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Infusions of Healing

A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies

About The Book

When the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, they stumbled upon a treasure trove ultimately more valuable and lasting than the glittering mounds of Moctezuma's gold -- the herbal remedies and medicines developed by the Indians, which in many ways surpassed the rudimentary medicine of the Old World. The remnants of these cures, potions, infusions, and tonics form the basis of the countless natural remedies still used in many Mexican-American households today. Now, these healing herbs and remedies are brought together in a volume that is as practical as it is fascinating. In Infusions of Healing you'll find:
* The intriguing story of how this long-suppressed ancient knowledge was passed down over the course of five centuries.
* Hundreds of safe, effective herbal treatments for everyday ailments -- teas, liniments, compresses, salves, and soothing baths for headaches, colds, fevers, digestive disorders, menstrual cramps, skin problems, aches and pains, and much more.
* An alphabetical listing of more than 200 herbs and plants, from abedul (birch) to zarsaparilla (sasparilla), including their English, Spanish, Nahuatl (Aztec), and botanical names, with extensive notes on their histories and healing properties.
* Expert advice from today's traditional healers and practitioners of Mexican-American herbal medicine, many of their remedies recorded in print for the first-time.
Thorough, well organized, and rich with history, Infusions of Healing is a practical handbook for anyone interested in natural remedies, as well as an invaluable contribution to the preservation of a tradition deeply embedded in Latino culture.


Part I: Five Centuries of Healing

¿Qué mágicas infusiones

de indios herbolarios

de mi patria, entre mis letras

el hechizo derramaron?

What are these magical infusions

of the Indian herbalists of my homeland,

that spill enchantment

over my pages?

-- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695)

Traditional Mexican-American medicine is un rico menudo, a rich stew, with a long list of ingredients: sixteenth-century Arab and European herbal medicines, ideas that date back to Hippocrates, twentieth-century patent medicines, plant medicines from Africa, herbal wisdom from North American native tribes. But the key ingredient is as old as Mesoamerica -- the living legacy of the Aztecs, remnants of a vast treasury of herbal knowledge that has nearly vanished.

War Of The Worlds

When Hernando Cortés and his 553 men landed at Vera Cruz in 1519, they came face-to-face with a culture so vastly different from the one they had left in Europe, it was as though they had traveled by spaceship to a distant galaxy. The people of the Aztec empire viewed reality from a perspective that was almost incomprehensible to the Spanish. And the Aztecs were equally confounded by the Spaniards, whom they regarded as half gods, half monsters.

It could be argued that the more advanced culture lost the war, that the Spanish did not bring civilization to the New World but effectively demolished it. The Aztecs reigned for little more than a century, but during those decades, through constant warfare that expanded the boundaries of the empire from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific and trade routes that extended south through Honduras and Nicaragua, they acquired much of the collective knowledge of all the Mesoamerican peoples, inheriting the cultures of the Toltec, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Huaxtec, the Maya.

They were extraordinary astronomers who had developed a yearly calendar accurate within eleven minutes, and charted the movements of the stars, using only their own eyes to scan the skies. They were advanced mathematicians, spectacular craftsmen, accomplished architects and engineers. The Aztecs were artists -- musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers. All members of the elite classes were poets. They valued skill with words as highly as skill with weapons and considered both to be necessary attributes. Vast libraries housed exquisitely painted fanlike volumes of fig-bark paper in which they recorded their philosophy, history, religion, literature, law, and scientific findings.

The conquistadors, marching into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, were so overwhelmed by its splendor that they asked one another if they were dreaming. Crossing a wide causeway they entered a city of vast plazas, fountains, sculpture, and architecture of heroic proportions brightly decorated with colorful murals and glyphs. Floating gardens swayed in the lagoon. Flowering vines cascaded over the terraces of the townhouses. In one of his historic long letters to the king of Spain, Cortés expressed fear that no one would believe his description of a city so full of wonder that even the conquistadors themselves could hardly grasp what they were seeing. It has been called the Venice of the Americas because, like Venice, it was a magnificent city built on a series of canals. But it was more beautiful than Venice in one very important aspect: It was clean. So clean that a Spanish chronicler remarked that walking its streets he was "in no more danger of soiling his feet than he was of soiling his hands." A thousand workers washed and swept the streets and plazas each day. Clean water was brought into the city through aqueducts. Human waste was picked up from the houses daily, and public toilet facilities were placed at intervals along the great causeways that led into the city.

The Aztecs were meticulously clean in their person as well. They were offended by body odor, bathed daily, and used herbal deodorants and breath fresheners. Middle-class houses had private bathrooms, and there were public bathhouses throughout the city. Motecuhzoma II had more than a hundred bathrooms in his vast palace. He reportedly bathed and changed his clothes several times a day, never wearing a garment more than once.

The great capitals of Europe at that time, and for centuries afterward, were full of filth and misery. The rat-infested alleys were strewn with garbage and human waste. Chamber pots were emptied onto the streets, and clean running water was not even conceived of. The old adage that a man takes three baths in his lifetime, one at birth, one on his wedding day, and the last when he is a corpse about to be buried, was not far from the truth. The Spanish conquistadors were impressed that the Mexicans always greeted them by fumigating them with incense, which they took as a great honor. But we can only imagine what these men, unwashed and sweating in their heavy clothing and armor, must have smelled like to their fastidious hosts.

The Aztecs and the Spanish viewed one another with horror and awe, and each saw the face of a barbarian.

The Glory of the Ancient Gardens

If their civilization had not been destroyed during the conquest, the Aztecs, like the Chinese, might have made a great contribution to the world through their vast and ancient knowledge of herbal medicine. Within its borders, Mexico has arguably the greatest variety of plant life on earth. Its geography includes rugged mountain ranges and lush valleys, tropical jungles on the Caribbean coast and arid deserts that stretch to the Pacific in the north. The Aztecs had survived centuries of wandering from one terrain to another before founding their capital at Tenochtitlán. They had, of necessity, become expert botanists during their travels, forced to use whatever they could find growing around them for both food and medicine.

As the empire prospered, they became magnificent horticulturalists. In 1467 the great Motecuhzoma's grandfather, Motecuhzoma I, established an immense botanical garden at Huaxtepec, which his grandson later revived. It may well have been the first botanical garden on earth, and the most extensive collection of plants the world had ever seen. Trees, shrubs, herbs, and flowers were imported from all over the empire, along with gardeners trained in tending them. There were nearly two thousand varieties of plants in the garden -- fruit trees, orchids from the tropics, stands of ahuehuete cypress -- all artfully arranged to provide pleasure to the senses and planted for fragrance and color, light and shade. Pools, waterfalls, fountains, an aviary full of colorful exotic birds, and a zoo graced the grounds.

Although the garden at Huaxtepec was the largest in the empire, Motecuhzoma II also maintained a luxuriant garden at his palace in Tenochtitlán, another just outside the capital in the hills of Chapultepec, and yet another at the suburban palace in Ixtapalapa. In the allied state of Texcoco, the great "poet king," Nezahualcóyotl, maintained a glorious garden of his own. The Texcocan king was devoted to the study of plants and commissioned artists to paint examples of the various species for his library.

In all these gardens, medicinal plants were cultivated and studied. Aztec doctors used the gardens as laboratories, conducting experiments subsidized by the nobility and by the imperial government. The medicinal plants grown in the gardens were intended for the medical needs of the nobility, but commoners were invited to be treated at the gardens free of charge, in exchange for reporting the results to the medical researchers who practiced there.

Basic knowledge of herbal medicine was common. Nearly every family grew its own herbs and vegetables in a garden called xochichinancalli, literally "flower place enclosed by reeds." Even in the cities, families maintained roof gardens where they grew plants for food, medicine, and ornament.

Decades after the fall of the Aztec empire, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who had been a soldier in the company of Cortés, remembered the gardens at Ixtapalapa in his memoir, The True Story of the Conquest of New Spain. "I could not get enough of it, of the variety of the trees and the aroma that each one had, of the terraces full of roses and other flowers, and the many fruits of the land...and I say again that as I stood there admiring it all, I did not believe that in the world there was any land such as this one....Now all this is fallen, lost. None of it remains," he wrote sadly.

In the final assault on Tenochtitlán most of this glorious city was destroyed. What was left of the Aztec civilization was soon attacked by the Church. In 1528 the first archbishop of Mexico, Don Juan de Zumárraga, in his zealous determination to wipe out all traces of pagan religious practices, ordered the destruction of every book, every codex, every scrap of a hieroglyph. The great libraries of Texcoco, with their wealth of information about the medicinal plants, were piled onto an enormous bonfire. Spanish soldiers were instructed to seek out every book they could find to add to the pyre. It was a fervent reflection of what was going on in Spain at the time. Twenty years earlier, hot on the heels of the expulsion of the Moors, the Grand Inquisitor, Cardinal Ximenes, had ordered the same fate for every Arabic manuscript in Granada.

But in New Spain the Church must have been even more compelled to vanquish the demon, who they thought must be everywhere. The Spanish clergy saw a hellish, godless land where the people worshiped hideous idols to whom they offered bloody human sacrifice. The Church soon realized that every trace of Aztec culture would have to be demolished, because Aztec religion pervaded all of it.

