By Ilse Hoffmann


superstitionAs a social worker in Mexico I tried for many years to help develop poor communities. Among the many difficulties I encountered were the prevalent beliefs popular among poor people, especially regarding cures and medicine.

The first issue I tried to solve was the dirt floors of the houses. Since the little children used to crawl in the dirt without underwear, they got all kinds of stomach diseases: diarrhea, amoebae, worms, etc.; illnesses that sometimes were fatal. I paid a visit to the cement company and managed to get hundreds of sacks for the village. I then organized a campaign offering incentives and prizes to the first ten families who would put cement on their floors. The improvement went well. The women learned to sweep and mop, even disinfect the floors with Clorox and pine oil.

The new floors were wonderful during the summer time; even for those who could not afford a bed, the cement floor was cooler, if they only extended their “petate,” a thin mattress made of palm leaves, like a Japanese cot. However, the wonderful idea did not seem to be so practical during the winter when the temperature lowered considerably. The cement floors were too cold. We had avoided the summer stomach diseases, but had neglected the winter ones: the flu, pneumonia, coughs, respiratory problems that they got as a result of the cold cement floor. Not such a great solution that I had found for them!

After that, I learned to respect the country folks’ customs and not to impose my urban culture. I paid more attention to their traditions, beliefs, and cures. Some of them shocked me, but I had to respect them and quietly listen to what they had to say. Some of their prescriptions seemed natural and wise; others I do not think I would ever put into practice. They do not have much access to medical resources, so they have their own methods. I will let the reader decide if he/she would find any use for them. For diarrhea the country people drink a tea blend of three herbs: “Istafiate,” cinnamon, and guava tree leaves, or a lemonade without sugar and blended with raw egg whites. For nausea and vomiting: they grill (almost burn) an avocado seed, grind it, sieve it, add water, and drink it, of course.

For “empacho” (stomach indigestion) they massage the stomach of the sick person with cooking oil and drink mint and chamomile tea. For “torzon” (diarrhea with blood), a tea of “tamarindo” seeds boiled with molasses. For a hangover, a beer with a lot of lime juice or “menudo” (a spicy soup made out of the cow’s stomach with plenty of hot pepper).

For heart problems, a tea of dried deer blood rehydrated in water. For kidney problems, they boil the corn cob threads (in Mexico we call them pelos de elote) and drink that as ordinary drinking water. For ulcers, they drink the water in which potatoes with skin were boiled. For a bad cough, chew the gummy part of mesquite fresh seeds that look like green beans, or drank a tea blend of oregano, cinnamon and onion. For a headache, attach to the sides of the forehead some “chiqueadores,” leaves of mint or other plant whose name I do not remember, it is somewhat purple, and leave them there overnight.

They have a very special way to figure out the first day of the rainy season, “el comienzo de las aguas.” They say it should take place forty days after Easter Sunday. It makes sense to me. This year Easter Sunday was on March 31. According to the popular belief, the first rainy day was May 10. (Well, maybe some of the traditional Mexican beliefs are not so wise after all!)

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