties, hanging on tightly to the arm of a teenager, probably her daughter.

Get a Pepsi and a bone realignment here
When I finally I entered Doña Remedios clinic I realized this was not going to be a quickie medical treatment, but a peek into a world that combined religious fervor and magical realism with gritty reality, and a thriving micro business with a genuine concern and understanding of other people's suffering.

Doña Remedios was a small, bossomy middle-aged woman, with a round face, sparkling brown eyes and an easy smile that revealed several gold teeth. Her hands, the main instrument of her healing trade, were chubby and small though quite powerful, as I was to discover. She was wearing a bright-green blouse of a shiny material that was almost iridescent. If you believe in personal auras, hers was one of kindness.

The small courtyard on the way to her treatment room had not yet recovered from Christmas. Decorations still hung from the trees, and a weather-beaten Nativity scene, with some of the protagonists missing, sat atop a bed of straw.

The actual examination room was maybe twenty feet square, with a cloth curtain for a door. It was an inner sanctum recently built apart from the main house and the tiendita, with a half-dozen folding chairs lined up outside as an outdoor waiting room for patients and their relatives.

Inside, the only furniture was a small dresser, with some bottles and potions on top and a grisly picture of Jesus hanging on the wall, all bloodied and contorted in pain. It struck me as an odd picture for sick people to look at. I would have picked instead a radiant, smiling Jesus ascending heavenward. Or maybe the two side by side, as a more auspicious before-and-after tableau.

A grungy sleeping bag, a pillow and some rags laid on the floor, next to a metal folding chair. She asked me to lie down but then changed her mind when I said the problem was with my feet. So I sat on the chair and she knelt at my feet, rubbing my left foot forcefully with an unguent that smelled like Ben Gay.

Then the serious treatment began with a glass cup, about the size of a large shot glass. She poured a liquid, probably alcohol, out of bruised plastic soda bottle that also contained what she described as "healing herbs," and set the content of the glass on fire. When the flame died off she applied the glass to my foot, which created a vacuum and sucked up the skin. She repeated the treatment throughout my foot, while explaining she was sucking "the cold"--el frío--out of my feet.

Much to her credit, Doña Remedios pointed out right away there was something wrong with the tendons and shape of my left foot, an accurate spot diagnosis considering she had no equipment but her eyes and experience.

Far more interesting though were the stories that poured forth during the treatment. She had learned healing in San Miguel and had been practicing for many years and apparently had developed quite a reputation in the tiny village of Sosnavar, where Félix lives with his family. In fact, she is somehow related to his father, and also to the rancher who lives near our house. In Sosnavar everyone seems to be related to someone else somehow, which may explain the visibly higher-than-normal incidence of mentally handicapped folks I had noticed before.

The patient just before me was an alcoholic, Doña Remedios lamented, a rampant problem in Sosnavar among both men and women who drink not beer or liquor but pure rubbing alcohol provided by a couple of "irresponsible" vendors in town for about ten pesos (ninety U.S. cents) for a large shot glass.

I don't know how a huesera treats alcoholism though, again, Doña Remedios had a keen understanding of the ailment. She observed that the first step toward a cure was for the person to admit they had an out-of-control problem and needed outside help. Whether she realized it or not, she was quoting the first two steps of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 Step Program.

AA meeting houses are ubiquitous in San Miguel there are none in Sosnavar she said. It occurred to me that a recovering alcoholic who brought AA to town could become a life-saving hero.

In fact when I later told Félix the stories I'd heard from Doña Remedios he said deaths from alcohol poisoning are not uncommon and that an alcoholic woman in La Biznaga, the town closest to our ranch, had been buried this past weekend. Previously Félix had confided that his father was an alcoholic who had almost died of it, a cautionary history that perhaps explains why we've never seen Félix drunk or hung over.

On to my right foot and Doña Remedios' fervent Catholic faith. For the past several years she has participated on a nine-day pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, in the state of Jalisco. She went on about the several thousand pilgrims who travel there on foot, on horseback or pickup trucks, and become a blanket of humanity covering the surrounding mountainside.

They march, pray and sing, many of them praying for miracles and making promises to the Virgin in return. Doña Remedios turned serious for a second and warned that people who failed to make good on their promises would be held to account after they die.

She repeatedly urged me to join the pilgrimage next year, telling me of the regocijo--Spanish for "joy"-- that fills the air and the souls of the participants. Visibly moved, her eyes glistened as she told the story. On my way out she lent me a video someone made of the pilgrimage last year.

The treatment and the stories went on for about 45 minutes and cost me five dollars.

Do my feet feel any better? Thought you'd never ask. As a matter of fact they do. Somewhat.

We're going to be out of town next week but when we return I'll be back for more treatment and an additional dose of Doña Remedios' stories.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulously interesting to me. When we can be immersed in their traditions, to me, that is the reason for living in Mexico. I have a series of photos sto publish when I get back of the farmers that I have met on this ejido land and their stories. Truly a highlight.

    ReplyDelete