The Fifth Sun

The Aztec practice of medicine, like every other aspect of Aztec life, was inseparable from their concept of the cosmos and their religious beliefs. Their very word for doctor, tepati, was derived from teo, sacred, and patli, medicine.

Religious mythology varied from region to region, but at the basis of Mesoamerican belief systems was the notion that the earth had been destroyed and recreated four times. The Aztecs believed that the first world was destroyed by ocelots, the second by hurricanes, the third by fiery rain, the fourth by floods. During the time of each of these four worlds, one of the sun gods reigned, each corresponding to one of the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. According to this system, we are now living in the fifth incarnation of the world, which is destined to be destroyed by earthquakes.

It was the Aztecs' mission to postpone this inevitable fifth cataclysm through their efforts on earth. All the previous worlds had been destroyed by warring gods. It was the job of the Aztecs to make sure that the current sun god, Tonatiuh, was kept well fed and in place so that the fifth world could continue.

There are many variations of the Aztec creation story, but it most commonly goes something like this: The gods built the current world in darkness. When their work was complete, the gods still felt lonely. They missed men and women, all of whom had perished in the destruction of the fourth world and whose remains were now in the lower region of Mictlán, which was presided over by the god and goddess Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli. So the plumed serpent god, Quetzalcóatl, journeyed down to the underworld to retrieve the bones of humanity. Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli agreed to release the bones, but then they tricked Quetzalcóatl by frightening him on his way back to the heavens. Quetzalcóatl dropped his bag of bones, and they all shattered. The poor god wept bitter tears. When he arrived at the celestial level of Tamoanchan, the place of birth, he didn't know what to say to his fellow gods. It was decided that the bones should be ground into powder. Then the gods pierced their male organs with maguey thorns so that they bled, and they sprinkled the powdered bones with their own blood. From this they made a paste, which they fashioned into human forms. Because they had been pasted together with shattered bones, these new men and women were weak, subject to death and disease. This fifth incarnation of humanity was a combination of the earthly, the old bones, and the divine, the blood of the gods. The gods had sacrificed their blood to recreate humanity, and now mankind would be forever in their debt, obliged to make blood sacrifices of their own in retribution. But man's debt to the gods was even greater. Humanity also owed the gods for the sun and the moon.

The earth had been recreated and repeopled, but all was still in darkness. So the gods gathered in the sacred city of Teotihuacán, where they built a big bonfire. In order to create a new sun to light the world, one of the gods would have to sacrifice himself by jumping into the fire. For four days the gods sat by this divine hearth, the teotexcalli. Nanahuatzin, a poor little pimply-faced god, volunteered to sacrifice himself. But the wealthy god, Tecuciztécatl, claimed precedence. Four times the wealthy god stepped up to the flames, but each time he lost his courage and stepped back again. At last it was the little pimply-faced god's turn. He stepped up to the fire and without hesitating leapt in. Great flames rose up, igniting the heavens in an explosion of red. The gods looked up to see the god Nanahuatzin emerge in the east. The new sun had risen.

Now Tecuciztécatl, the wealthy god, was ashamed and hurled himself into the bonfire. But by this time the fire was dying down, so the wealthy god burned slowly, emerging as the sun's pale reflection, the moon. The other gods looking on were so disgusted by the wealthy god's cowardly behavior, they threw a rabbit at him. When the Aztecs looked up at the moon, they saw on its surface the face of a rabbit where we see the face of a man.

Now the sun was in the sky, but it stood still. The gods asked it, "Why aren't you moving?" To which the sun replied, "Because I demand your kingdom and your blood." Hearing this, the gods fell down at once, sacrificing themselves to become the stars. But this still wasn't enough to keep the sun moving through the sky. It was now the job of mankind to make sure that the sun had enough energy to rise and set by feeding it with blood sacrifices.

According to the Judeo-Christian belief, humanity entrusts the world to an almighty God. We depend on God and are grateful for the earthly treasure that has been given to us. But the Aztecs' relationship with their gods was interdependent. The continued existence of the sun and moon, wind and rain, depended on mankind's ability to feed and appease the gods. At any time the gods could destroy the world just as they had done four times before. The Aztecs believed that they had been chosen to keep the gods well fed and happy. It was their mission to postpone the inevitable fifth cataclysm. Theirs was the struggle of good over evil, of light over darkness.

The Aztecs, like the Spanish, used their religious convictions to justify their imperialistic wars. The Aztecs went to war on the premise that it was their sacred duty to take captives for sacrifice to the gods. The Spanish went to war with the holy mission of proselytizing the Catholic faith, on the premise that it was their sacred duty to save the heathens. In very different ways they each made holy offerings of the souls of the people they vanquished.

Kingdoms of the Cosmos

Western thought divides the natural from the supernatural, the miraculous from the ordinary, but to the Aztec mind it was all one and the same. The visible and the invisible, the spiritual and the material were all equally real.

Just as Christianity preaches that God is everywhere, the Aztecs believed that a multiplicity of gods was everywhere. Everything in the world had a divine origin, and the spirit of the gods was in every earthly thing. There were thirteen major deities and more than two hundred minor deities. Each god could have various names and manifestations. As the Aztecs conquered new territories, they absorbed the gods of the other Mesoamerican tribes so that their pantheon was always expanding.

The Aztec worldview was based on the concept of opposite but complementary halves, somewhat like the Chinese concept of yin and yang. The Gods were dualities, both male and female, good and evil. The same god could create and destroy, tempt a man to sin and forgive him for sinning. Everything had its opposite, and these two opposing forces were in constant conflict.

This duality ruled the cosmos, which was divided horizontally in half, with nine celestial levels above and nine underworld levels below. The levels above were the kingdoms of the sun, who is the father of us all. His realms were light, hot, and dry, and ruled by fire. The underworld levels were the kingdoms of the earth, who is the mother of us all. Her realms were dark, cold, and wet, and ruled by water.

Man lived on four earthly levels that were visualized as a great disk surrounded by water, suspended between the nine upper and nine lower realms. This earthly plane was the kingdom of the four directions, divided into four quadrants corresponding to the four cardinal points ruled by the four sun gods. The black sun ruled the north, the blue sun the south, the white sun ruled the west, and the red sun the east. Four immense ceiba trees supported the sky, one in each of the four quadrants. The fifth direction, a vertical up and down, was located in the center of the quadrant. It was the very center of the universe.

Like the Aztecs themselves, the cosmos was always at war. Nature was violent. The Aztecs believed that each night the earth swallowed the sun. And each morning as the sun rose in the sky, it killed off the moon and stars. The very survival of the world was in constant jeopardy, dependent on the mood of the gods. For the cosmos to remain intact, for the sun to continue to rise and set, the opposing forces of light and dark and day and night had to be kept in balance, through ritual, prayer, and sacrifice.

An invisible conveyor belt moved through the cosmos, carrying the gods and the forces of nature that they controlled from level to level. Gods traveled from the heavenly and underworld levels to converge on the earthly plane, bringing blessings or harm. Man had to be ever vigilant, protecting himself from the displeasure of these invisible invaders.

Three Centers of the Spirit

These levels, the celestial, earthly, and underworld planes, were manifested in the human body and informed the Aztec method of diagnosing illness. The Aztecs believed that the spirit resided in three centers of energy, which, like the universe itself, must be maintained in a state of balance.

The tonalli, corresponding to the celestial levels, was located in the head. Its name comes from the Nahuatl word for heat, tonal. Its patron is Tonatiuh, one of the names for the sun god. Loss of tonalli resulted in death. A corpse is cold, a living body warm, so the warmth of tonalli was the essence of physical life.

Tonalli could be strengthened or weakened. Illness, drunkenness, and excessive behavior weakened tonalli; bravery in battle strengthened it. Since tonalli was temporarily lost during sexual intercourse, celibacy made it stronger. Tonalli could also be strengthened by inhaling fragrances. Aztec doctors prescribed pleasant odors to relieve melancholy, stress, and fatigue, making them forerunners of today's aromatherapists.

Members of the nobility, the pipiltin class, believed that they had been born with greater tonalli than commoners. They increased their tonalli even more by postponing sexual activity until a relatively late age. For noble and commoner alike, tonalli increased with age, wisdom, and circumstance. The very old were held in high esteem, since they were full of strong tonalli.

Aztec shamans, called nahualli, under the influence of hallucinogenic plants, had the power to send tonalli out of their bodies and into the bodies of animals.

The second center of the spirit, the teyolia, was located in the heart, corresponding to the earthly plane. Thought, personality, and creativity were in the teyolia. Artists and poets had particularly powerful teyolia. Like tonalli, the teyolia could be harmed by carnal excess or immoral behavior. It could be strengthened through confession and penance, which was permitted only once in a lifetime.

The teyolia was the spirit that survived in the afterlife. The fate of a person's teyolia depended on the manner of death. The teyolia of a person who was sacrificed to the gods enjoyed the best fate of all. It shot straight up to a magnificent heaven. Next best was the fate of the teyolia of a warrior who bravely died in battle. His teyolia accompanied the sun on its journey from daybreak to noon for four years, after which it was reincarnated as a butterfly or a hummingbird. The teyolia of a woman who died during the birth of her first child was also honored. Her teyolia accompanied the sun from noon to sunset for four years, after which she became a powerful ghost who haunted the earth on certain days.

The teyolia of those people whose death was caused by the water god Tláloc -- by accidents such as drowning or being struck by lightning, or through diseases related to excess water in the body such as rheumatism and dropsy -- were sent on an arduous journey to the watery paradise of Tláloc and his female counterpart Chalchiuhtlicue. The teyolia of an infant who died while still nursing was returned to the heavens where it awaited another chance at life on earth. The teyolia of everybody else went to Mictlán, the underworld.

The third energy center was the ihiyotl, located in the liver, corresponding to the lower plane of the underworld. It was the center of vigor, of the breath, of all sorts of passions -- envy, anger, carnal desire. An ill or damaged liver exuded a dangerous gas that spread disease. Laziness was associated with a weakened ihiyotl. Just as we say of a cowardly person, "Oh, he doesn't have the guts," the Aztecs would say of a lazy person, "Oh, he doesn't have the liver."

Since these three centers of the spirit were located in the body, diagnosis of an illness was spiritual as well as physical. A head injury or a chill could result in loss of precious tonalli. Certain emotional traumas could result in damage to the ihiyotl, causing liver problems. A Nahuatl definition of rage was "swollen liver," which could explain the Mexican-American folk disease bilis, a liver-related ailment caused by coraje, excessive anger.

Magic and Medicine

The Aztecs believed that just as the balance of the opposing forces in the cosmos must be maintained, imbalances in the human body led to disease. Since human beings were created from the opposing elements of heaven and earth -- the blood of the gods and the crushed bones of a former race -- it was essential to maintain balance in the body. Bodily imbalance could be caused by excessive behavior, by infractions of the strict Aztec moral code, or by poor eating habits. An accident of any kind could unbalance the body, resulting in illness.

Disease could be inflicted by one of the many gods, as punishment for bad behavior, or it could be inflicted by a person with special powers. It was believed that some people, through no fault of their own, could involuntarily cause disease simply by looking at someone. Disease could also be caused by the malicious machinations of mortal sorcerers and witches.

These ideas have persisted over the centuries. Many people still believe that immoral or excessive behavior can lead to illness. Markets and botánicas still sell amulets to protect against the ojo fuerte or mal de ojo, the strong or evil eye. To this day in some Mexican-American neighborhoods it is commonly believed that anyone who looks admiringly at a child must also immediately touch that child, to negate the risk of accidentally inflicting the mal de ojo. And there still are professional brujas, good witches, who are hired to undo the evil spells of sorcerers.

The Aztecs knew that disease could also be caused by uncleanliness. Long before the invention of the microscope revealed the existence of microbes, they realized that disease could be passed invisibly from one person to another, by touch or through the air.

Aztec doctors were highly trained professionals. Like other trades, the practice of medicine was passed from father to son, mother to daughter, just as this gift of healing is handed down among generations of curanderos today. There were two kinds of Aztec doctors; all were specialists, each with an area of expertise patronized by one or more of the gods. The tepati treated illness on the physical level. The tictli treated illness on the spiritual level and were often trained in schools maintained by the priests. The services of both types of doctors might be required to remedy an illness.

The tlamatepatli were herbalists who treated gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory and genito-urinary infections, and cardiac problems. Aztec dentists used herbs to treat inflamed gums, pulled teeth, and also did their share of cosmetic dentistry, setting precious gems into the teeth of the wealthy.

The midwives, forerunners of the parteras of today, were known as tlamatquiticitl, meaning doctors who tap with their hands, because of their skill at palpating the bellies of their pregnant patients. They provided an excellent level of prenatal care, and partly because of their insistence on absolute cleanliness, the Aztec rate of survival in childbirth substantially exceeded that which prevailed in Europe where women routinely died from infections.

Aztec military surgeons were far more advanced than their European counterparts. Amazingly, Cortés and his men arrived in Mexico with a friar on board but no professional physician. The conquistadors dressed their battle wounds by searing them with hot oil. When they had no oil available, they cut the fat from the body of a slain opponent and melted it down to use as a dressing. If the wound began to ooze pus, they considered it a sign of healing.

The Aztec military surgeons first cleaned battle wounds with some sterile liquid; if nothing else was available, the urine of a healthy warrior would do fine for this purpose. Then they dressed the wound with maguey sap or pine oil, which discouraged infection. They stanched the bleeding with the herb coapatli (Commelina pallida), an effective styptic. They reduced swelling by applying the juice of the papaya or the prickly pear.

While European surgeons had no anesthetics to ease the suffering of their patients, the Aztec surgeon could choose from a selection of narcotic plants. They made their incisions with razor-thin obsidian knives and sutured them with human hair. Some Aztec doctors were highly skilled at setting bones, using feathers and the sap of a tree called liquidámbar to make a plaster.

But perhaps the most important of these specialists were the papiani or panamacani, the pharmacists who dispensed herbs and advice from their stalls in the tianguis, the great marketplaces. Cortés wrote to the king of Spain that in the great market at Tlateloco he had seen "herbalists selling all the many roots and medicinal plants that are found in the land. The apothecaries have houses of a sort there, where they sell medicines made from these herbs, for drinking and for ointments and salves." He could have been describing Mexico City's Sonora Market today.

Body and Soul

Since the Aztecs treated the body and spirit as one inseparable entity, they were, in a sense, holistic healers. In making a diagnosis, the Aztec doctor looked for the spiritual as well as the physical source of an illness. For example, if a man were to fall ill after having been exposed to a cold wind, the Aztec doctor, the teopati, might treat the symptoms caused by the chill. The spiritualist, the tictli, might try to discover which of the gods had inflicted the cold wind. He might divine the source of the illness by tossing corn kernels on a mat or into a vessel of water. Or he might ingest a hallucinogenic plant to put himself in an altered state so that his spirit, his tonalli, could travel through time and space to find the root of the illness.

In accordance with the Aztec dualistic worldview, the same god who caused an illness had the power to cure it. The doctors would treat the patient's physical symptoms, but they might also find it necessary to appease the god who caused them. In this way doctors and patient worked complicitously to remedy the illness through their shared belief system. The patient, believing that the appeased god would remove his illness, was psychologically primed to aid in his own recovery. This combination of the pharmaceutical and the spiritual added up to very effective medicine.

But these were no mere psychosomatic cures. We know this because the physical aspects of the treatment worked on the Spanish, who were firm nonbelievers. The sixteenth-century Spanish chronicles abound with tales of the Aztecs' medical superiority. The Franciscan friar Toribio Motolonía wrote, "Some of the Indians are so experienced that they have cured many old and serious infirmities which the Spaniards have suffered many days without finding a remedy." And Cortés reputedly wrote to King Carlos I telling him not to bother sending any physicians to New Spain, as the native ones there were far better than those he knew at home.

The Gods Must Be Dead

The Aztecs feared that their gods had abandoned them. Huitzilopochtli, the sun god who had led them to victory after victory, now permitted them to be defeated and humiliated by the Spanish. Nanáhuatl, who had protected them from loathsome diseases, now allowed them to suffer the horrors of a lethal and disfiguring scourge, as smallpox swept through every household in the capital of Tenochtitlán. Tonantzín, the grandmother, the earth goddess, goddess of medicine, who had watched over and nurtured them, now allowed them to be impoverished and enslaved. Still, they were unwilling to relinquish their will and their lives to the god of the Spaniards.

After the initial fury that resulted in the destruction of the ancient archives, the Church realized that the tactics of the Inquisition were not serving their purpose. Despite the public floggings and burnings of heretics, forced conversion was not going well at all. The specter of physical torture had done little to enhance the appeal of Christianity. In 1538, King Carlos I issued a decree that suspended the jurisdiction of the Inquisition over the "Indians" and limited the corporeal punishments that could be inflicted on them. A more tolerant approach was called for if the glad tidings of Christianity were to be received.

In 1524, twelve Franciscans from Cortés's home region of Extremadura had sailed into Vera Cruz harbor and walked barefoot from there to the colonial capital of Mexico City. When they arrived, Cortés, who was known to have been fanatically religious, astonished the emperor, Cuahtémoc, and the assembled Aztec nobility by kneeling and kissing first the tattered habit of their leader, Martín de Valencia, and then the hands of each friar.

The first friars to arrive in the colony were humanists. They were resolutely determined to root out the ancient Aztec ways and to convert the heathens, but within the limits prescribed by their mission, they championed the cause of the natives. The friars immediately applied themselves to the mastery of Nahuatl and other native languages, realizing that they would need to communicate with the people they aimed to convert.

In the interest of creating a "civilized" society, the Franciscans established schools where they taught Spanish, Latin, ecclesiastical music, and painting to the children of the fallen Aztec nobility. They taught the students to write in their native Nahuatl, using the alphabet in place of phonetic glyphs. (The Aztecs were not always delighted with these new educational opportunities and often hid their favorite sons to avoid having to send them to the friars' schools, or they sent the children of servants in their place.)

The aptitude of the native Mexicans astonished the Franciscans. In his Historia de los Indios de Nueva España, Fray Toribio Motolonía devoted an entire chapter solely to the brilliance of these students. He claims that they learned to write the alphabet in only a few days and were quickly able to speak Spanish and Latin, composing "long and well-written essays in hexameter and pentameter."

The Franciscans' admiration was not always shared by the secular Spaniards, many of whom thought it was an outrageous idea to educate these "heathens" whom they preferred to use as beasts of burden. Don Jerónimo López, an adviser to the first viceroy of Mexico, actually wrote in outrage to Carlos I, complaining that there were Aztec boys in the Franciscan schools "who speak Latin as elegantly as Cicero."

Fortunately, the viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, ignored his adviser. He wrote a different sort of letter to the court, requesting funds to establish a college of higher learning for Aztec boys. Mendoza supplemented these funds from his own purse, designating that the income from some of his lands should be used to support the college. In 1536 the Colegio de Santa Cruz was established at Tlateloco, which at that time was the suburban "Indian quarter" of Mexico City. In addition to Latin, philosophy, logic, mathematics, and music, the curriculum included a course in Aztec medicine, taught by native doctors.

The Friars' Legacy

The earliest surviving record of Aztec medical knowledge was produced at the college. The Libellus de medicinalibus indorum herbis, the Little Book of Medicinal Herbs of the Indies, popularly known as the Aztec Herbal of 1552, was probably intended as a gift for the Spanish king. It was created at the request of the viceroy and sent to the court at a time when royal interest in the school had waned and funds were dwindling. It must have been hoped that the little book would impress the crown with the value of keeping the college open.

Its author was an Aztec physician, a convert, who had taken the Christian name Martín de la Cruz. His text, written in Nahuatl, was translated into Latin by another convert, Juan Badianus, probably a teacher at the college. The book was completed under the watchful eye of the Franciscan rector, who would have deleted the least hint of heresy, so all of the Aztec medical theory is missing. The authenticity of the remedies themselves is suspect, since they include elements of sixteenth-century European medical practice. They involve elaborate combinations of herbs, stones, and animal parts, which was the custom of European physicians of the time, who liked to impress their patients by cooking up complicated remedies using lots of ingredients, whereas Aztec medicines more often involved the use of only a single herb.

Another teacher at the college, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, bequeathed to posterity the purest record of Aztec medicine. Long before modern anthropologists began traveling around with tape recorders, Fray Sahagún used a series of questionnaires to take testimony from a group of aged informants who could still remember pre-Cortesian life. Working with a team of students over the course of forty years, Sahagún laboriously recorded many aspects of Aztec culture.

His Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, General History of the Things of New Spain, included eighty pages on the uses of medicinal plants, which he said were taken from the testimony of native doctors. Other sections dealt with Aztec ideas about the human body and illness. The volumes, which were illustrated by native artists, were organized in double columns, with the original Nahuatl testimony side-by-side with a paraphrased Spanish version.

The books were completed in 1569. A year later the Holy Inquisition was established in Mexico. Sahagún's work was deemed heretical, and all of his papers were confiscated. He was able to return to the project a decade later, but this time he made a number of judicious changes. In 1585 he completed a revised version, which was sent to Madrid.

By the end of the sixteenth century the hierarchy of the Church included the first generation of criollos, Mexican-born Spaniards, who were considerably less sympathetic to the "Indians." The eager idealism of the early friars had been dampened by a growing cynicism as the ancient Aztec religion proved to be a stubborn and insidious foe.

The tictli, the Aztec spiritual healers, were considered witches or sorcerers who had made a pact with the devil and must be routed out. One criollo priest, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, was so zealous in performing his duties that in 1614 he was investigated by the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico City for conducting autos-da-fé and public floggings. Three years later he was appointed an ecclesiastical judge. In performing his duties as an informant to the Inquisition, he unwittingly preserved the very rituals he was so fanatically determined to eliminate. In his Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentilicas que oy viven entre los indios naturales desta Nueva España, Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, Ruiz de Alarcón placed the medicinal uses of the herbs in context, describing the entire ritual and including the invocations in the original Nahuatl. He recorded not only a selection of the Nahuatl prayers he deemed most offensive but also his own haughty attitude toward these "wretched people," "these mangy sheep."

Trafficking in Herbs

Meanwhile, back in Madrid, the royal court was hearing about the amazing vegetation of New Spain. For some time Europe had been intrigued with the possibility of finding miracle cures in the Americas. Columbus had set sail in search of a route to the land of herbs and spices. When he found instead a whole new world of plants he couldn't identify, he decided to come back with an expert. On his second voyage he brought along one of the royal Spanish physicians. Reports from expeditions such as that one, and the news that was now filtering back from Mexico, led the crown to realize that the medicinal plants of the colonies were yet another natural resource to be exploited.

Felipe II, who had succeeded Carlos I on the throne, decided to commission a botanical survey. He appointed one of the most esteemed scientists in all of Spain to do the job. Francisco Hernández, a physician to the court, was named protomédico of the Indies and sent off across the seas, charged with the gargantuan task of cataloging all the flora and fauna of New Spain.

Accompanied by his son, Hernández sailed in 1570, half a century after the fall of the Aztecs. For the next seven years he traveled throughout the colony with a team of native interpreters and artists, asking everywhere about the properties and medical benefits of the plants. He endured freezing cold and blistering heat; he crossed treacherous mountains and rivers. He had to overcome the jealousy and distrust of the Spanish doctors in New Spain and the trickery of his interpreters and of the native healers, who were by now very old and often reluctant to give him good information. He spent a great deal of time in the former imperial botanical gardens at Huaxtepec, cataloging the medicinal plants and interviewing the Aztec doctors there. He was astounded by the knowledge of these native herbalists who, he said, knew how to use everything that grew -- just as an expert Mexican-American yerbera, today will tell you that every plant heals something if you know how to use it. Hernández was a relentless and conscientious researcher, often trying out remedies on himself. In 1577 he presented the court with his monumental Historia natural de la Nueva España, eleven volumes in which he listed some 3,076 plants, most of which were used for medicinal purposes.

The Spanish practiced the most advanced medicine in the Western world, having benefited from the legacy of the ancient Arabs and Hebrews, courtesy of the recently expelled Moors and Jews. But European medicine hadn't made much progress since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Throughout the Middle Ages, medicine had been dispensed primarily by the Church. Pre-Christian ideas had been discarded as "heathen." But renaissance Europe re-embraced the medical theories of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen, and the profession of learned physicians flourished again.

The Four Humors

Because Francisco Hernández was an enlightened scientist of his day, he was an expert on the humoral theory of medicine. Hippocrates first put forth the idea that the four elements -- earth, wind, rain, and fire, were present in the human body. Illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humors that related to these four elements: blood, which was hot and moist; yellow bile, which was hot and dry; black bile, which was cold and dry; and phlegm, which was cold and moist. When we say today that someone is in a foul humor, we are referring to this ancient theory.

Hernández was trained in the accepted medical theory of his time, based on the teachings of Galen, a second century Alexandrian physician who had developed a method for characterizing diseases and their remedies based on the four humors. Medicines were analyzed by the degree to which they were hot, cold, moist, or dry. An illness caused by an excess of phlegm, which is cold and moist, would be cured by administering a treatment that was hot and dry to correct the imbalance.

Hernández classified the plants he found in New Spain in accordance with his Galenic training. This scientific analysis gave the New World plants credibility in Europe. We do exactly the same thing today, analyzing the chemical constituents of the ancient medicinal plants to determine whether they work and explain why. We look for corroborating evidence according to our own modern science, just as Hernández did.

The Mystery of the Lost Volumes

In one of the stranger turns of history, all the volumes of de la Cruz, Sahagún, and Hernández disappeared for centuries. The de la Cruz Aztec herbal never reached the hands of the king for whom it was so carefully created. It was received instead by his son, who immediately consigned it to the royal archives where it was forgotten for 377 years. An American professor came upon it completely by accident in 1929 while doing research for the Smithsonian Institution at the Vatican library. In the same year an Italian translation of the manuscript was discovered in the English Royal Library at Windsor. How the book ended up in these two libraries remains a mystery.

A similar fate befell the volumes of testimony that Fray Sahagún had so patiently and meticulously collected. When the manuscript reached Madrid, it was quickly confiscated. The Church was working hard to obliterate the very practices and ideas that Sahagún had written down in Nahuatl, the Aztecs' own language. Considered dangerous and subversive, his work was hidden under lock and key. The volumes were not published until 1829, 240 years after they were sent to Spain.

Poor Francisco Hernández, who had labored so arduously and so long to complete his mammoth encyclopedia, died without seeing his work published. By the time he returned to Spain, the mood of the court had shifted. Under the influence of certain Italian advisers, the king decided the work was too long to be useful. Hernández was cast aside, and an Italian court physician was assigned to reorganize his work and edit it down to a more manageable length. The original illustrations, drawn by native artists, were replaced by more "appropriate" European drawings. This butchered and inaccurate version was published in 1615. To add insult to injury, Hernández's work was plagiarized by other authors for years, and the original manuscript, which had been stored in the Escorial, outside of Madrid, was lost when the building caught fire in 1671. More than a century later a copy was found in the Imperial College of Madrid. But his prodigious work was largely unknown and ignored until the 1940s when it was published by the Universidad Autónoma de México (Mexico's national university with campuses all over the country), in Mexico City.

Although Felipe II had cooled toward Hernández, he was still intent on exploiting the natural resources of his American colony. Between 1579 and 1585 a questionnaire was sent to each of the 177 cabeceras de poblados, the regional capitals, asking for detailed information on the flora and fauna. Two of the fifty questions referred specifically to medicinal plants and their uses. As the completed questionnaires made their way back to Spain, interest in the healing herbs of the New World became intense. New World plants began arriving by the boatload in Spanish ports. And in Seville, a physician named Nicolás Monardes wrote a book that became an international bestseller.

Joyful News from the NewFound World

Monardes completed the three volumes he called Historia Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina in 1574. The work was "Englished" by John Frampton in 1596, who published it under the much snappier title Joyfulle Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde. Eventually the book was published in twenty-six editions and translated into Latin, French, Italian, and other languages.

Like Hernández, Monardes had been educated at the esteemed University of Alcalá. Both men were renaissance scientists who rejected the superstition and magic of the Middle Ages in favor of experimentation and the more enlightened science of Hippocrates and Galen. Monardes backed up his descriptions of the medicinal plants with what today might be called case studies, stories of the cures he had witnessed. And he included detailed instructions on how the plants should be used in treatments. His remedies appropriated the New World plants and adapted them to Old World medical practices. The cultural context in which the plants had been so effectively used didn't concern him. He would have tossed all that aside as paganism.

Monardes was an entrepreneur as well as a doctor, importing medicinal plants from the New World. His book must have been good for business. With the New World medicinal plants now backed up by science, their use exploded in Europe. Plants from the Americas began to be included in standard herbal texts as a whole new repertoire of herbal remedies transformed European medicine.

Mestizo Medicine

Soon after the conquest, European plants began arriving in Mexico. In one of his letters to the king, Cortés requested that every ship that set sail for New Spain be required to carry a specified number of European seeds and plants. The vegetation of Mexico, which may have been the most varied in the world when Cortés arrived, soon became even more diverse.

In the early days of the colony, the Spanish had been forced to look for native plants that would substitute for those they had used in Europe. They were motivated to stay close to Aztec doctors and to learn from them. But when European herbs became available, they reverted to these more familiar medicines.

The friars were health practitioners, administering European herbs to their parishioners. Native Mexicans soon integrated the friars' herbs into their own traditional remedies. European medicinal herbs escaped from mission gardens and have been growing wild throughout Mexico and the American Southwest ever since. More than half the plants used in traditional Mexican-American medicine today are of European origin, including many of the most commonly used and beloved herbs such as manzanilla, yerba buena, ruda, and romero -- chamomile, spearmint, rue, and rosemary.

In 1691, Johannes Steinhoffer, a young Moravian lay-Jesuit who was trained as a pharmacist and physician, was sent to the colony to administer to the medical needs of his fellow missionaries. The Jesuits had been latecomers to the New World, preceded by the Franciscans, the Augustinians, and the Dominicans, so they were assigned the less desirable territories of northwestern New Spain. Jesuit botanists and pharmacists like Steinhoffer began to catalog the medicinal herbs of this arid terrain and to learn about their uses from native healers.

In 1712, near the end of his life, Steinhoffer completed a book that was to remain a standard text for centuries. Writing under the more "politically correct" name of Juan de Esteyneffer, he compiled his Florilegio medicinal de todas las enfermedades, Anthology of Medicines for All Illnesses. Although the book concentrates on European herbs, thirty-five indigenous medicinal plants are included among the remedies listed. Because the book was not intended for medical professionals but for missionaries who were stationed in remote areas, far from the services of a doctor or pharmacist, it was written in an accessible language that could be followed easily. The Florilegio became a household reference, passed down from mother to daughter throughout northern Mexico and what is now the southwestern United States. Many of the traditional Mexican-American remedies still used today can be found on its pages.

The friars brought European medical theories with them to the New World. Medical texts by Pliny and Galen were on the shelves of the library at the Colegio de Santa Cruz and other Franciscan schools. The humoral theory of hot and cold, wet and dry was close to the ancient Aztec notion of duality in the cosmos, of the opposing forces; the heat of tonalli versus the cold loss of the spirit; the heat of the sun's kingdom versus the cold of the underworld. Native Mexicans incorporated some of the humoral theory into their own remedies, and these ideas, merged with the hot and cold Aztec concept of duality, have persisted over the centuries.

In his book The Virgin's Children, anthropologist William Madsen reported that in the village of Tecospan, not far from Mexico City, people continue to classify everything in the world. Alka-Seltzer is "fresh" (a degree of cold), iodine is hot, movies are cold. The world continues to be understood as a struggle to maintain the balance of opposing forces.

In Las Cruces, New Mexico, an elderly woman asks for yerba de víbora, a "hot" herb, because she is suffering from a "cold" stomach. In East L.A., a yerbera instructs her daughter to let the herbs soak in alcohol for nine days, and in San Antonio, a curandera tells her patients to massage their bellies nine times to the right, then nine times to the left, invoking the Aztec mystical number -- the nine celestial levels and the nine levels of the underworld. This is the legacy of Mexican-American medicine, the persistence of ancient ideas.

Aztec medicine had been demolished in every way possible. The medical texts had been destroyed in the burning of the codices. The fragments of ancient knowledge preserved by de la Cruz, Sahagún, Hernández, and others had been buried and forgotten. The relentlessly vigilant Mexican Inquisition had forced the native healers to abandon their practices or continue them in secret under peril of death. Even the most secular Aztec herbalists were persecuted by Spanish doctors whose very credibility was threatened by the remarkable effectiveness of these "heathen" remedies. The Aztecs used plants for ritual as well as medicine. Herbs such as the Mexican marigold, cempoalxóchitl, which had been used in ceremonies honoring the old gods, were banned by the Church and replaced with "Christian" substitutes such as rosemary.

Still the old knowledge persisted. Native healers quietly passed the legacy from mother to daughter, father to son, just as they had always done, just as they continue to do. Aztec medicine had been infected with the ways of Europe. It had become a mestizo, but it had survived. What had been a mainstream, professionally practiced medicine went underground and became the "folk medicine" still practiced today, the medicine called curanderismo.

Aztec Revivals

Near the dawn of the nineteenth century, as science began to replace religion as the source of absolute truth, the Aztec herbs attracted a new interest. In 1786 the king of Spain, Carlos II, issued a decree that unearthed a copy of the original manuscript of Francisco Hernández's botanical encyclopedia. At the same time he ordered the establishment of a royal botanical garden in Mexico City and sponsored expeditions to study New World plants.

Two Spaniards, Martín Sesse and Vicente Cervantes, sailed for Mexico. A second expedition was conducted by the Mexican botanist José Mariano Mociño. These scientists collected and studied the flora of Mexico from a new perspective, using the newly developed Linnean method of classifying plants with Latin names according to genus and species. The expeditions brought more than thirty-five hundred species to the herbarium in Madrid. Twenty-five hundred of them had been previously unknown in Europe.

In 1801, Mociño, working with Dr. José Montaña, initiated hospital studies in Mexico City to determine whether the indigenous Mexican plants really had curative properties. Using the best science of the era, they classified the plants as effectively astringent, corrosive, aromatic stimulant, or narcotic. They were able to show why each of the plants would have worked in the Aztec remedies. In their report Mociño and Montaña made the same arguments that are echoed by proponents of herbal medicine today. They said that the herbs they had studied were safer, less expensive, and more effective than many of the mainstream treatments in use at the time.

Although science was beginning to pay attention to the Aztec plants, curanderos, the native healers who used them, gained no such respect. There were very few doctors in Mexico, and fewer still who were willing to treat poor indigenous people. In rural areas, access to mainstream medical care was virtually nonexistent. More than half the population relied solely on the local medicinal herbs and services of curanderos. But the practice of curanderismo was outlawed. Curanderos were sentenced to a hefty fine and exile if they were caught practicing their craft. The punishment increased each time the curandero was apprehended. This law was not repealed until 1842, two decades after Mexico had won its independence from Spain. The new law that replaced it was not much better, labeling curanderos and yerberos as vagrants, quacks who should be punished by being pressed into military service. To this day if you look up curandero in a Spanish-English dictionary, you will find the word defined as "quack" or "witch doctor."

After the revolution of 1910 that overthrew dictator Porfirio Díaz, Mexico began to look back, searching for its pre-Hispanic identity. For the first time since the chronicles of the early friars an effort was made to salvage remnants of the lost Mesoamerican civilizations. The National Institute of Anthropology and History founded in 1939 by President Lázaro Cárdenas, continues to do important archaeological and ethnobotanical work throughout Mexico. Mexico's national university in Mexico City established the Seminar on Nahuatl Culture in 1957 and the Institute of Anthropological Research in 1973.

In 1989, under the auspices of the National Indigenous Institute, an extensive research project was begun, working pueblo by pueblo with local curanderos to record the old herbal remedies. The result is an immense computer-driven database, the Atlas de la Plantas de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana, which catalogs the names and uses of medicinal plants throughout Mexico. Still, the old knowledge continues to disappear. As researchers Arturo Argueta and Abigaíl Aguilar have written, "With each indigenous wise man who dies, it is as if a library of sixteenth-century books goes up in flames."

Today almost everyone in Mexico uses the traditional herbal remedies to some extent. The old medicines have never fallen out of use in rural areas where, despite the efforts of the government to send doctors into the field, herbs are still the most readily available form of treatment. Urban Mexicans use both ancient herbs and modern pharmaceuticals. The effectiveness of the old herbal remedies is generally accepted as fact, and in some sophisticated circles it has become fashionable to know a certain marvelous curandero you can recommend to your friends.

Curanderismo en el Norte

In the United States, Mexican nationals crossed the border looking for work, bringing their knowledge of the ancient healing ways to el norte, where a new tradition of Mexican-American folk medicine began to evolve.

Traditional medicine is very regional in Mexico. The Tarascans of Michoacán have their own legacy of herbal knowledge. In Oaxaca the heritage is Zapotec. In the Yucatán it's Maya. In Sonora and Chihuahua it's the legacy of the Tarahumara, Yaqui, and other tribes. Each region has the legacy, too, of the friars who were missionaries there -- the Franciscans in the central valley of Mexico and the Jesuits in the northwest. Each pueblo uses the plants that grow nearby. The names of the plants, and sometimes their uses, differ from pueblo to pueblo.

But in Mexican-American neighborhoods, all these regions meet. The Chávez family from Jalisco find themselves living next door to the Alvarado family from Sonora and the Flores family from Morelos. At times the differences within the Mexican-American community itself can result in an herbal tower of Babel. In his encyclopedic Catálogo de Nombres Vulgares y Científicos de Plantas Mexicanas, the great twentieth-century Mexican botanist Maximino Martínez listed eleven different plants called mirto. In Nuevo León, mirto is a species of sage, Salvia coccinea. In Oaxaca it's a different sage, Salvia microphylla. In Durango it's another plant altogether, Bouvardia ternifolia. And Bouvardia ternifolia, meanwhile, has at least eleven other regional names in addition to mirto. In Sinaloa its called yerba del indio; in Hidalgo it's trompetilla. But there are other plants called yerba del indio and trompetilla in different parts of Mexico. Communicating with your neighbors about the herbs can be a challenge even if you're all speaking Spanish.

The Mexican herbal remedies were also influenced by other neighbors in the United States. There are Spanish families who have lived in the Southwest since the sixteenth century when the territory was still Nueva España, long before California, Arizona, and New Mexico became part of the United States. These families have their own mestizo medicine that integrates sixteenth-century Spanish medicine with the medicinal herbs native to the Southwest, including a few healing herbs such as oshá and cota (Navajo tea) learned from local North American tribes.

In south Texas many botánicas sell traditional herbs of two cultures side-by-side, accommodating both their Mexican-American and African-American customers.

The traditional remedies continue to evolve. Like their wandering Aztec ancestors, Mexican Americans are resourceful people, learning to make use of whatever is available. Patent medicines such as aspirin and castor oil have been added to the pharmacopoeia. Barrio botánicas sell Chinese ginseng and tiger balm along with Mexican palo azul and tlachichinola.

Aztec doctors treated the mind and body as one. They understood the value of touch, of massage. They empowered their patients by requiring them to participate in their own recovery. They spent time with members of the patient's family, enlisting their help in the cure. Modern curanderos, the descendants of the Aztec tepati and tictli, practice healing in these same ways. In this era of the HMO and the fifteen-minute consultation, it's no wonder they continue to find patients.

Distrust and inadequate access to the established medical system, the cost of visits to the doctor and expensive prescription drugs, the language barrier, the isolation of rural areas and urban barrios are all reasons why recently arrived immigrants from Mexico continue to resort to traditional herbal medicines. But many educated, assimilated Mexican Americans, professionals with excellent health care plans, also continue to take infusions of barba de maíz for cystitis, passiflora for insomnia, or gordolobo for a chest cold. If you ask why, they will tell you that these remedies work, that the herbs are gentle, safe, cheap, and effective. They may also tell you that these remedies worked safely for their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and that they don't need the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration in the face of such irrefutable proof.

Most Mexican-American herbal remedies are dispensed at home, like grandmother's chicken soup. If an illness can't be cured within the family, a more knowledgeable neighbor may be consulted. In some cases the family may turn to a professional curandero for help. Curanderos, like the Aztec doctors, tend to specialize. Parteras, traditional midwives, still practice their craft along the border. Some have studied modern medical techniques and become licensed. Sobradoras specialize in massage. Yerberas are expert in the uses of the herbs. Like the Aztec doctors, curanderos can also be spiritual specialists. Some are brujas, good witches. Some are diviners who use tarot cards and other tools to see the unseeable. Mexican Americans may turn to the medical establishment only as a last resort, or they may turn to a curandero when the doctor's medicine fails to help.

This has been a problem for professional health care workers. In the Southwest, where doctors and nurses often treat patients newly arrived from Mexico, medical schools teach their students something about Mexican culture and the traditional remedies so they'll know what they are up against. A "Handbook for Public Health Nurses Working with Spanish-Americans," issued by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in New Mexico in 1964, outlined the problems faced by the medical establishment, including the fact that for some Spanish Americans "the conviction that scientific practitioners or medicines are clearly superior to traditional ones may be lacking."

While some doctors and nurses recognize the value of curanderismo in treating psychological problems and psychosomatic aspects of illness, the use of medicinal herbs has caused difficulties. Since many patients are embarrassed to admit to doctors that they are also taking herbal remedies, double dosing and drug interaction is always a danger. The herbs have rarely been considered a potentially useful form of treatment.

But now that herbal medicine is becoming a big business, the medical establishment in the United States is beginning to take a more serious look at alternative remedies. Major pharmaceutical companies, anxious to cash in on this multibillion-dollar industry, have begun to enter the market, producing their own brand-name herbal preparations. Since most medical research in the United States is funded by the drug companies, this should mean that more money will be directed toward studying the traditional herbs.

In Mexico the medicinal herbs have been under investigation since the founding of the Instituto Médico Nacional in 1888 and have continued to be studied under the auspices of Mexico's national university and other organizations. These studies analyze the phytochemistry of the herbs, looking for a chemical explanation of their uses. There have been some animal studies, as well, but very few human clinical trials.

The Germans have been leaders in the field of phytochemistry. It was in Germany that St. John's Wort was legitimized as an alternative treatment for depression. Medicinal herbs are taught in German medical schools, and doctors there frequently prescribe them. German scientists have begun to join their Mexican counterparts in studying the medicinal plants of Mexico.

In the United States, the University of Illinois School of Pharmacy maintains a database known as NAPRALERT, which stands for Natural Products Alert. It contains information on the chemistry and activity of plant and animal extracts relating to more than forty thousand organisms, using sources that date back to 1650.

But while exotic kava kava from the South Pacific and ginseng from China are herbal superstars, the hundreds of medicinal plants growing in our own southwestern backyards continue to be all but unknown outside the Mexican-American community -- and rarely explored by the scientific establishment. We can assume that these plants are useful remedies, based on the empirical evidence of hundreds of years of continuous use. But we haven't done many studies to find out why they work. And in some cases it may not be possible to find a rational, twenty-first century scientific explanation. There is always the possibility that a remedy may not be effective outside its cultural context.

Native herbalists have a profound knowledge of the herbs, passed down through many generations. They know exactly when to pick an herb and how to store it, prepare it, and administer it. It may not be possible to simply isolate the active chemical component of every healing plant and transform it into a standard-dosage, easy-to-swallow capsule.

But the herb business is booming, and as more big companies get into the market, they inevitably look for the next big herbal superstar. Eventually, for better or worse, they may begin to focus on the hundreds of indigenous herbs used every day in Mexican-American neighborhoods throughout the country. The legacy of Aztec medicine may be coming soon to a supermarket or pharmacy near you.

Los Santos Curanderos

The tradition of the Aztec healer, the tepati, or tictli, continues to this day in rural villages and urban barrios. In modern curanderismo, San Martín de Porres, San Judas Tadeo, and la Virgín de Guadalupe have taken the place of Tláloc, Quetzlcóatl, and Tonantzín. The Ave Maria and the Apostles' Creed have replaced the ancient Aztec incantations. The Greco-Roman theories of the four humors have been fused with the medicines of the Toltecs, Mixtecs, Olmecs, and Tarahumara, Spanish, Moors, and Jews. The modern curandero heals with Aztec toloatzin, German chamomile, and Vick's Vaporub.

From this potent blend of traditions, legendary faith healers have arisen -- miracle-working curanderos whose followers place them among the pantheon of the Catholic saints.

Santa Teresa de Cabora

Teresa Urrea was born in 1872 or 1873. Her father was the son of a wealthy Sinaloa rancher; her mother was a fourteen-year-old Yaqui girl who briefly satisfied his youthful lust. Teresa became a legend not only for her miraculous healing powers but because of the role she inadvertently played in the revolt against Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Although her father, Tomás Urrea, eventually fathered seventeen more children, he decided to acknowledge her, perhaps because she grew up to be lovely looking and charming, accomplished at singing and playing the guitar. At the age of sixteen she moved out of her mother's hut and into the great house at Rancho Cabora.

According to the legend, in her father's house Teresa met an old Yaqui curandero with whom she began her desarollo, her apprenticeship in the art of curanderismo, learning how to use the traditional remedies. Like many curanderas, she discovered her extraordinary healing power while in an altered state.

When a suitor whom she had rebuffed attempted to rape her, Teresa became severely traumatized. She was catatonic, her heartbeat imperceptible. Assuming she was dead, her family prepared to bury her, but at the wake, while the mourners held their vigil, Teresa suddenly sat up in her coffin and spoke. Three days later the old Yaqui curandero who had been Teresa's teacher died and was buried in the same coffin.

Teresa had come back to life, but for three months she was lost, distracted, and strange. She seemed to be seeing apparitions and speaking to God. During this time it was somehow discovered that she had a healing touch. The word of her miraculous gift spread quickly. So many pilgrims came from all over Mexico that her father was forced to open a cantina to sell food to the throngs of followers.

Porfirio Díaz had seized control of the country, canceled elections, and begun to systematically wipe out his opponents. He had struck a deal with the Church, in which he agreed to leave their holdings untouched, so in order to reward his allies, he seized lands from the native Mexican tribes, using any excuse to confiscate them. Soon the Tarahumara, Yaqui, and Mayo rose up against the Díaz regime. The rebels chose Teresa, the legendary half-Yaqui healer, as their patron. ¡Viva la Santa de Cabo de Cabora! became their battle cry. Díaz was not amused. Teresa and her father were summarily escorted to the border at Nogales.

In Arizona they were welcomed by the Mexican-American community and given a house. They moved from Nogales to El Bosque, to Solomonville, to El Paso. Wherever they went, the crippled and ill came in droves for Teresa's miracle cures.

Teresa never said a word in public that would implicate her in the rebellion, and she tried in vain to deny any involvement. In an open letter to the El Paso Herald in 1896 she wrote, "I am not one who encourages such uprisings, nor one who in any way mixes up with them....I have noticed with much pain that the persons who have taken up arms in Mexican territory have invoked my name in aid of the schemes they are carrying through."

To avoid any further implication in the politics of the rebellion, the family moved to the quiet mining town of Clifton, Arizona. A physician there, observing Teresa's work, began sending patients to her. Validated by at least one member of the medical profession, her reputation spread. She was hired by a medical company to tour the United States on a promotional "curing crusade."

In 1906 a terrible flood washed over Clifton, Arizona. Teresa was on the front lines night and day, dragging people out of the raging waters and mud slides, administering to the sick and dying. She herself became gravely ill. Knowing that the end was near, she sent for her Yaqui mother, whom she had not seen in seventeen years. The newspapers reported her death as the passing of a saint. In Clifton, where she is buried in exile beside her father, her grave is known as the shrine of Santa Teresa de Cabora.

Don Pedrito

In any south Texas botánica you can find a selection of statues, medals, and photographs depicting the legendary curandero Don Pedrito Jaramillo, a formidable looking man with a long white beard and a round-brimmed black hat. But in each of his portraits there is a flaw: a funny line across the nose in his photograph, a cracked nose on the plastic statuette. The scar on Don Pedro's nose is never retouched or omitted, because the accident that left him with this scar showed him the way to his gift of healing.

Pedro Jaramillo was born near Guadalajara in 1829. He spent most of his life in the countryside working as a shepherd. When his beloved mother fell ill, he prayed to God, vowing that if she didn't get well, he'd leave Mexico. But his prayers went unanswered, and after his mother's death, Pedro Jaramillo made good on his threat. He loaded up his saddle bags and headed north for the border. He was fifty-two years old and determined to start over in Falfurrias, Texas, near Los Olmos creek. One day he fell off his horse and landed on his nose. The pain was terrible. Then something compelled him to bathe his poor nose in the mud of a lagoon. For three days he kept his nose covered in mud. On the third night God spoke to him in a dream, telling him that he had el don, the gift of healing, and that he must now devote his life to helping others. The next day the pain in his nose was gone.

In those days the few doctors in rural south Texas were Anglos with little interest in treating poor Mexican Americans. Pedro Jaramillo became Don Pedrito, the healer of Los Olmos, savior of the sick and the poor. His good works are legendary. He never charged for his services, but with the donations he received, he fed the pilgrims who came to see him. During the drought of 1903 he opened his barn and gave away his stock of grains and groceries to feed the hungry. He financed the travel expenses of those who couldn't afford to come to Falfurrias, and he toured south Texas, visiting those who were too ill to come. When the railroad came to Falfurrias, Don Pedrito's fame grew. Patients came from all over the Southwest and Mexico.

At the heart of curanderismo is the belief that healing can take place only with the help of God, a legacy from the ancient Aztec belief that illnesses were inflicted by the gods and that only the gods could cure them, and from the early Catholic friars who taught the notion of God's will and the power of prayer. Don Pedrito never took credit for his cures. He said that he was only able to heal by releasing the power of God through the faith of his patients. Carrying out his remedies often required a leap of faith, and he always insisted on prayer.

He used the traditional herbs, but many of his remedies were unique. He would instruct his patients to drink a glass of warm water or take a certain number of baths. He prescribed black coffee, whisky, canned tomatoes. His therapies often involved sequences of nine, the Aztec mystical number, or three, evoking the Holy Trinity. He might tell a patient to take a walk every day for nine days or to take three sips of water.

After his death in 1907, many of his followers believed that he would continue his healing work from the spirit world. A little chapel was erected over his grave in Falfurrias. Inside there are two altars, side by side, one honoring Jesus Christ, the other Don Pedrito. The walls of the chapel are plastered with notes, photographs, messages, and even driver's licenses left by the faithful. Pilgrims still visit every day, lighting candles, bringing fresh flowers, praying for help, believing that Don Pedrito hears their prayers and has the power to answer them.

El Niño Fidencio

Twice a year, in October and March, thousands of people descend on the tiny northern Mexico town of Espinazo, near Nuevo León. They come from both sides of the border, driving recreational vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans. They crowd the narrow, dusty streets and the tiny train station. They are pilgrims commemorating the birthday and saint's day of a strange young man who died in 1938.

José Fidencio Sinotra Constantino was born near Guanajuato. In 1925, when he was twenty-seven years old, he moved to Espinazo to work as a housekeeper on the hacienda of Don López de la Fuente. According to the legend, he had been healing people since childhood. In Espinazo he became the most famous curandero in history.

There are varying accounts of the incident that transformed El Niño Fidencio from a humble rural healer to a national legend. It was a difficult time in the history of Mexico. The Catholic Church, which had held enormous influence over the country since the arrival of the first friars, was engaged in a power struggle with the government of President Pultarco Elías Calles, who had severely restricted the political influence of the Church and secularized the schools. When the clergy protested, he deported two hundred priests back to Spain, igniting the guerrilla war known as the Guerra Cristero.

In 1928, at the height of the conflict, President Calles astonished the country by paying a visit to El Niño Fidencio. That a president would consult a curandero was big news. That Calles took the time, in the midst of a national crisis, to travel to a remote village to see an uneducated mestizo spiritual healer put the story over the top. It was the mountain coming to Mohammed. And by publicly demonstrating his own faith in the folk religion of the lower classes even as he fought to undermine the Catholic establishment, Calles gave yet another slap to the Church.

Some say that Calles had a daughter, whom he had kept hidden, and that El Niño had amazed the president by telling him all about her. Others say that this daughter was ill and that the president traveled to Espinazo hoping to find a cure for her. Still others say that El Niño Fidencio cured the president himself of a chronic ailment.

Whatever the curandero did for President Calles, he earned his continued gratitude. The patronage of the president made the humble curandero a superstar. Dressed in white robes, his feet bare, he held court under a big pepper tree at the edge of the village. The sick and the crippled began to make the difficult trip to Espinazo by the thousands. El Niño worked the crowd, reaching out to touch thousands of outstretched hands. He believed in the healing power of laughter, good food, good times, and music. His miraculous cures became legendary.

All his life he was called El Niño, Niñito -- names usually reserved for children -- not out of disrespect, but affection. He is remembered as a gentle soul, an innocent, childlike man with the high-pitched voice of a young boy.

The circumstances of his death are a mystery. He told his followers that he was going away, leaving for a place where no one could follow him. He said he needed to be alone for three days. Some say he went into a trance and that by the third day he was dead. Some say his throat was slit by jealous doctors. Others say the doctors performed an autopsy before he was really dead. He was forty years old.

Thousands of mourners came to Espinazo for the wake. And as they made their way up the dusty road toward the hacienda of Don López de la Fuente, they turned in awe when they heard the familiar high-pitched voice of El Niño Fidencio coming from the mouth of a woman standing with her arms outstretched beneath the pepper tree.

That woman was the first of a cult of materias, men and women who carry on El Niñito's work by channeling his spirit. They call themselves cajonitas, little boxes, or vasos preferidos, chosen vessels, the physical conduits through which he continues to reach his followers here on earth. Each materia heads a misión, a congregation of devoted Fidencistas, and holds weekly healings called curaciónes. Tens of thousands of Fidencistas continue to make the twice-yearly pilgrimage to Espinazo. By all accounts their numbers are growing.

The ritual begins at el pirulito, the now sacred pepper tree, which each pilgrim must circle three times before proceeding up the hill toward the tomb where El Niñito is buried. Some pilgrims make the journey on their knees; others carry the burden of a heavy wooden cross on their shoulders. They are penitents, repaying El Niñito for some goodness he has brought them or simply making themselves worthy of his consideration and care. Abandoned crutches, canes, and jars with tumors preserved in formaldehyde crowd the shrine that is still maintained at the López de la Fuente hacienda.

Because he attracted the attention of the press, El Niñito's life and work were memorialized in photographs, collectors' items now treasured and traded among the Fidencistas. Dapper in a suit and tie or dressed humbly in his white robes, his dark-rimmed eyes stare out from framed photos on the walls and shelves of botánicas in Mexican-American communities throughout the United States. His image, surrounded by rays of light, appears on boxes of El Niño Fidencio soap, votive candles, incense, cologne, and medallions.

All three of these folk saints administered to the poor, the disenfranchised. None of them ever charged a fee. Santa Teresa died while trying to save lives. Don Pedrito lived in a simple shack and gave away whatever he received. The gifts El Niño Fidencio received from President Calles and other wealthy clients were distributed among the needy. These curanderos are as famous for their generosity as they are for their miracle cures. They are the people's saints -- poor rural Mexicans who found the power to impact thousands of lives, not through force but through compassion.

Profiles: Las Abuelas
Ofelia Esparza, Concha Talavera, Fidela Gutiérrez -- Yerberas (East L.A., California)

The barrio doesn't benefit from the Pacific breezes that cool the affluent west side. In August the sidewalks of East L.A. are empty until dusk. Even the dogs are too hot to patrol the yards, and lie listless and indifferent on porches, panting feebly. Radios tuned to Spanish-language stations spill norteños and rancheras out of open doors. Most of the modest, well-kept homes, set back from the street by tidy gardens, have been occupied by the same families for fifty years.

One of Ofelia Esparza's sons lives with his family in the house where Ofelia's mother once lived. Ofelia's house is behind it, on the far side of a patio furnished with an assortment of umbrella-shaded tables. Potted herbs are clustered under the old trees and rosebushes that frame her front door.

Her living room, crowded with the artifacts of a long life and a big family, has the musty comfort of an abuela's house where generations of children have been running through the rooms for decades. The well-worn furniture is camouflaged with layers of Mexican blankets and hand-crocheted afghans. A pot of pozole simmers on the stove, perfuming the still air with chiles and onions.

Ofelia Esparza has an innate elegance and grace that never leaves her even when she is relaxed and at home in an old T-shirt and a cotton skirt, her copious gray-and-white hair tied behind her neck. She settles into the depths of her Barcalounger with the quiet dignity of a queen ascending her throne.

She is a respected artist who makes elaborate altars on important occasions such as Christmas and the Day of the Dead. She is also a third grade teacher who put herself through college, going back to school when the youngest of her nine children was only two years old. And she is a yerbera, an herbalist, who has agreed to tell me what she knows about the healing plants and to introduce me to her mentors. But first I want to learn about her life.

"I was born in East L.A. I've lived all my life within five blocks of this house. I've lived a long time. Sixty-five is a lot of years. I have fourteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I'm never alone. I've been alone maybe three months in my whole life. I got married when I was nineteen and stayed married for forty years.

"My mother was raised by my great-aunt, whom we called Mamá Pola. She was a little Mayan lady, born in 1907 in the village of Guanimero in the state of Guanajuato. She told us such stories!

"Once in Guanimero, Mamá Pola got called to attend a woman who was dying in childbirth. She told my mother to stay home, but my mother followed Mamá Pola and snuck into the woman's hut. Mother had to crouch down, so she could only see the woman's feet. She watched Mamá Pola brush the woman with branches of herbs and heard her mumble Mayan chants. Then Mamá Pola lit three bunches of herbs that smoked around the bed, and massaged the woman's stomach. The next morning when my mother asked Mamá Pola about what she'd seen, Mamá Pola told her, 'Oh, that's not for you, m'ija.' Mamá Pola went back to México during the repatriation. She said she didn't want to die in this barbarous country.

"About fifteen years ago, I started to do my own research, reading up on herbal remedies. Of course, I recognized certain things my mother used to do, and I used mentors in the neighborhood."

One of her mentors is Concha Talavera, a great-great-grandmother of ninety whom she addresses respectfully as maestra. La maestra has lived down the street from Ofelia since 1942, but she was born in rural Arizona. The herbs she remembers grew wild along the arroyo and en los campos, in the fields of her father's big ranch.

Señora Talavera's East L.A. garden is lush and overgrown -- knobby old trees and scruffy hedges entangled with unruly vines. In her kitchen, bunches of newly harvested herbs hang upside down, drying.

She is a willing teacher, happy to share anything she can remember, even with a gringa who barely speaks Spanish. Yes, the dried popotillo is still potent as long as it has retained its aroma. Only use two or three boldo leaves in your cup, or the tea will be too strong. Heat the golondrina leaves a little before applying them to an insect bite. There is so much to learn.

Another of Ofelia's neighborhood mentors is her comadre, Fidela Gutiérrez. They are in-laws; Ofelia's son is married to Fidela's daughter. Dark-haired and slender, Fidela Gutiérrez is a vivacious seventy-three, constantly moving, talking, gesturing, laughing. She was born in El Salto, near Guadalajara. No one in that tiny town missed the presence of a doctor because Fidela's grandmother was able to cure all their ailments, using the old herbal remedies. Continuing a long unbroken line, her grandmother passed this knowledge of the remedies to her mother, and her mother passed them to Fidela.

At the late age of thirty-three she met and married a man who had come from the States to visit relatives in El Salto. Now widowed, she shares her home with one of her daughters, her son-in-law, and two grandchildren. They have recently been prettying up the house. Garlands of silk flowers are draped over the curtain rods. Needlepoint throw pillows are carefully arranged on the freshly upholstered couches.

Standing at her kitchen stove, Fidela expertly pats masa between her palms, turning out gorditas and quesadillas while her two daughters and I sit at the table, happily consuming plateful after plateful. Fidela keeps one eye on the skillet and the other on her grandchildren who whiz past her feet in pursuit of the family dog. All the while she volleys remedios at me like tennis balls. A fork in one hand, a pen in the other, I scribble madly, trying to keep up with her.

Her daughters have become interested in their mother's yerbas and pay close attention, helping to translate when Fidela's rapid Spanish leaves me in the dust. "Tome yerba buena con manzanilla y un poquito de miel para cólico." Take spearmint with chamomile and a little honey for colic. "Y la ruda. Todo eso cura la ruda." And rue, rue cures everything. Take cedrón, lemon-scented verbena, for gas pains and dizzy spells; borraja, borage, for bleeding after childbirth; orégano para la tos, oregano for cough. When she can't instantly remember a remedy I ask for, she wrinkles her expressive face, and for a moment her mind flies back to El Salto, searching for a certain plant that grows along the riverbank. Then she lights up and resumes wagging her hands at me. Berro, watercress, for the liver. It grows by the río Santiago.

She is so animated and moves about with such apparent ease that I am astonished to hear she suffers from arthritis. Her daughter tells me that in the morning Fidela is bent over and stiff. As soon as she wakes up, she treats herself with a liniment she makes with florifundio, angel's trumpet flowers. Within a few minutes she has recovered enough to be out in the garden, tending her herbs and flowers.

A good yerbera can make anything grow from a cutting; she trades with other women and snitches samples from neighbors' gardens. Fidela is always prepared to take a cutting wherever she finds an interesting plant. She has even been known to pilfer a stem or two from the nearby Cavalry Cemetery, where she goes every morning to attend the chapel mass.

One morning a strange woman appeared at the chapel. She was well dressed and not terribly old. Without saying a word, she picked Fidela out of the crowd, pressed some papers into her hands, and then disappeared. The papers listed remedios allegedly given to a Señora Margarita Ramirez by the Blessed Virgin herself during a divine apparition that took place in October 1993. Fidela doesn't know why the woman chose her, who she was, or how she got there. Hoping to thank her, every morning she looks for her at mass, but she has never seen her again.

According to the papers, after a fervent admonition to prayer and repentance, the Virgin Mother dictated remedios for everything from vaginal inflammation to cancer and AIDS. For heart problems, pregnancy, or to purify the blood of a baby, put five red rose petals in a cup with boiling water and sweeten with bee's honey. The five petals signify the wounds of Nuestro Señor Jesucristo. The bees are blessed creatures because their wax illuminates the altars. For typhoid fever take a stalk of celery liquefied in a glass of water. While drinking it, pray, "En el Nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo."

It's impossible to be sure how much credence Fidela gives these holy papers, but I think I detect an extra twinkle in her eye.

She follows me to my car, still hurling remedies at me. Dry the blossoms of the lemon tree to make a tea for stomachache and insomnia. Pineapple juice is good for the kidneys. La fruta de guayaba for insect bites. And just as I'm about to pull away, she catches me at the curb with a plant she has pulled up by the roots. Es altamisa. She thinks I'll need it to get me through the coming fall. Para los resfriados, para la gripe. For colds, for flu.

After I met Ofelia Esparza and her mentors, a corner of my kitchen was devoted to herbs. I learned to take infusions of gordolobo for chest congestion; ruda for menstrual cramps; cola de caballo and barba de maíz for water retention; yerba mansa and malva to soothe inflamed tissues, yerba buena, poleo, and manzanilla to soothe the stomach; passiflora to soothe the nerves.

Inspired by Fidela Gutiérrez, I planted a florifundio bush in my front yard. When the flowers bloom, I put them in jars and cover them with alcohol so I'll always have some of the liniment available to hand out to a friend suffering from arthritis or a strained muscle. Everyone who has tried it has told me how well it works.

Simple remedies for simple ailments, the herbs of las abuelas have become a part of my life.

Copyright © 1999 by Joie Davidow

About The Author

Joie Davidow, an award-winning journalist, was a founder of the LA Weekly, LA Style magazine and Sí, a national Latino lifestyle publication, and is coeditor with Esmeralda Santiago of two anthologies, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories and Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (October 5, 1999)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684854168

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